Friday, June 1, 2018

Bharat Bhushan - A monkey wrench hits the BJP’s ‘cow’ boys

The byelection results of Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Jharkhand and Bihar show that the BJP is on a slippery slope; its communal strategy has come a cropper and its election wizard, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has been exposed as a Muggle. Short of getting rid of the current leadership, there is little that the BJP can do in the limited time available till the general election. An uneducated, abusive and discredited propagandist as Prime Minister and a party president whose body language makes even his partymen flinch cannot really inspire confidence. The arithmetic also does not favour the BJP. The states of Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Bihar and Jharkhand account for 182 Lok Sabha seats. The BJP had won 158 of these in 2014. The rout in these states in the latest byelections suggests that with a united Opposition, the party cannot repeat that performance.

The most significant byelection result was from Kairana in UP, where the BJP’s communal strategy failed. The party’s desperation was evident in the election-eve stunt of the Prime Minister in organising a 6-km roadshow to “inaugurate” a 9-km stretch of a yet-to-be-completed 91-km expressway next to Kairana. Along with Muzaffarnagar, Kairana had become the BJP’s Hindutva nursery in UP. Communal riots were engineered in Muzaffarnagar on the eve of the 2014 general election to consolidate the Hindu vote. The BJP had tried to repeat this formula in the UP Assembly elections by claiming that there was a Hindu “exodus” from Kairana because of a “certain community”. The two dominant communities of Western UP, the Jats and Muslims, were, however, wiser this time around. The dominant Jat party, the Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD) of Ajit Singh, fielded a Muslim woman, ensuring that both communities voted for her. The Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and the Congress supported the common Opposition candidate.

Earlier, the united Opposition had shown its strength in Eastern UP in the Gorakhpur and Phulpur byelections. Its latest success in Western UP shows that UP’s heart now beats to a different drum.  
That the BJP is in dire straits in the rest of the country is also evident. It has lost all state Assembly byelections in the states it rules except for Uttarakhand. The sole Lok Sabha victory of the BJP over the Shiv Sena in Palghar in Maharashtra was won with 2.72 lakh votes. However, the total vote of the divided Opposition was more than double that. If there are direct or indirect (in the case of the Shiv Sena), seat adjustments in Maharashtra, then the BJP is history in that state as well.

Its fate depends on whether the Shiv Sena will go back to a BJP alliance in 2019. The Shiv Sena controls the richest municipal corporation of Asia, the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC), in alliance with the BJP. Running the BMC is the main source of the Shiv Sena’s power. However, if push comes to shove, it can also run the BMC with the support of the Nationalist Congress Party and the Congress. The Jokihat byelection in Bihar is the third byelection victory of the Rashtriya Janata Dal in a row this year. With the public mood turning against chief minister Nitish Kumar, his government could be brought down by dissidents within his party and a new alliance, minus the BJP, installed.

These byelections also have important lessons for the Congress. The party’s future depends entirely on the adjustments and alliances it makes for the general election. Despite losing the people’s mandate decisively in Karnataka, its prolonged negotiations over ministerial portfolios shows that its old arrogance persists. Any talk of the Congress leading an Opposition alliance, projecting Rahul Gandhi as a potential Prime Minister or refusal to concede space to other Opposition parties will be fatal. The BSP, for example, has a presence in multiple states and the Congress will have to give it a respectable number of seats in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Maharashtra.

As for the BJP, the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah duo will wonder whether it makes sense to hold the state Assembly elections in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Mizoram at the end of this year. Losing in one or more of these states would weaken them for 2019. Early elections are out for the BJP, which made that mistake under Atal Behari Vajpayee in 2004. However, simultaneous elections to the Lok Sabha and several state Assemblies in April next year are a possibility. According to a plan reportedly being discussed, Assembly elections due at the end of this year could be postponed and state elections due later in 2019 could be brought forward.

Simultaneous elections can be promoted on the grounds of cost-effectiveness and the government’s slogan of “one nation, one election”. The Election Commission may also fall in line as it has itself proposed “one year, one election”. As a first step, the BJP could get the chief ministers of states it controls (Rajasthan, MP and Chhattisgarh) to resign in October and impose President’s Rule. Before the 6-month period for ratification comes up before Parliament, it would be general election time. Until then the BJP-appointed governors will rule these states. Whether the Congress-led government of Mizoram can be convinced remains to be seen.

The second step would be to deal with the states of Haryana and Maharashtra, where elections are due in 2019. The chief ministers of these BJP-ruled states could recommend dissolution of the Legislative Assemblies. They would remain acting chief ministers to oversee the elections. Sikkim, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Arunachal Pradesh and Odisha in any case go to the polls along with the Lok Sabha. In this way about 10 to 11 state Assembly elections can be held simultaneously with the general election in April 2019. This way, Prime Minister Modi can convert the elections into a presidential one, making the campaign about himself, Modi vs Nobody. Simultaneous elections could also attenuate local anti-incumbency in the election-going BJP-ruled states. However, if the Opposition parties remain united, instead of striking gold, Mr Modi may still be headed for Lonely Gulch in 2019.