Upper hand but lotus hasn’t wilted

Victory in three crucial Hindi heartland states gives an upper hand to the Congress before the 2019 Lok Sabha elections but Prime Minister Modi can never be underestimated

The results of Assembly elections in three Hindi heartland states, Rajashtan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhatisgarh, has given the Congress, and especially its president Rahul Gandhi, a head start before a grand alliance is stitched together to take on Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. But the lotus has not wilted yet as the BJP, whose symbol the flower is, is sill ruling in many states and has made remarkable inroads into the North East, which for many years, was a Congress stronghold.

The 48-year-old Gandhi scion got a morale boost at the time it needed it the most: couple of months before the Parliament election. The tag that he is a reluctant politician has blown away in the headwind against the BJP, the party that mocked him for a string of electoral defeats following the 2014 Lok Sabha polls.

The Congress has lost state after state in last 4 years. In 2013, BJP and its alliance partners ruled only 9 out of 28 states. By 2018, the grouping had spread to 20, decimating the Congress to just four states. But after Gandhi took over the reins of the 133-year-old party, the party came close in Gujarat, though it failed to convert contests to victories, and has now won three states that account for 65 Lok Sabha seats. In 2014, BJP had 62 of these seats. The results of December 11 may translate to a similar slide in BJP’s tally in next year’s Lok Sabha elections.

The three victors have improved Rahul Gandhi’s stocks and punctured the myth that Modi-Amit Shah duo are invincible but the silver lining is Rajasthan, where because of Narendra Modi’s popularity, the BJP did not do as bad as it was expected to because of a very strong anti-incumbency mood.

These results should not be misunderstood for an indication of people’s mood against one party or in favour of the other because state elections are fought by regional satraps on local issues but the BJP can ill afford to ignore the issues that led to its fall in the three crucial states.

Three important factors for BJP’s loss and Congress’s win are: rural distress, a questionable economic and governance delivery and unemployment.

The rural distress caused the Congress to win more than half of rural seats in Gujarat. The party won 67 of 126. In Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhatisgarh, the three predominantly agrarian states, the narrative is strengthened. In MP, Congress won 95 rural seats, up from 56 in 2013. In Chhatisgarh, it grew from 35 to 56 seats, and in Rajasthan, the party’s tally in rural areas went up from 18 in 2013 to 83 in 2018.

Farmers are angry for not getting the prices they hoped for. The shortfall in farm income was exacerbated by the disruption that demonetization and the implementation of Goods and Services Tax (GST) caused in the informal sector, including agriculture.

An expert said the government’s decision to invalidate Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes in November 2016, right in the middle of the winter sowing season, blindsided farmers because the farm sector runs on cash.

Rahul Gandhi’s announcement of farm loan waiver within 10 days of government formation in the three states was a balm on the distress. Historically, farmers have voted for governments that provide them relief in terms of loan waivers. In 2008, the Congress-led UPA government waived Rs 72,000 crore of loans and returned to power the following year. In 2017, the loan waiver promise by the Congress uprooted the Badal sarkar in Punjab.

BJP strategists admit they failed to anticipate the impact of Congress’s farm loan waiver promise, leading to a sway in the rural population.

On the other hand, Modi’s dissing the Congress did not resonate with the voters, especially in Madhya Pradesh and Chhatisgarh because of Centre’s economic policies that have hit citizens hard.

Voter dissatisfaction with the BJP is also because of the shortfall in job growth. Rahul Gandhi identified this vulnerability and emphasized how government’s policies had actually cost jobs. He showed to the young the prospect of small and medium businesses as the only way to create employment.

Modi’s questionable economic delivery caused the BJP loss in its impregnable urban areas and among the middle class, too. In urban seats, the Congress drew level with BJP in Rajasthan, made deep inroads in MP and swept urban Chhatisgarh. This urban advance signals that a core constituency, including traders, is now divided down the middle.

In India, elections are never about issues only – caste and religion are equally important. The BJP has, since 2014, become an inclusive Hindu party. It has gone beyond the upper castes to win support of the OBCs, Dalit and tribal voters. The Congress stroked the latent sense among the upper caste that BJP was turning pro-Dalit, and to the Dalits, it (Congress) emphasized BJP’s upper caste character. Modi government’s decision to counter Supreme Court’s judgment on the SC/ST Act did not go down well with the upper caste, cementing the sense that the BJP had taken them for granted and was widening its wings to encompass the scheduled castes (SC), traditionally a Congress constituency.

So much for the factors that led to BJP loss in three states, but the Congress must reckon there’s no room for complacency because Modi’s track record shows he cannot be underestimated. The Prime Minister’s integrity is intact despite the Congress barrage of charges on Rafael deal. On BJP’s part, the party needs to make course correction.

Experts feel in its eagerness to provide some sort of a last-minute stimulus to the economy before the next year’s Lok Sabha elections, the government seems to have triggered a crisis in the Reserve Bank of India (RBI). The government has been demanding that the RI transfer an additional amount of its corpus funds to it and does not impose restrictions on lending of public sector banks with stressed balance sheets. Governor Urjit Patel resigned and the government now has one of its former bureaucrats in the finance ministry at the helm of the central bank, leading to speculations that it may push its agenda in the forthcoming board meeting. This may trigger a potential crisis in the currency and capital markets, and will damage the pro-reform credentials of the present government.

The BJP must remember its leader Atal Behari Vajpayee’s words before any such knee-jerk reactions that will have a negative long-term effect. The former prime minister said, “Satta ka khel to chalega/ Sarkare aayegi, jaayegi/ Partiya banegi, bigadegi/ Magar Ye desh rahna chahiye… [The game of politics will go on/ governments will come and go/ parties will be formed and broken/ but the country should be supreme]”

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