Those following the outcome of the recently concluded assembly elections in five states cannot help feeling somewhat concerned, if not cautious, when it comes to projecting the BJP’s prospects in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls. Were these state elections a “semi-final,” showing how the country will vote in next year’s “finals”? If so, does BJP’s keenly contested defeat in three central Indian states in the Hindi heartland presage a similar fate at the Centre in the months ahead? Does it foretell a drastic seat reduction, with the NDA managing to hold onto power by thin and precarious margin, placing it at the mercy of chancy or greedy electoral allies? Or will Modi stage a historic comeback, defying the odds and disproving the cassandras?
Such questions are making the rounds not only in the corridors of power in India’s capital, but also echoing in the remotest corners of the land. The fact is that there is tremendous goodwill among the masses, not to speak of the classes, for India’s success story driven by a Prime Minister who is seen as committed and charismatic. Under Narendra Modi’s leadership, the BJP has delivered not just on many of their development goals and promises, but shown a vision of a different, much more confident, and empowered India. The economy has done well, corruption is down, and India’s stature on the global stage has improved.
Yet, few will deny that a certain fatigue has also set in. The Modi magic does not seem to work as well as it used to. The BJP’s usual slogans and strategies are also so well-known that they lack the novelty factor. They don’t enthuse the voters as much as they used to. In addition, we have been jolted by institutional destabilisation, whether it comes to nation’s premier investigative agency, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) or, even more parlous in the world’s eyes, our hallowed Reserve Bank of India itself. There is renewed trouble on our western border, with continuing infiltration and destabilisation. Finally, alarming agricultural distress, with the economically disastrous consequences of having to write off lakhs of crores of loans. There is thus a restlessness in the air. Are the Indian masses itching for a change? Are they looking for better reasons to keep BJP in power for another five years?
On the other side, the Congress, having beaten the BJP in straight fights, is set to govern the destiny of some 20 per cent of India’s population. This has sent shivers of fear, dismay, revulsion, even anger down the spines of those who detest all that this once-great party stands for today. Single-family rule, sycophancy, corruption, ideological skulduggery, perilous populism, communalism masquerading as secularism, socially divisive policies, rampant and calamitous minoritarianism, insecurity at the borders— to its critics, these are only a few flashpoints of the Congress’s loathsome legacy. Add the arrogance of entitled elites, jeering dismissal of new political formations, and keeping the underprivileged natives permanently outside the echelons of power and privilege — these and similar nightmares disturb those who have high hopes for a new India under Modi’s visionary leadership. To put it plainly, will the promise of India’s second renaissance be belied once again? Will we return to being inglorious second-raters and second-class citizens of the world?
Undoubtedly, what I have tried to sketch with broad brush strokes is the nation’s mood in the present moment. It is bound to change, once the dust over the recent election results settles. The BJP will try to come up with new initiatives and tactics to bring itself back into the good books of the masses. There is, of course, the looming virtual shadow of the as yet unbuilt but long-pending Ram Mandir in Ayodhya. But this issue is rather fraught and complicated, capable of hurting as well as helping the ruling party. On the other hand, back in power in three key states, the Congress itself may make mistakes, disenchanting some who voted it back to power.
What is amply clear despite the changeability and capriciousness of Indian politics is that the opposition will need more than merely Modi-hate to carry its winning momentum forward. Dread and dislike for a common foe is, at best, temporary glue, as we have seen over and over again; once the antagonist is removed, the patch-work of opportunistic allies lies in tatters. The BJP also needs more than Modi to return it to power, especially if tepidity and weariness of state elections carries over to the national hustings. There is, of course, the possibility that India’s principal political pugilist will recover from this slugfest to emerge victorious one more time. That would indeed seal his place in history as India’s yugapurush, epochal trailblazer.