File photo: PM Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah. Photograph:( IANS )
It would be foolish to read these results as a referendum on Modi. Elections are won and lost on a range of issues.
Many obituaries are being written for the Modi-Shah combination. The analysis is primarily focused on the state of the economy, its effect on the elections and how it pulled down the BJP’s performance. How could the BJP not reach its optimum level - the discussion obfuscates the fact that both Haryana and Maharashtra were retained by the BJP. Then the question arises - why is the Opposition celebrating its performance despite losing the elections?
The answer is simple; the BJP has become a victim of its own expectations. The party not only expects to win the elections every time but also decimates the Opposition in the process. It is for this reason, despite retaining Gujarat in 2017, it was Congress which ended up celebrating the result. The high figures put up by the central leaders may create a push for a better performance but it definitely spoils the victory celebration.
In Haryana, the target was set at 75 while in Maharashtra it was over 220 seats. The expectations, in both the cases, remained on papers and the message that went to the cadre was that the party had failed to achieve its target. Despite a win and the capacity to hold on to a state, the larger point got missed. Prime Minister Modi did address this issue at the BJP headquarters but it got drowned in the din of Opposition’s surprise performance.
It is not wrong to say that often one’s core strength becomes one’s weakness. It has happened with many leaders in the past. A liberal Nehru in 40s was looked upon as a weak Nehru by 1960s. A strong Indira in the early 70s was read as dictatorial by the end of 75.
Similarly, the combined leadership of Modi-Shah is sitting on the cusp of being read differently by people today.
Today, they represent strength, exhibiting a commitment to the core issues of nation-making. The results have put this very strength under stress. Now, the argument is that elections have restored a balance in the electoral system and that people are back to 'roti rozi' issues since bigger issues have failed to impress them. This reading is a simplification of the complex electoral dynamic but it provides a direction to the core issue and how the leadership is being perceived.
Back in time, the Sonia-Manmohan model was toast of its time; it was 2004. Sonia was about political management and Manmohan Singh was about good governance. By 2012, Sonia was being perceived as a person with power but no responsibility while Singh was seen a PM who had no authority. Congress tanked in 2014.
Today, the Modi-Shah duo is the face of leadership. Its strength is communication, ability to connect quickly, deep and diverse public campaigns and tough decision-making. People could possibly be getting a little averse to it? Maybe they are finding this constant presence annoying?
In another example, which isn't a direct comparison to Modi but shows that course-correction can take place, is of Kejriwal's. The Delhi CM, as a political challenger and anti-corruption crusader, was much appreciated by the public. When he became the CM, his same antics made him unpopular. His constant opposition to Modi was not appreciated by the public. Once Kejriwal stopped attacking Modi and focussed on his work for Delhi, his political graph soared again. I can say this with confidence that Kejriwal once again is in a happy space in Delhi.
It's about time that the BJP stopped converting every state election into a popularity test for both the leaders. People expect silent work from the Modi-Shah team rather than relentless 'on your face' communication. Maybe, it is time for a break.
It is not as if the BJP has never correction its course. After losing Delhi and Bihar in 2015, the party took up massive corrective measures. The election campaign in Assam did not boil down to Pakistan or corruption. A campaign on Khilonjia Sarkar was devised by the BJP state unit which ended 15 years of Congress rule in the state.
The results in Haryana and Maharashtra assembly polls show that the BJP needs to calm down and should not become a victim of its own expectation. Maybe, people want to hear different things from the Prime Minister and the Home Minister. Maybe, they aren’t interested in listening to a polarizing debate on whether Savarkar should get a Bharat Ratna or not right before the polls. We saw this glimpse when Mamata Banerjee trounced the BJP in state elections when the party was trying to push controversies around Subhash Chandra Bose. But the state voted differently during the Lok Sabha elections when it boiled down to Modi or no Modi.
It would be foolish to read these results as a referendum on Modi. Elections are won and lost on issues ranging from candidate selection to matters picked up by state leaders and caste combinations. The party must calm down a bit and stop becoming a victim of its own expectations which also affects the way the Modi-Shah duo is perceived by people.
(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL)