So the Bharatiya Janata Party lost the recently held state elections in Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan (and in Telangana and Mizoram). If you had asked me six months ago, I might have said that the BJP’s defeat to the Congress was almost certain in Rajasthan, but things were tight in Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh. One has to understand that many factors went against the BJP in these elections, but make no mistake, the botched implementation of GST, as well as demonetisation (both of which personally impacted the credibility of Narendra Modi), did play a role. In the case of the latter, let us be honest – cash is back, only now it is in Monopoly-style pastel shades.
Of course, several other factors were at play during the elections. In Rajasthan, for example, the electorate historically flips from one side to the other in successive elections, much like Kerala. In Madhya Pradesh, despite a massive growth in farming and the personal popularity of Shivraj Singh Chouhan, an entire generation of young voters wanted change, as they had known no other Chief Minister. In Chhattisgarh, a similar anti-incumbency factor played a role. Of course, most political commentators and journalists betrayed where their sympathies lay, by saying either that these polls will determine the outcome of the 2019 general elections, or will have no part to play. However, I stand somewhere in the middle on that.
Sure, these elections will definitely give the Congress a boost, but it will make some of their potential allies, particularly in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, a bit wary as well. Some of them see themselves as potential ‘alternative’ Prime Ministers, you see. On the other hand, I do not believe that Narendra Modi’s personal popularity has declined precipitously, despite massive mistakes like demonetisation, which is something that will only benefit historians, political scientists and economists doing doctoral theses for years to come.
The elections are still four months away, and four months is a long time in the world of politics. Things could change dramatically – there might be no united alliance to face Narendra Modi, or there might be a massive scandal that erupts around him. The entry of Priyanka Gandhi could also be a factor. What is certain is that the elections will be fought on rumours and counter-rumours doing the rounds.
Personally (and I say this with a strong rider) as of today, I feel that Narendra Modi and the BJP themselves should make it to 220-ish seats. Keep in mind, in my most optimistic predictions of 2014, I believed the BJP would win 250 seats at best – nobody gave them 282. What I can say with a degree of certainty (again, as of now) is that it is extremely unlikely that the BJP will get a majority on its own. I do not put it past Amit Shah to pull a rabbit out of his hat again.
But much like in the media, even in the world of politics people are not afraid of the Modi-Shah combine like they were in 2014-15. Back then, Modi was able to ride roughshod over the media, and even the party, sidelining many people, and was able to fill his cabinet with some talentless yes-people. The fact that a hardliner like Yogi Adityanath was promoted as Uttar Pradesh’s Chief Minister comes from thinking in that mindset. However, one result of these state elections is that the persistent doubts about Electoral Voting Machines being corruptible have hopefully died down for good. Personally, while I believe that Narendra Modi is still the front-runner for the 2019 elections, the fact that people are not afraid of him and Amit Shah any more means that these allies will be able to extract their pound of flesh.
At around 200-220 seats, Modi should not be a ‘one and done’ Prime Minister, but Amit Shah may not survive as party president. Shah’s relationship (or lack thereof) with Uddhav Thackeray of the Shiv Sena is well known, for example. But what if the BJP gets below 200 seats, but is still the single largest party by a long margin? Can the allies demand that Modi get out of the hot seat and someone like Nitin Gadkari become Prime Minister? Believe me, I do not claim to know the answers, unlike those on television indulging in daily shouting matches. It is a rather interesting situation, a situation that I would like to experience with a drive through the Hindi heartland once again, and maybe even through south Bengal. The fact is that Indian general elections are a giant ‘tamasha’ and somehow, by some miracle, this country has not gone through major political instability for over two decades. Still, you never know what is around the corner.