A by-election is a bit like a school monthly test—the marks don’t count for anything during the final exam. This is why the Opposition celebrations after besting the BJP in another round of by-elections may be premature but neither can India’s principal party afford to take victory in the 2019 general elections for granted any longer.
This isn’t just about a more united Opposition challenge: truth is, from Kairana in western UP to Bhandara-Gondia in Maharashtra, the BJP’s vote share is showing signs of decline, a first indication of creeping anti-incumbency. That the election setbacks have come in the North and West is also significant—it was, after all, a ‘North-West’ India tidal wave that propelled the BJP to a famous win in 2014. Nor can the BJP claim this time that Modi did not campaign in the by-elections—a day before the polling in Kairana, the Prime Minister was in the neighbouring Baghpat district, flagging off a new expressway and promising ‘achche din’ to the region. And the BJP’s UP Hindutva mascot, Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, was even more omnipresent, holding a series of rallies in the area, even raking up the communally charged issue of removing a Jinnah portrait in Aligarh Muslim University.
As it turned out, May 2018 was not quite May 2014—then, against a backdrop of the horrific Muzaffarnagar riots, the BJP succeeded in achieving an unprecedented communal polarization and swept western UP. This time, the more prosaic issue of ‘ganna’—as exemplified by farmers demanding their sugarcane dues—defeated the divisive politics of Jinnah. So, are we seeing the revival of a fresh political narrative ahead of the 2019 general elections where local concerns trump the ‘national’ issues that play out in TV studios? Well, yes and no.
Local issues do matter at election time, especially when they play out through the prism of strategic alliances on the ground. This is exactly what happened in Kairana where the entire anti-BJP opposition backed the Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD) candidate, giving them a strong arithmetical index of opposition unity advantage that enabled them to play the ganna card with confidence. But amplifying the ‘act local’ messaging over 543 constituencies spread across twenty-nine states in a general election is a huge challenge—the competitive instincts of political parties mean that while they maybe ready to cede space in a by-election, they are unlikely to be as generous in the ultimate parliamentary test. Would, for example, a Mayawati’s BSP be as willing to give up its claims to Lok Sabha seats in UP as the party has been in by-elections? How would a Mamata Banerjee accommodate the Congress in Bengal when she is waging a war against them on her home turf?
Moreover, the BJP will determinedly make the 2019 elections a made-for-TV contest, posing the issue before the voter as ‘Modi versus who?’ If the Opposition falls into the trap of accepting the leadership challenge, there can be only one winner. In election after election, Mr Modi, with his indefatigable energy and personal charisma, has shown the capacity to lift the BJP in the final stretch, a bit like the prize sprinter who hauls his side over the line in the last 100 metres of a closely fought relay. Besides, in a by-election, voter turnout tends to be low, but in a general election the sheer size and resources of the BJP-RSS election machine will give the saffron parivar the confidence that fence-sitting voters will swing with the Modi momentum.
And yet, as Karnataka and Kairana have shown, the notion of political invincibility is also part of a myth-making factory. Modi and his lieutenant Amit Shah have built a larger-than-life image for themselves by convincing the Opposition that they are indestructible—to draw an analogy from the world of cricket, Steve Waugh’s Australians and Clive Lloyd’s West Indians won most matches even before they went out to toss because their opponents could not even contemplate the thought of defeating them. But, as India’s stunning 1983 World Cup win over the Windies and the magical turnaround in Kolkata in 2001 showed, even seemingly unbeatable rivals can be outplayed, provided there is sufficient self-belief. From an Opposition that has been pummeled and out-witted at almost every stage for the last four years, we now at least have the emerging contours of a potential challenge. At the heart of it is the ultimate political weapon—the neta’s survival instinct. Nothing else explains why the Congress has virtually surrendered to an H.D. Kumaraswamy while forming a government in Karnataka, or the fact that a Mayawati is ready to forget past animosities. ‘The beauty of compromise’, as Mahatma Gandhi once described his idea of conflict resolution, has now become the Opposition mantra, a desire to reconcile opposing positions by moving beyond the politics of dogmatism with the sole aim of defeating the principal adversary.
Not that the dominant party is simply going to lie down and let the Opposition walk all over them. Within days of the bypoll setbacks, there are signs that the Modi-Shah duo is in course correction mode. The massive aid package to the sugar industry is perhaps a belated recognition that post-Kairana, the ganna farmer needs a break. Expect more such sops in the months leading up to the general elections as the Modi government prepares to dip into its petrol tax-rich coffers to share the booty with the aam aadmi. That Shah is now courting allies and even sharing photo ops with celebrities ranging from Kapil Dev to a former army chief is another pointer to the future: in the run-up to 2019, the BJP will need to relearn the art of winning friends and influencing people. ‘Ekla chalo re’ is a stirring song, it doesn’t necessarily make for good politics.
(Excerpted with the permission of Rupa Books from Newsman by Rajdeep Sardesai. You can buy the book here.)