Five states went to the polls. But Uttar Pradesh (UP) alone accounted for 403 out of the 690 assembly seats on offer in all these states. It is, therefore, not at all surprising that the winner in UP gets to set the narrative for Indian politics at least until the next round of state elections. With its stupendous victory—bagging more than 300 seats and besting its previous high of 221 at the height of the Ramjanmabhoomi movement in 1991—the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has shown the political nous needed to earn this. In addition, it has also scored a handsome victory in Uttarakhand.
The loss in Punjab will sting, but the BJP can likely persuade itself—or at least pitch it for public consumption—that it was more a loss of senior alliance partner, the Shiromani Akali Dal, than a referendum on the BJP’s own performance. Given the current leads, it is difficult to predict which party will form the government in the states of Goa and Manipur. But Manipur can again be called a major success for the BJP: it had no seats in the assembly five years ago and may well end up forming the government in a few days.
The BJP’s surge can largely be credited to the personal popularity of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. More than two- and-a-half years after the 2014 Lok Sabha victory, his popularity remains intact. It has shown itself sufficient to overcome not just the Congress but also the entrenched regional parties. A lot of this has to do with Modi’s acumen in building his image as a leader who fights against corruption and delivers when it comes to performance. The currency swap initiative of November, for example, has been proven to be a political success—or at least no hindrance electorally, which amounts to much the same thing in the current circumstances. Its utility will continue to be debated among economists, but the voters have already given their verdict.
These results might lead to two broad developments in the Indian political landscape. One of them could be read in how Mayawati, chief of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), reacted to her party’s drubbing in UP. With the BSP reduced to its lowest number of seats since the 1991 state polls, she expressed great surprise at the results and accused the BJP of rigging the electronic voting machines. Her incredulity stems from the fact that the poor performance came despite having what many—including herself—believe to be a committed bloc of loyal voters whose primary identification with her is mediated by caste.
What Mayawati does not realise is that the economic growth of the last two decades and the politics of aspiration it has engendered mean that the number of votes locked in due to caste identification has significantly reduced. No leader today is entitled to the votes of any caste or community—a realisation that is important for their political futures.
The second impact of these results can be discerned from Omar Abdullah’s reaction. Expressing admiration at the BJP’s success, he said: “At this rate we might as well forget 2019 & start planning/hoping for 2024.” While Abdullah may have given up hope, the other regional satraps will soon start thinking about crafting a third/federal front composed of small regional parties.
Such fronts have been proven fiendishly difficult to construct and sustain in the past but staying put may no longer be an option. A third/federal front with or without the backing of the Congress cannot be ruled out as Modi’s main competitor in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.
Do these results carry with them any indications for future economic reforms? Addressing a press conference, Amit Shah, the BJP president, said that double-digit growth rates in India are not possible without double-digit growth rates in UP.
Even allowing for the excesses of political rhetoric, this means the BJP has no excuse now for not being able to deliver significant, sustained growth in both UP and India. It should not squander this opportunity and instead pursue a narrow, sectarian agenda of the kind it has in the past.
This newspaper had pointed out—after the verdict in the 2015 Bihar state election went against the BJP—that dominance over Indian politics needs a certain broadness of vision. The BJP should heed this advice as much in victory as in defeat.
Whether these results will propel some difficult reforms by the central government remains to be seen. The numbers for the BJP in the Rajya Sabha will improve, but not immediately. The increase in confidence from a victory in UP, however, may be exactly what Modi needed to move ahead with some of the much-needed tough reforms like labour laws and privatization of loss making public sector units. Will Modi finally embrace his Thatcher moment?
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