Setback Yes, Referendum on Modi Government No

Published: September 16, 2014 20:16 IST
(Ashok Malik is a columnist and writer living in Delhi)

Since the morning, two questions have been doing the rounds in political circles. First, do the Uttar Pradesh by-elections represent a referendum on the Narendra Modi government? Two, do the by-elections represent a setback for the Modi government?

It is important to understand those two questions are not interchangeable but are actually different. The by-elections are not a referendum, but they are a setback.

Modi became prime minister less than four months ago. It is too early to pronounce judgement on his administration. Ordinary people are more discerning and patient than those in television studios and will wait to make a fair assessment. In that sense, these by-elections are not a referendum on the Union government.

Yet they are certainly a setback. There is a simple logic to this. Modi heads a BJP government and any political event that is a setback for the BJP is a setback for his government. Politically, Modi is very invested in the BJP and its rejuvenation. He is not an agnostic add-on to his party as Manmohan Singh was to the Congress.

Modi has been instrumental in naming Amit Shah, his confidant, as the BJP's new president and as such has a stake in Shah's success. It stands to reason that the by-election results in Uttar Pradesh will bother him. All 11 constituencies that saw by-elections had voted for the BJP or its ally, the Apna Dal, in the assembly election of 2012. Today, the BJP has managed to retain only three.

What may have happened? The 2014 Lok Sabha election saw the Narendra Modi factor override the organisational infirmities of the BJP in Uttar Pradesh. These came back to the fore in the by-elections. The absence of credible state leaders and issues and the fact that the party has been a non-starter in local elections for over a decade now hurt it.

There was also a degree of complacency after the Lok Sabha election, where the BJP-Apna Dal combine won 73 of 80 seats. In the Lok Sabha contest, religious polarisation was largely an issue limited to a few districts of western Uttar Pradesh, in the Muzaffarnagar region that had seen riots in 2013. In this set of by-elections too, the religious theme mattered essentially in about three western Uttar Pradesh constituencies.

This was reflected in the BJP's on-the-ground campaigning, which focused on a variety of factors. It was not reflected in the overall messaging and big-picture perception that the party sent out - which was allowed to be hijacked by overstated themes such as love jihad. In the process, the BJP failed to excite and mobilise incremental voters but allowed for Muslim consolidation behind the Samajwadi Party, which won eight seats. It helped create a threat perception without creating a countervailing constituency. The results are there for all to see.

Despite the by-election results, there is a vast reservoir of hostility towards the SP government. Nevertheless if the BJP continues on its present path it will not be able to exploit this sentiment in the 2017 assembly election. In that situation, Mayawati and her BSP will remain the favoured opposition party.

The BSP did not put up candidates in these by-elections. An educated guess is the BSP's core Dalit voters possibly stayed home. They will be queuing up in 2017, however; and Mayawati's ability to re-create the rainbow coalition that helped her win a majority in 2007 should not be discounted.

For the BJP to recover in time for 2017, it needs to learn from Modi's compelling victory of earlier this year and run a largely middle-of-the-road to centre-right campaign that focuses on jobs and development, on young voters and their aspirations, and attempts to put together a bottom-up social coalition united by economic hope and ambition. It also needs a face: a chief ministerial candidate to take on Mayawati and the Yadav family.

Here the party runs into another problem. State leaders are not built overnight; they are nurtured over years and decades before the investment pays off. Unfortunately, the BJP has not been able to promote new pan-Uttar Pradesh leaders since it lost power in Lucknow in 2002. Rajnath Singh, its last chief minister, has moved on to national politics. There is a vacuum in the state that Amit Shah will need to fill quickly. The by-elections are a reminder that he doesn't have much time.

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