Apart from the Congress, whose steady decline as a national alternative to the BJP has been clear for some time, the unexpected collapse of the BSP in UP and the failure of the Aam Aadmi Party to make a breakthrough in Punjab raise serious questions for the leadership of both these parties.
Mayawati chose to ignore the fact that she was skating on thin ice for some years; her inability to widen the social base of the BSP would eventually lead to her party's decimation. She was also unprepared for the BJP's aggressive outreach to the Dalits whom she regarded as her permanent captives. This outreach was different from Rahul Gandhi's periodic forays into Dalit hutments and photo-ops over pre-arranged dinners. Amit Shah's outreach, on the other hand, was systematic and sustained. With the BJP/RSS cadre directed to make and maintain regular touch with non-Jatav Dalits, Mayawati's policy of talking down to her supporters increasingly gave offence even to her core followers. In the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, it was apparent that a large segment of Dalits had voted for Modi's cross-caste appeal. But this was dismissed by the BSP leadership as a one-off phenomenon, blaming the partial desertion by a section of Dalits on the mesmerizing effect of Narendra Modi. But nobody expected this effect to spill over into the assembly polls.
Clearly, the erosion of the BSP's citadel has begun. The BJP's highly publicized delivery of pro-poor benefits such as LPG cylinders under the Ujjwala scheme has endeared the party even to those sections that hitherto considered the BJP "untouchable". Over the next few years, BJP governments in Delhi and Lucknow will surely consolidate their electoral base through effective delivery of promises made. By the time the 2019 Lok Sabha polls arrive, the BSP may find to its dismay that its enire Dalit constituency has been swept away by the BJP.
The present round of assembly elections and their results marks a paradigm shift in India's political idiom. For decades, the Congress has been regarded as a left-of-centre, pro-poor party which authored a slew of economic reforms aimed at subsidizing the underprivileged. During all this time, the BJP was seen as a right-of-centre party, favouring industrialists and the upper middle class. Since coming to power in April 2014, the BJP government under Narendra Modi has transformed the party's image almost completely and successfully projected itself as a welfarist party committed to the social and economic upliftment of the underprivileged. This metamorphosis of its image has enabled the BJP to redraw the ideological contours of India's politics, as evident from the assembly election results.
Much to the bewilderment of economic and political pundits, the demonetization of high-denomination currency notes added to the BJP's popular appeal. All those who travelled across rural areas of poll-bound states, especially UP, (including this writer) discovered that the rural poor believed that holders of black money and other economically affluent sections were the worst hit by demonetization. The difficulty faced by the poor was brushed aside as temporary inconvenience for a larger cause for the greater good of society. Thus, the demonetization gambit reinforced Modi's image as a crusader for the poor and against the corrupt. That most opposition parties bitterly opposed "notebandi" worked against them. It was widely perceived that they were against demonetization only because they were inconvenienced by the loss of ill-gotten resources. Hereafter it will be nearly impossible to dislodge Modi from the pedestal of Messiah of the poor, the same way as Indira Gandhi acquired this aura following bank nationalization and the abolition of privy purses.
Arguably, the BJP could not wipe the slate clean. The Akalis' misgovernance was a huge drag which cost the BJP a great amount of goodwill in Punjab. But this should be an eye-opener about the quality of alliances the BJP gets into; already the Shiv Sena is posing considerable challenges to the Maharashtra government. The BJP must also be prepared for most opposition parties banding together as a Grand Alliance to defeat Modi in 2019. But if the ideological and idiomatic shift of politics, as witnessed in the present round of assembly elections holds good, a Modi Versus The Rest showdown in 2019 will be to the BJP's advantage, for it will be presented as a contest between the Old, Conservative Order versus the Young, Aspirational India. No guessing then as to which side electoral fortunes will favour.
(Dr. Chandan Mitra is a journalist, currently Editor of The Pioneer Group of Publications. He is also former BJP MP, Rajya Sabha.)
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