Survival Tips For India's Opposition In The Modi Era

At this point in India's political history, it only counts as news if the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) does not sweep an election outright. That is perhaps why its failure to reach a majority on its own in Maharashtra, and its loss of a majority in Haryana, is being seen as something of a setback. Objectively, this is in fact an achievement for the BJP.

Consider the facts. In these two states, Narendra Modi chose in 2014 - in the first flush of his extraordinary victory in the general elections - to install two leaders who were not the tallest in the state party, and even more importantly were not from the castes that normally dominate the chief ministers' chairs. In Maharashtra, he chose a Brahmin; in Haryana, he decided against a Jat. As will allthe BJP's political choices, this decision could send out different signals to different constituencies. The "Vikas"-loving urban middle class could convince itself that it meant that Modi's BJP believed purely in "performance" and "merit" and all those wonderful words. The workers on the ground recognised a strategy that the Modi-Amit Shah duo was to effectively deploy across much of India: raiding caste blocs for votes by building up resentment against the dominant castes within those blocs, whether Marathas or Jats or Jatavs or Yadavs.


The BJP is set to form governments in Maharashtra and Haryana

Yet it was always a risky strategy, as well. When Modi himself was not on the ballot and nationalism not the primary issue with voters, would other identities and incentives prevail? It seemed likely. But, in both Haryana and Maharashtra, the BJP has in fact held off the reversion to the natural order of things. If it has done better in Maharashtra than Haryana, there may be multiple reasons for that - Devendra Fadnavis is supposedly a better administrator than Manohar Lal Khattar, for example. Let us also note that the state of the economy is such that these two states should logically have convincingly tossed the incumbent governments out. Joblessness is high; rural distress is high; drought ravaged Maharashtra more than once. But, again, the BJP held all these factors off. Yes, in Haryana its vote share is 20 percentage points or so less than it gained in the general election. But that seems a fair estimate of the swing associated with "nationalism" and the Modi effect. 

So the Opposition had better not declare itself on the path to revival just yet. That revival has been announced so many times in the Modi era that it is now just annoying. After the epochal defeat in Delhi; the thumping in Bihar; the reversal in Punjab; the near-loss in Gujarat; the "semi-final" in Rajasthan, MP and Chhattisgarh; and so on ad infinitum. The fact is that each of those was decided by local factors, local alliances and local leaders. Their combined effect on the national mood, as was decisively shown in the general elections, is zero.


The BJP's campaign in Maharashtra and Haryana revolved around national themes as the opposition attempted to highlight multiple local issues

Nevertheless, there are some lessons for the Opposition to take away. The first is that it should not try to get too creative. It should certainly ignore the deluge of advice it is constantly given. The Congress, for one, is a magnet for criticism of all kinds, much of it contradictory. It should move right, or it will lose the people; no, should move left, or it will provide no alternative. It should find a new generation of leaders, because the old are discredited by association with past corruption; but it should not toss aside the experienced old guard for untried and disconnected young leaders. It should not make Modi himself an issue; but if it fails to target Modi, it is letting him set the narrative. It should not abandon "nationalism" to the BJP; but it should fight elections on the basis of how poorly the economy is doing, because that's how it can win. Sometimes the same person offers contrasting advice to the Congress in the same oped. Congress-bashing is so easy to do, the bar is so low and the applause so deafening, that nobody really cares if the advice being offered is profoundly illogical. 

The lesson is more basic. Modi's image dominates national politics, but states are where governance is actually carried out and state elections are where real issues play out. The BJP was once a coalition of state-level satraps before it became an Indira Gandhi-style centralising force. Now, if the Opposition is to survive, it must rebuild itself from the states upward. It is too premature to hope that a "counter-narrative" can be built. First, power must be preserved and restored for dissenting and opposing voices at the local level. The people who can take some hope from these results are strong state leaders worried they are losing out to Modi's electoral magnetism - Nitish Kumar, for example, or Arvind Kejriwal. The Delhi and Jharkhand elections in December will provide a renewed test for this theory. If Kejriwal can hold off the BJP juggernaut, and if Hemant Soren's alliance can put up a fight in Jharkhand, then perhaps it is indeed true that local delivery matters more than the national "narrative".


Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressing party workers

Modi himself is Teflon - nothing sticks to him - but that may no longer be true of those who wish to ride his coat-tails. High-profile defectors to the BJP have been amusingly punished in this election - Alpesh Thakor in a Gujarat by-election, and Udayanraje Bhosale in Maharashtra. (In Karnataka, former Chief Minister Siddaramaiah said that this shows how by-elections in the constituencies of the 17 MLAs who were disqualified because they crossed the aisle to the BJP would go.) If 2014 and 2019 were "lamp-post elections" - in which even a lamp-post contesting under the BJP symbol would win - that may not be the case at the state level at least.

Remember: the Opposition did not win these elections. So it should not celebrate. It has a long, hard road back to relevance. But these elections show that if it thinks small, acts locally, and is responsive to those of its workers who have remained loyal, it may yet survive the Modi era.

(Mihir Swarup Sharma is a fellow at the Observer Research Foundation.)

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