If the beginning of March had the BJP triumphantly declaring the death of the Left, mid-March has the BJP’s opponents happy that nothing much needs to be done except smart coalitions. In reality, the famous Shakespearean dictum, “Beware, the ides of March”, should alert both the BJP and its opponents to the dangers of over-reading signals from either Tripura or Uttar Pradesh.
As Lok Sabha elections approach, every small signal would allow observers and political actors to arrive at a new reading. No wonder, the by-polls would give a fillip to the industry of crystal ball-gazing. Let us begin with the caveat that by-polls are a poor predictor of the outcome of a general election, as convincingly argued by Gilles Verniers on these pages (‘Gorakhpur in perspective’, IE, March 15).
Despite this caveat, the by-polls in UP and Bihar deserve closer scrutiny, not so much for their predictive potential as their possible value in helping us read the crystal ball. They give two different signals to the two contesting camps: In UP, the support extended by the BSP to the SP seemed critical in defeating the BJP, while in Bihar, the JD(U)-BJP alliance was not enough to wrest seats from the RJD. These are mixed signals and they deserve to be understood not separately but together.
One lesson is that coalitions would be more critical to electoral outcomes now than in 2014. If this premise is correct, then the BJP has a lot to worry about. Even while the party was still gloating over its Tripura victory, it almost lost one ally, the TDP. True, the TDP did not take the crucial step of deserting the NDA and, given its track record, is more likely to wrest its pound of flesh than cross swords with the BJP. But this means the BJP would have limited opportunity in Andhra Pradesh to expand its seat tally in Lok Sabha. With another ally in Maharashtra constantly on the brink, it would be difficult for the BJP to ensure that it can compensate for the seat losses in UP by adding to its seats in other states. If the BJP is stuck at under 50 seats in UP and if its Bihar alliance with the JD(U) does not deliver, it would be in a double dilemma: It would need allies and it would also need to win more seats in regions where it is in alliance.
On the other hand, for non-BJP parties, the by-polls showcase the kind of alliances that they need to build. While Mamata Banerjee and KCR may be dreaming of a non-BJP coalition (each visualising herself/himself at the helm), such grand alliances might prove to be a case of putting the cart before the horse. They also lack an ability to attract the voter. The first task would be for each party to ensure its own support base and then to build local state-level coalitions.
So, the grand dinners in Delhi are fine, but the real groundwork awaits the non-BJP parties at the state level in three respects: Actual hard political work of mobilising the people locally (like what the Kisan Morcha did in Maharashtra), then arriving at mutually agreeable seat-sharing and finally convincing their core voters to transfer their votes to alliance partners. Not many parties have the patience or the ability for this.
But besides the so-called arithmetic of alliances, the by-polls become significant for an entirely different reason. They fall into the larger pattern that is slowly emerging — the aura of invincibility that surrounded the Modi regime seems to be fading. The talk of “Mission 350” would probably have to be now readjusted to “Mission 250”. In Gujarat, the BJP allowed a spring in the Congress’ step. In Rajasthan, it is being repeatedly snubbed by voters — in by-polls and in local elections. Now, the party loses a comfortable seat held by its chief minister, encouraging the SP and BSP to redefine their strategy.
These indicators, which surely have limited predictive value, align with the findings of the Lokniti-CSDS-ABP News survey (Mood of the Nation Survey, January). For the first time since he rose to prominence in late 2013, Modi may be experiencing a less than adulatory public opinion. The evocative appeal of both “achche din” and “sabka vikas” slogans have begun to recede. In any case, slogans are effective more as a war cry against an establishment and less as a protective shield for an incumbent. For the first time since 2014, those “fully dissatisfied” with the Modi government (17 per cent), outnumber those who continue to be “fully satisfied”. Even if we take into consideration overall satisfaction, it has dipped by 13 per cent since May 2017. With Modi and the BJP appearing vulnerable, competitive politics comes back to the normal of strategising and the contingent. The by-polls thus become part of the larger, yet silent, narrative of unease and disenchantment that is beginning to take shape, mainly because of the tall promises and much too short achievements of the current regime.
After the remarkable ability to retain popularity and voter satisfaction for over three years, it is in the crucial last leg of its tenure that the Modi regime has begun to falter. Given its tremendous political ability, a course correction is not impossible, but tides of adverse public opinion, like the ides of March for Shakespeare’s Caesar, are pretty difficult to skip. The BJP hopes to ward off all adversity by continuing to hold on to four key strategies. One, it seems to be sure of the ability of Modi to win votes; two, it depends excessively on the political astuteness of its president; three, it relies on an open-door policy and accommodates anyone and everyone from rival camps in order to ensure temporary electoral gains; four, it continues to believe in its ability to manage public opinion through media management. Whether these would address the unease that is not yet explicit, is a big question.
When it won Tripura, with only two Lok Sabha seats involved there, it was argued that this was a moral victory. Similarly, now when it has lost two crucial by-elections, it is a moral victory for its opponents. But politics is less about moral victories and more about material successes. It is to be seen who has the political ability to transform the moral victories into material successes in 2019.