Prem Shankar Jha

Why is the Modi wave ebbing so soon?

Two sets of bye elections show large fall in BJP support

In his Presidential address to the national council of the BJP, on August 9, Amit Shah had ascribed his party’s resounding victory in the Lok Sabha elections to the people’s belief that Prime Minister Narendra Modi was “the most credible national leader who alone is capable of translating into reality the nation’s mounting aspirations for development”. “It is a mandate”, he went on to say, “ for an all round transformation. People were desperate to bring about a genuine change and a new approach in every aspect of governance”. If there is any message for the party in the 32 bye-elections of September 13, it is that this mandate is in imminent danger of being withdrawn.

The BJP has lost three out of the four bye elections in Rajasthan, and 8 out of 11 in Uttar Pradesh. More significantly, it has also lost 3 out of 9 assembly seats in Gujarat to the Congress. These were seats it had no business to lose because they had been vacated by BJP MLAs who had contested and won in the parliamentary elections in April. These results confirm the trend revealed by the 10 bye-elections in Bihar last month, in which the BJP–LJP alliance’s vote share fell from 45.3% in the corresponding assembly segments of the Lok Sabha polls to 37.3%, a drop of eight percentage points. In marked contrast, the combined vote share of the RJD, JD(U) and Congress had increased in 8 out of the assembly constituencies. In all the vote share of the ‘Rainbow Alliance’ had risen from 40.3% in April-May to 44.9% in the bye-elections. From leading these parties by 5 points in May, BJP-LJP alliance is now trailing it by 7.6 percentage points.

Speaking on a TV talk show yesterday morning, the BJP campaign manager for UP, Lakshmikant Bajpai, said that four months was too soon to judge a government. A few hours later another BJP spokesman R.P. Rudy said that the poll results reflected local factors, and could not be considered a national mandate. Both would have been right had conditions in India been normal. But they aren’t normal: India’s economy has been in a tailspin for almost four years; its GDP is growing at half the rate it was five years ago; its industrial production has been stagnant for four years, and job growth has stooped altogether leaving around ten million young people who enter the labour market every year with no future. That was why, in an unprecedented burst of anger and disillusionment, the voters destroyed the Congress party.

Mr. Modi had made a promise to them that they believed, so they voted for him. But in four months his government has not done a single thing to redeem that promise. Instead it has put new clothes on the Congress’ anti-poverty programmes and continued with the macro-economic policies that brought the Congress to disaster. To hide its lack of initiatives the government has plucked at straws to show that the economy has ‘turned the corner’. Share prices, it claimed on Mr. Modi’s 100th day in office, had risen by 27 percent; industrial growth had touched 3.9 percent in April to June, and the Quarterly GDP data had shown a rise in growth from 4.7 to 5.7 percent.

But the bye election results show that ordinary people have not been impressed. There has been no pickup in investment, no pickup in sales, and no improvement in job prospects. And they also understand something else that the BJP would have much preferred to have kept hidden: that it has returned to Muslim-baiting and communal polarization because it does not know how to govern. Nothing highlights this better than the BJP’s ‘Love Jihad’ campaign. At its root is a sordid but far from unusual story of entrapment of an innocent girl who was a local celebrity in Ranchi, by an unscrupulous pimp who almost certainly wanted to supply her to powerful local politicians for vast sums of money. The pimp was born a hindu or sikh and may not even have formally converted to Islam. But even if he had, his purpose in forcing the girl to convert was almost certainly to isolate her from her own family and make it impossible for her to leave the profession he was bent upon forcing her into.
The girl’s accusation required a straightforward criminal investigation but the BJP in UP chose to make it the centerpiece of its campaign because it wished to know whether arousing this most atavistic of fears and hates would enable it to consolidate the normally fractured hindu vote behind it in the many state assembly elections that lie ahead. Hence the extraordinarily inflammatory speeches of the BJP’s star campaigner Yogi Adityanath who has spared no effort to depict Muslims as being the aggressors in communal riots, and has suggested that if one Hindu girl is converted to Islam, Hindus should try to convert a hundred muslim girls in return. Even Mr Bajpai has not been above making similar remarks and according to three videos in the UP police’s possession the BJP president Amit Shah has not hesitated to make such speeches either.

The sharp rap that the electorate has given to the BJP, not only in UP and Bihar, but in Rjasthan and Gujarat as well, shows that attempts to polarize communities on communal lines will not work. People voted for Mr Modi because they want a secure future and the crash of the economy had robbed them of this dream when it seemed within their grasp. But they know only too well that an atmosphere pregnant with violence will destroy the security and predictability of their lives even more effectively.

The UP, Gujarat, Bihar and Rajasthan bye elections are therefore a wake–up call to Mr. Modi. He needs to restrain the far right of the Sangh Parivar as Mr. Vajpayee did and concentrate on reviving the economy. The first, and indeed only requirement for this is to bring down interest rates sharply. His first task must be to remove all obstacles that stand in the way.

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