Prem Shankar Jha


Understanding The challenge of the BJP

The Vidhan Sabha elections have confirmed what eight opinion, had predicted more than a month ago. The BJP has come roaring back in UP, gained hugely and won in Goa and Manipur, and also retained its hold, albeit tenuously, in Uttarakhand. Their prediction, that the Aam Admi party would lead, and possibly win in Punjab has also been vindicated. The Congress party has not only been the principal loser but has, in a word, been slaughtered.  With these elections whatever little claim it could make to being the leading party in the alternative to the BJP has vanished.

Before we get inundated with the  flood of explanations  that is bound to  follow, there is still time to reflect on the single greatest anomaly that both opinion and the exit  polls had  captured. This is  the  complete   absence of  any anti-incumbency sentiment against the BJP despite eight years of not only lawless, but also inept, government that this country has suffered. 

The Modi government should have had its first encounter with anti-incumbency in 2019.  By then GDP growth  had been falling for six  consecutive quarters and the number of new jobs being created in the non-farm sector had declined from 7.6 million a year between 2004-5 and 2011-12 to  2.9 million a year in the next 8 years, forcing 37 million recently urbanised workers back into agriculture. Six of these 8 years  were presided over by Mr Modi. 

The resulting pressure on rural wages and the need to feed a larger number of mouths in each family, had increased the number of people below the poverty line by a staggering 76 million by March 2019, of whom 66 million lived in the villages. This had reversed the trend of declining poverty rates the country had experienced for the previous six decades.  

The worst sufferers have been the poorest of the poor. Oxfam’s latest study of poverty in India has shown that the poorest 20 percent have suffered a 53 percent fall in their incomes in 2020-21,  even as the number of its dollar billionaires had increased from 102 to 142[1].

The main victims of the economic decline have been  the youth of the country, precisely those who had backed Modi, personally, for prime ministerin 2014 . Government data show that while the proportion of young people with a secondary ( i.e. till the 10th class) education who could not find jobs jumped from 4 to 16 percent between 2011-12 and 2018-19 and of those with a higher secondary (till 12th class) education,  from 7 to 22 percent,   it was those who had invested the most in education who were most comprehensively betrayed. For unemployment among Bachelors’ degree holders jumped from 20 percent to 38 percent, among post graduates from 19 to 43 percent,  and among those with technical degrees (mainly in engineering) from 19 to 38 percent. 

 By 2019 the non-farm  job famine had already lasted for 8 years. Five of these had been presided over by Mr .Modi.  So the BJP should, at the very least, have lost its absolute majority in the Lok Sabha , if not been pushed out of government. But for the first time in India’s 72 years of elections  the results  defied the logic of anti-incumbency and, instead of falling even if only by a few percent, the BJP’s share of the vote rose by more than six percent.  

Modi’s second term has so far been even more disappointing than the first. Not only did India’s GDP growth  continue to slide, and unemployment to soar, but  when  COVID struck the world Modi all but left e 60 million or more  migrant workers from other states, and the 71 million  micro, small and medium sized enterprises, to fend for themselves. 

When the first Covid wave ended , Modi ignored frantic warnings that a far more dangerous ‘Delta ‘ wave was coming, did nothing even  to equip hospitals with oxygen,  and went on an election rampage instead. For weeks the smoke from burning ghats darkened the sky and corpses floated down the rivers, but  a bare nine months later the election results show that all his might as well not have happened. 

Why is there no anti-incumbency sentiment against the BJP ? The standard explanation, — that Modi has been able to weaponize what the French Political scientist  Christophe Jaffrelot has labelled the Hindu ‘majoritarian inferiority complex’ towards Muslims and Europeanised  ‘sicularists’ – takes us only a small part of the way towards understanding it. For the  Sangh Parivar has weaponizing  this complex not since 2014, but ever since  the Godhra train fire in February 2002. 

There can be no doubt that in the past two decades it has  succeeded in inflaming Hindu sentiment against the Muslim population of India. But how great a part has this played in shoring up, let alone increasing, the BJP vote? Data for communal riots collected   by the National Crime Records Bureau since 2014, suggest not a great deal. For they show a steady decline in the number of communal incidents,  from 1227 in 2014 to 789 in  in 2015, 723 in 2017, 438 in 2019 and, if one excludes the Delhi riots which were clearly instigated politically,  337 in 2021[2].  How little communal animosity has infected  peoples’ everyday lives inspite of this relentless demonisation of Muslims can be judged from the fact that in 2020, the police registered 4. 25 million cases under other clauses of the Indian Penal Code.[3]

The virtual disappearance of the anti-incumbency vote therefore requires another explanation. But we do not need to look very far for it, for that too  lies hidden  inside these election results. The clue to it is the dramatic success of AAP in Punjab. 

From its inception in 2015 AAP has been an anomaly in Indian politics because it has not sought the people’s vote on the basis of caste , creed, loyalty to community leaders or in memory of the nation’s founding fathers. All these forms of appeal to the electorate are an extension of feudalism, for they treat  the vote as a gift conferred by the ‘Lord of the Manor’, on his or her  subjects,  to be exercised as directed by him or her . The reward has usually been the grant of a favour —  a government job, a petrol pump site, a gas agency, or a plot of land beside a highway. 

From its inception the Sangh Parivar  has offered Indians a different kind of state. In philosophy, if not practice, it has been against caste, and its mode of recruitment has through social service. Its conversion into a Fascist political movement has been gradual, and not even wholly intended. The Vishwa Hindu Parishad was not created till 1964, and did not become militantly anti-Muslim till 1983. The Bajrang Dal,   its ‘sword arm’, was not created till 1984.

 However much one may disagree with its goal of creating a Hindu Rashtra, a quasi- totalitarian nation state founded around religion and ethnicity, its method of gaining political support has throughout remained  the offer of a chance to serve ‘Hindu India’. 

So when Modi came to power in 2014 he did so with not a two but a three-pronged strategy. The first was economic revival, in which he failed miserably. The second was promoting Hindutwa by dismantling the pluralism and multi-ethnicity sanctified by the Constitution. The third was launching programmes that aimed at reaching the poor directly and empowering them, rather than the bureaucrats who had been administering  development and welfare programmes till then. 

Among these last are the Jana -Dhana Yojana which has universalised   bank accounts into which Direct Benefits to which the poor are entitled are now being transferred electronically, thus empowering them rather than the bureaucrats who had been administering these till then;  the Swachha Bharat Abhiyan which promised toilets in every rural home,  and the Gram Jyoti Yojana and Saubhagya schemes for rural electrification. To these Yogi Adityanath added the extermination of lawless elements through police ‘encounters’ in UP.  

AAP’s approach to governance is the secular , democratic  opposite to answer to the Sangh Parivar’s narrowly focussed Messianic approach. There is no hint of caste or religion in its politics. There never has been. Kejriwal founded the party around a single burning issue – the fight against all-pervasive corruption and bureaucratic extortion, in  government. Its 2015 election campaign  was crowd-funded and its message was spread by thousands of young volunteers, from among whom a core emerged as the party’s permanent cadre. 

Its success in Delhi in 2015 was utterly unexpected, but its return to power in 2017 was not. As it grappled with Delhi’s innumerable problems, it widened its focus till it embraced most other areas of governance. In all of them, but especially in the provision of health, education, power and water supply, slum regularisation  and urban transport, AAP has taken initiatives that have given the poor the security and legal standing that they had lacked before. 

In 2017 Narendra Modi recognised the threat that AAP’s ideology  posed not only to his government but to the Hindu Rashtra project,  and tried his level best to destroy it, but failed. Since then an accommodation of sorts has been reached, which was partially reflected in AAP’s  silence over the organised pogrom in East Delhi  in January 2020. But, all in all, it is  the BJP that has been forced  to coexist with AAP in Delhi  rather than the other way about.  

In 2019, after the decline in its share of the vote in Punjab, and its failure to get anywhere in Goa,  most people wrote  AAP off as a party that could not extend its reach beyond Delhi. Delhi was a special case, they concluded, because it was made up almost entirely of migrants who were mostly educated, and had already left caste and creed behind when they migrated to the Capital. But its spectacular success in Punjab in these elections has shown that there a more fundamental change taking place within the electorate. 

As Kejriwal emphasised in his victory speech after the results were announced,  the key word in his party’s campaign, and the word that was on everyone’s lips during the campaign was ‘Badlao’(change, or transformation) .  The badlao that people were referring to, and which his party has promised them,  is in the relationship of the state to its people. “Under the British and for 75 years after they left”, he pointed out, “the people had served the State. Now it was the turn of the state to serve the people”.  

Therefore  lesson that the opposition parties need to learn from the total absence of an anti- incumbency vote against the BJP is that the days of caste-based entitlement to the peoples’ vote are rapidly drawing to a close. The lesson they need to learn from AAP’s victory in Punjab, is that in future their victory will depend not upon their ability to build alliances around programs, and the  measures they will take to implement them. 

The victory of AAP shows what  kind of programmes they need to espouse and the kind of alliances they  need to make. They have  a bare two years left to learn these lessons and create the alternative to the BJP that the nation needs. 



[3] NCRB: Crime in India 2020.   chrome-extension://efaidnbmnnnibpcajpcglclefindmkaj/viewer.html?  


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