Setting the stage for 2019

The recent five-state polls have fuelled the engine for the general elections, comprehensively citing fairer elections and a competitive democracy

As the curtains fall upon the intense drama during the five-state polls in India, often touted as the semi-finals of the 2019 General Elections, there is a spate of good news ahead for the nation as a democratic polity.

Competition is back again! Three Hindi heartland states have voted out the ruling BJP and brought Congress albeit with a close fight in two, while the remaining two voted out or restrained Congress and upheld the main regional forces. So, the nation is neither Congress-free, nor BJP-free, and neither free from the regional forces. It is a state of near-perfect competition for the elections ahead. There will be alliances, but the relevance of multiple parties will remain. For example, the new Congress governments in Rajasthan and MP depend on the support of smaller parties such as BSP, SP and independents.

BJP's failure in the three Hindi heartlands, and earlier in Karnataka, to form the government, and forming a laboured government in Gujarat are very strong warnings for the ruling party, its Modi-Shah leadership and the cadre at the grassroots that victory is not certain in 2019. Brand Modi has its weaknesses, albeit with the strengths of a decisive leader. Working hard on the ground, putting the organisation on a strong footing, greater coordination with the RSS and its mass fronts, and a democratic multi-leader face of the party shall be some aspects in BJP ahead. No wonder that the talks have started on projecting Nitin Gadkari as the alternative leader should BJP fall short of 200 seats in Lok Sabha in 2019, as a Plan B.

Congress may have progressed but they remain weak. While this is the best moment for Congress, more so for its president Rahul Gandhi, there is also the humbling factor of a weak victory in MP (lower votes, higher seats) and Rajasthan (in spite of an extremely unpopular incumbent state government), and the fact that the electorate still is not as disenchanted with the Central as they were with the state governments, especially in Rajasthan (as proven by the Outlook-Lokniti-CSDS post-election poll in these states). So, Congress, which managed to put up a joint fight, has a long way to go at the grassroots of connecting every family, mindful of the fact that the three states have surely voted against BJP and not necessarily for Congress. That's good news for a competitive democracy.

The poignancy of Hindutva as an electorally potential force is blunted for sure. On one hand, the Hindi heartland voters, where political Hindutva has been the strongest, are asking questions on farming and jobs, and on the other, Congress has learnt to lower its minority appeasement image by following a soft Hindutva line through Rahul's temple run, Shiv-bhakti espousal, Shashi Tharoor's book 'Why I am a Hindu?', and Congress taking a middle path in Sabarimala imbroglio, apart from MP and CG manifesto promises on goshala and gomutra medicines. It is good for a nation where aggressive Hindutva has potentials to cause riot-like situations, more if aggressive Muslim elements choose to retaliate, as happened in UP many times.

Most importantly, there is an apparent rise of the bread and butter issues. The electorate is focussed on farmers' distress, unemployment, youth discontent, problems arising out of demonetisation and GST. The Centre has to look at these closely and create counter-arguments on the ground. They have to counter policies and short-term measures in governance, and not just sweep them under the carpet. On the other hand, Congress will have to work very hard to deliver what they have promised in the three states with the nation looking at it: loan waivers, jobs, unemployment stipend, women's security, and transforming agriculture. So while bullet train or Rafale or Ram statue and temple can wait or create minimalistic optics, roti-kapda-makaan-naukri-krishi will call the shots in the year ahead. Both BJP led NDA and Opposition Mahagatbandhan will be forced to come out with their pro-people 'Common Minimum Programs' soon and there will be a clash of competing development agendas and narratives, which the nation so desperately needs.

Minorities are back in the reckoning. There is the return of the largest minority, the Muslims, in the political narrative of the nation, which is the home to the second largest number of Muslims in the world. BJP ignored them politically in the last half a decade, and Congress avoided them lest they are dubbed pro-minority, though used them electorally behind the back. With regional forces holding forts and winning margins becoming narrower, Muslim voters will find themselves at a significant position. Being more than 150 million in India, they can decide results in around 80 LS seats and has considerable influence in around 135 more. While BJP cannot change tactics with approximately 150 days left to the hustings, the opposition alliance will go all out to seek a consolidated mandate from the minorities. Considering Muslims as outsiders, seeking their 'ghar-wapsi', not being able to restrain spate of lynching, targeting Muslim men through 'love-jehad' and a flawed triple talaq bill (while instant Talaq needs to be banned for sure), BJP has largely lost remnants of minority support, and the opposition will attempt to consolidate the same.

BJP has gone all out to consolidate Dalits and tribal electorate across the country on the precedent of reaping huge in the last general elections. The MP loss and the implosion of BJP in Chattisgarh show that this is not a given anymore. Hindi heartland slow shift of SC and ST voters towards the opposition was seen in all the bye-polls in UP lost by BJP, and the state assembly polls in Gujarat, MP, Chattisgarh and Rajasthan, and to a lesser extent in Karnataka, in spite of BJP's laboured lone victory in Gujarat. New Dalit leaders' rise in Gujarat and UP, return to the reckoning of BSP in the Hindi heartland, and Bharatiya Tribal Party winning seats in Gujarat, MP and CG show independent voices of the tribals and Dalits which can only benefit the opposition if it is politically astute enough to take advantage of the same.

A return to strong alliances rather than governments run by strong leaders is the reality of the moment. Modi-led NDA has lost 12 allies over the last 50 months while gained just one officially (JDU), and have a few sympathisers who are actually fence-sitters (TRS, AIADMK and BJD). Congress has consolidated its position as the core of any opposition alliance but still falls short of calling the shots all by itself. BJP was too dominant a force within the NDA, but now no more with JD(U), Akali and Shiv Sena asking for their pound of flesh in seat-sharing and BJP relenting. Return to alliances with two national parties at the core is the situation of the moment. There is an ongoing attempt to create a third front, Federal Front, with KCR and Mamata taking lead, but is yet to see any fruits on the ground, and maybe a non-starter. The political narrative of mocking Rahul as an 'immature kid' or Pappu has also taken a beating, and for the good of the nation because democracy thrives only when there are multiple possible good leaders to lead the polity and not one single dominant face like Indira Gandhi or Narendra Modi.

We can see a spate of populist budgets, both by the Centre and the state governments, in early 2019 in this election year. Populism in the form of loan waivers, unemployment stipends, free amenities in health, reliefs to the urban poor, insurance and tax reliefs, etc., is a bad long-term policy, but an essential short-term measure, especially in the current situation of an agonising farming economy, rising prices and low employment figures.

Finally, in a situation of a keen contest with chances being even on both the sides, the media, the Police, the election machinery usually go by the books, maintaining neutrality and balance as they are not too sure as to who comes to power. Power always corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. But the power dynamics in 2019 elections will have some equilibrium of sorts, which in fact will work towards fairer elections.

(The author is a known media academic & commentator, and currently the Media Dean of Pearl Academy, Delhi and Mumbai. The views expressed are strictly personal)

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