The Next Phase of Congress Mukt Bharat
Get rid of the Congress? An advisory.
Shortly after being declared the Prime Ministerial candidate of the BJP in September last year, Narendra Modi gave a clarion call to his party cadre to work single-mindedly towards achieving a ‘Congress Mukth Bharath’. Due to the fact that this statement was made during the build up towards the General Election, most commentary around it was restricted to Modi’s ambition of eliminating the Congress from power at the Center. But as Modi has been demonstrating ever since he took office, he is not one to dream small.
Having been Chief Minister of Gujarat and witnessing first-hand that true governance in India happens through state governments, Modi has always been a firm believer in enhancing the federal character of governance in India. Also, during his time as the Chief Enemy of Congress government in Delhi, Modi would have also witnessed how Congress governments – both at the Centre and various states – were ready to obstruct meaningful and progressive developmental initiatives in order to keep him at bay. The best example would be how the UPA government withheld permission for the Gujarat government to raise the level of the Sardar Sarovar dam – a move that would also have benefitted the electricity-starved Congress-ruled state of Maharashtra greatly.
To be fair to the Congress, theirs are not the only dispensations to treat Modi as a political untouchable. Various ‘secular’ parties like the Samajwadi Party, Bahujan Samaj Party, Trinamool Congress, Janata Dal (U) and the Rashtriya Janata Dal have espoused a similar hatred for the man who took away the chair that all of their respective leaders had secretly coveted.
Now seated firmly in the Prime Minister’s chair, with an ambitious agenda of accelerating India’s ascent towards becoming an economic and diplomatic superpower, Modi would see two primary roadblocks in his path – the legislative difficulties in the Rajya Sabha (where the NDA is in a minority) and the potential obstruction that unfriendly State Governments could offer when it came to implementing Central Government schemes. If Modi is to take his developmental agenda forward, cooperation of the State Governments – and their Rajya Sabha representatives – of Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Bihar, Jharkhand, Haryana, West Bengal and Karnataka would be vital.
This is both good news and bad news for the Prime Minister. Bad news, because all of these states are currently ruled by his bitter rivals. And good news, because almost all of these governments are up for re-election within the next two years.
The BJP and Modi will look upon these state elections with a great deal of expectation primarily because of the extraordinary performance of the party in these very states in the Lok Sabha polls. The party will expect to win all these states except West Bengal, where it will aim to dislodge the Left and become the primary challenger to Mamata Banerjee.
Even as close as a month ago, it would have seemed that the BJP and its allies would coast to victory in both Maharashtra and Haryana with a trickier challenge to be expected further down the road when it comes to Bihar and UP.
But with alliances breaking in both Maharashtra and Haryana, the electoral result has become harder to predict. Both states go into the election with terribly corrupt, inefficient and unpopular Congress governments but also with a fractured opposition with no clear leader or perhaps, too many leaders as with the BJP in Maharashtra.
In both states, opinion polls have given a clear edge to the BJP to emerge as the single largest party but falling short of the majority mark. This is perhaps the reason why the BJP has decided to bombard both states with Modi’s rallies, realizing that the remarkable popularity and credibility of the Prime Minister is the X-factor which sets them apart from their opponents. In the Lok Sabha polls, Modi’s popularity had transcended traditional caste-based voting patterns in both states – weaning away Jats from the INLD and the Marathas from the NCP. A replication of a similar voting pattern in the state polls could end up giving the BJP a majority on its own in both states as a best case scenario or have it form the government as the senior partner in a coalition in the worst case. Either of these would a marked improvement of the party’s position over past elections and would put the Modi mission on track in both states.
As complex as the situation in Maharashtra and Haryana may be, the real test for the PM and the BJP lie in the northern states of UP and Bihar. The BJP decimated all before it in the Lok Sabha polls but, as recent by-poll results showed, replicating the same success in the state elections will be challenging. Both states are heavily divided along caste lines and the BJP is likely to be up against a – covertly or publicly – united opposition. In Bihar, a supposed unification of the RJD, JDU and Congress would present a significant arithmetical challenge. And in UP, if Mayawati is able to cobble together a rainbow coalition similar to what she managed in 2007, she will be the odds-on favourite to return to power in Lucknow and continue her statue-building spree.
In both states, the BJP’s challenge will be to extract a wider base of support than its traditional voters and eat into the support enjoyed by its chief opponents. In the Lok Sabha elections, the party managed to do this by using the development credentials of Narendra Modi and his OBC background. While this same strategy might bring the party an enhanced voting percentage in the state polls, it may not guarantee a simple majority. For the BJP to be able to come to power on its own, it will need to invest in identifying a suitable CM candidate for both states and then work towards building him or her into a pan-state leader. It will also be important to ensure that whoever the selected CM candidate may be, his public image resonates with that of the Prime Minister.
This is an electoral model which has worked wonders for the BJP in the past. The best example would be the state elections of December 2013 when the BJP decimated the Congress in state after state with the deadly combination of the promise of Modi at the Centre, a strong state-level CM candidate and deft management of the electoral arithmetic at the ground level. But this is a task which is easier said than done, especially in an organized and democratic party like the BJP, as it will need to deal with various internal complications while going through the arduous process of selecting the first among equals. Even so, the BJP’s best chance to settle state leadership issues would be now, when the entire party is solidly behind the Prime Minister and any decision that has his stamp on it is unlikely to be resisted.
In addition to the major states, the BJP has already begun to make inroads into the North-East and expand at a considerable pace in states like West Bengal, Orissa and Tamil Nadu. The party also has its best chance ever to emerge as the single largest party in J&K in the coming elections and with Yeddyurappa back in its fold, it will certainly be a formidable challenger to the Congress in Karnataka in 2018.
The opportunities that the upcoming electoral itinerary presents to Prime Minister Modi are abundant. As the crowds in his rallies in Maharashtra and Haryana have shown, he is still hugely popular with the people and his shadow looms large over his political opponents in each state. If he is able to take his national popularity and transfer it onto regional satraps of his own party in the major states that go to the polls between now and 2019, he and the BJP will have created a national saffron imprint which would have been unthinkable even a couple of years ago.
Such a result would further reinforce Modi’s image as the most popular political personality in the country and more importantly for him, enable him to unleash his developmental agenda in a truly federal fashion. It would guarantee him adequate support at the ground level for implementing his ambitious schemes and moving India away from the Nehruvian, socialist economic model that has kept the country shackled for so long.
Then, we will be able to celebrate a true Congress Mukt Bharat.