NEW DELHI – The stunning victory this month of the opposition Indian National Congress in three elections to state assemblies – the local “parliaments” that decide who governs federal India’s 29 provincial units – is a major blow to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The elections’ outcome has dramatically upended Modi supporters’ complacent prediction that he would be easily re-elected to a second five-year term in the next general election, due before May 2019.
The defeat of BJP governments in the Hindi states of Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Chhattisgarh is all the more significant because the region is a bastion of support for the party. The results reflect mounting disillusionment with the performance of the BJP both in New Delhi and in the states they rule, as well as the emergence of a previously enfeebled Congress party as a credible alternative.
A major reason for the BJP’s poor showing is its neglect of the agriculture sector, on which over 60% of Indians still depend for their livelihood. With harvest failures, failed crop-insurance schemes that benefited insurers rather than indebted farmers, and inadequate attention to irrigation, credit, price-support, and other needed inputs, farmer suicides have risen to record levels. Rural distress has been a common factor across most of India, and much of the blame for it inevitably focuses on the failure of the central and state governments to deal with it. Just before the state elections, tens of thousands of farmers from around the country marched on the national capital, New Delhi, demanding that their grievances be addressed.
Other BJP policy mistakes also weakened support for the incumbent administrations. The Modi government’s irresponsible, thoughtless, and badly implemented demonetization scheme in 2016 was a disaster for the economy, shaving 1.5% off GDP growth and devastating the rural poor and wage workers, whose subsistence depends on daily flows of cash. Poor farm workers have never quite recovered from this unnecessary government-inflicted wound. Nor have small and micro enterprises, the backbone of India’s economy, many of which closed because of demonetization and never reopened, throwing millions out of work.
That makes unemployment the third major reason for the BJP’s election debacle. Modi rashly promised that he would create 20 million jobs per year, implying that almost 100 million jobs should have been created by now. That was always a pipe dream, but his government has not managed to create even 1.5 million in the last four years. With large numbers of India’s young unable to find paying jobs, no issue looms larger in the minds of the 65% of the population that is under 35.
Add to this the disillusionment with the BJP of the “Scheduled Castes” and “Scheduled Tribes” (so called because they are enumerated in the Constitution) and the ruling party’s electoral weaknesses become clear. The BJP’s upper-caste leadership has poured scorn on those they deem to be their social inferiors, including the Dalits (the former “untouchables”) and the Adivasis, or aboriginals. Tribal voters in Chhattisgarh abandoned the BJP in droves as reports spread of their traditional lands being acquired for “development,” while Dalits in Rajasthan suffered numerous public indignities and revolted at the ballot box.
In all three states, disaffected voters turned to the party they had repudiated in the previous elections: Congress, now led by 48-year-old Rahul Gandhi. For years, it had been suggested that Gandhi – a son, grandson, and great-grandson of Indian prime ministers – was a “dynast” who was not up to the job of leading the country, and that even voters unhappy with the BJP would not necessarily vote for Congress. Gandhi shook off such criticisms and led an energetic campaign, addressed 82 rallies, and successfully dispelled the claim that he was ineffectual or entitled. His party’s victory in all three states (which no political pundit or polling organization had predicted) was a personal triumph and consolidated Congress as the lynchpin of the opposition’s drive to defeat the BJP in the coming general election.
The BJP, licking its wounds after such a rout, must now decide what sort of election campaign it will conduct to retain power in New Delhi. The economic appeal to voters that worked so well in 2014 will lack credibility this time around, given the government’s spectacular failure to fulfill any of its promises. That leaves two most likely tactics.
One is to run a presidential-style campaign that portrays the larger-than-life image of Modi as the only choice against what the BJP will portray as a motley crew of opposition wannabes. The other is to double down on the incendiary politics of anti-Muslim animus that has worked for the party in the past, relying on the dangerous doctrine of Hindutva, according to which India is a land of Hindus and should declare itself a Hindu state.
The latter approach is reflected in rabble-rousing speeches by BJP leaders and a concerted campaign to give Muslim-sounding towns and cities new, supposedly more authentic Hindu names. But while the BJP’s demonization of India’s Muslims and Christians might serve its short-term political interests, it implies long-term dangers in a plural society. India’s future will face grave risks if its leaders drive these communities to overt hostility toward their own country.
The challenge of governing a fractious democracy is never easy. But Indians are clearly yearning for a government that cares about all citizens, heals the divisions that the BJP has created, and delivers economic results. It is a tall order, but the recent elections suggest that Congress is readier than the BJP to fill it.
Shashi Tharoor, a former UN under-secretary-general and former Indian Minister of State for Human Resource Development and Minister of State for External Affairs, is currently an MP for the Indian National Congress and Chairman of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on External Affairs.
Copyright: Project Syndicate.