Yet another election season is round the corner bringing yet another set of projections about not just immediate outcomes but long-term implications. If we were calculating Lok Sabha seats, 101 seats would be at stake. Of course, Lok Sabha elections are more than two years away and the present stakes concern five states of different sizes, social compositions and political contexts. For two all-India and two state parties ruling in these states, the elections are indeed a test of their incumbency and sadly, no party can claim a very effective record in power. Organisationally, too, they face similar hiccups.
While the BJP is beset with internal troubles in Goa, UP and Uttarakhand, the Congress has its own troubles. Sections of its leadership in UP and Uttarakhand have shifted loyalties to the BJP; in Manipur the 15 years of stranglehold of the incumbent chief minister is bound to result in dissensions and the rumblings in Punjab Congress are not over yet. The Samajwadi Party presents all the trappings of family intrigue. So, on the issues of governance and party organisation, the major players are more or less on the same level, though the BJP being under a strong central leadership, is surely in a somewhat advantageous position.
Like Bihar, UP is going to be the acid test of the popularity of the BJP and its ability to convert advantage into electoral victory. In spite of the weaknesses of the Congress and the possibility of multi-cornered contests in UP (and Punjab), the limitations of the BJP are going to get over-emphasised. Most of all, its landslide performance in UP in 2014 is going to prove a burden for the BJP. Not least because that victory has set up possibilities of intra-party bickering and factionalism in the state. Over 42 per cent popular vote and a majority in 327 of the 403 assembly segments is a performance the party simply cannot match now. It is this inability to reproduce the drama and the hype of 2014 that will become the defining feature of the battle in UP.
And if the BJP cannot produce a winning performance in UP, that failure would have a cascading effect. Ironically, then, the coming elections would not be a test of strength for the incumbent SP, but for the BJP, which will have its 2014 record to protect.
Now that the Supreme Court has allowed the presentation of the budget on February 1, the BJP’s advantage would be further enhanced because whatever the budget does, the focus would shift to the all-India issues and whatever claims the BJP makes therefrom. In the din over the budget, the state-specificity of the election, particularly in UP and Punjab, would be washed out both in the media and in the minds of the voters. Depending on the nature of the budget and the strategies adopted by the BJP, from February 2, the state elections could easily turn into a mini-Lok Sabha election upsetting the calculations of non-BJP parties. Or so the BJP may hope.
Yet, for a variety of reasons, budget included, this round may put the BJP on the defensive and pose before it critical challenges. Take the budget itself, and the government has a dilemma on its hands. This is perhaps the last chance for this government to present a budget that may make a difference to the economy — that would yield tangible results by early 2019. But at the same time, the timing of the budget and the churlish penchant of this government to use every small thing it does for narrow electoral gains means that the budget would have to be populist in appearance.
Alternatively, like the great demonetisation voodoo, the BJP would have to strain its cleverness and vocal chords to turn bitter-hard measures into wonderful health pills. Either way, the BJP would be required to work under pressure. Also, coming at almost exactly the mid-point of the Narendra Modi government’s term, these elections will test the broader skills of the ruling party to manage negative public opinion. Observers sometimes employ the analogy of the honeymoon in order to understand the voters’ indulgence toward a freshly elected government. Typically, this period of indulgence could span six months to two years. This is, of course, applicable only when a clear outcome marks the elections. In 2014, the mandate was straightforward if one looked at the pattern emerging at the all-India level. Voters not only upheld the BJP as a party but more than that, they pinned their hopes on Modi. Modi represented the sentiment against the decade-long Congress government and he also represented the hope that the BJP would set things right. Hence the following honeymoon had a peculiar structure: It marked a relationship of affection and expectation between the voters and Modi for a relatively longer duration without necessarily upholding the BJP unconditionally.
Therefore, even as the BJP began losing steam electorally as early as 2015, the popularity of the PM remained quite stable. In other words, the dividends accruing from the honeymoon have been rather tame: The party won handsomely in state elections in 2014, but those were state elections where routine shuffling of political parties was anyway overdue. When the BJP’s stakes were really high — Delhi and Bihar — the PM’s continuing love affair with the masses did not help the BJP. In 2016, too, the BJP could win Assam but did not make much headway in the other states that went to polls. It was mostly business as usual — some gains, but nothing matching the hyperbole of 2014 and certainly nothing spectacular. In fact, right from 2015, this trend is evident: Unlike the 2014 elections, assembly elections since 2015 are not throwing up anything dramatically in favour of the BJP. As the Modi government trudges along, this element could become more and more prominent — the inability to bring about anything dramatic. Demonetisation was an effort to dramatise the realm of public policy. Whether Modi and the BJP would be similarly able to dramatise the electoral arena in the coming round of state elections is therefore a big question.
Two years after he took over, Modi’s honeymoon in a sense continues, but this is a strange honeymoon that does not necessarily bring happiness to the family: His personal stature remains high, popular (and even media) indulgence towards Modi remains stable, and yet the ability to deliver electoral dividends gets circumscribed. Modi, the PM, has the confidence of sizeable sections of the population, though Modi, the election campaigner of 2014, seems less successful in retaining his ability to sway the elections. As Lokniti’s surveys in UP in August and December show (http://www.lokniti.org/pdf/Uttar-Pradesh-Pre-Election-Tracker-Survey-December-2016.pdf), people have begun to be sceptical about the promised “achche din”. And adroitly, Modi has also shifted ground from achche din to eradication of kala dhan. It must also be noted that voters seem to approve of this new initiative, at least partially. This double duality — the popularity of the party and yet inability to make dramatic gains on one hand and favourable public image of the leader but doubts about actual arrival of substantive changes on the other — marks the current challenge for the BJP and Modi.