13 Mar 2017 20:11 IST

The unstoppable Modi

Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressing an election campaign in Jaunpur in UP | PTI

With the poll victories, BJP is changing from a cadre-based party to one dominated by a single leader

In the end, it was a stunning victory for the BJP in the UP and Uttarakhand Assembly elections — a victory no one predicted, not even the party. Some opinion polls gave the BJP an edge, while others called it a close race between the BJP and the SP-Congress combine.

But no one predicted the BJP would win more than three-fourths of the seats in the 403-seat UP Assembly, and over 40 per cent of the popular vote. For the Congress, a victory in Punjab was the only consolation but that, by no means, signals its revival.

Credible crusader

There’s little doubt now that Prime Minister Narendra Modi is the most formidable politician in India, despite being regarded with deep suspicion by some Indians. Even former Finance Minister P Chidambaram has called Modi the most ‘dominant political leader’ in India.

If the recent Assembly elections were considered a referendum on demonetisation, then the voters seem to have given it a ringing endorsement. When the Prime Minister announced the scrapping of old ₹500 and ₹1000 notes on November 8 last year, sucking out 86 per cent of liquidity from the economy at one go, many observers, including me, thought this move would hurt the ruling party’s prospects at the Assembly polls.

But despite the botched implementation and repeated flip-flops by the government, the complete absence of protest from people despite the considerable hardships they were put through, showed that Modi was winning the political battle, whether or not demonetisation fulfilled its objectives of stamping out black money. With this electoral victory across States, the Prime Minister has successfully projected himself as a credible crusader against black money.

The Modi image

Elections in India are never about a single issue, so to assume that these elections were all about demonetisation would be too simplistic. There was a complex web of local and national issues in all the five States. In UP, Modi’s vigorous campaign showed that the BJP viewed the election as a semi-finals to the 2019 general elections.

The party also skilfully refrained from projecting a Chief Ministerial candidate in the State and banked completely on Modi’s image. It also knew that projecting a Chief Ministerial candidate in UP would backfire, given that the candidate would have to reckon with powerful regional leaders, Akhilesh Yadav and Mayawati.

Once the results started coming in, some analysts in TV studios started saying this verdict marked the end of identity politics. But given how carefully the BJP stitched together an alliance of castes by chipping away from the vote base of the SP and the BSP (by giving tickets to non-Yadav OBCs and non-Jatav Dalits), it is a little early to write an obituary for identity politics. Perhaps what we are witnessing in UP is a different kind of identity politics.

With these Assembly elections, the BJP is fast changing in character. From a cadre-based party, it is becoming a party dominated by a single leader — Modi. With the complete sidelining of the old guard — LK Advani, Murli Manohar Joshi, Yashwant Sinha — Modi and his trusted lieutenant Amit Shah now have a complete grip over the party.

Identity politics

The opposition, especially the Congress, lies in tatters at the moment. It seems completely incapable of stopping the Modi juggernaut. This election loss will, once again, put a serious question mark over Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi’s ability to challenge Modi and the BJP in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. There are already calls from within the Congress for a fundamental overhaul of the party. Will this include replacing Rahul Gandhi with a stronger leader, equal to the task of challenging Modi?

These elections have also posed some serious questions on themes such as secularism. Yogendra Yadav of Swaraj Abhiyan, in a newspaper interview, called for a fundamental rethinking on secular and egalitarian politics that goes beyond mere minority appeasement and caste-based reservations.

Many commentators, both in print and TV, chief among them being Yogendra Yadav, have compared the present situation in the country to the early 1970s. Indira Gandhi had won a major election in 1971 on the back of the Bangladesh liberation war and using the Garibi Hatao slogan, and dominated the political scenario. Some even compared Modi’s demonetisation and anti-black money drive with Indira Gandhi’s bank nationalisation move in 1969.

But what these commentators seem to be missing is that by 1974, the economy was stuttering with soaring inflation and corruption and Indira was faced with veteran socialist and freedom fighter Jayaprakash Narayan’s (JP) ‘total revolution’ movement. This led to a chain of events, which culminated in Indira Gandhi imposing the Emergency in mid-1975.

This time around, though, Modi doesn’t seem to be in any danger of running into a ‘JP-like’ wall.

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