A cold winter gives way to a buoyant spring and a balmy summer. That’s nature. The chill springs a surprise sometimes and prolongs. Such a situation warrants better insulation—which in political terms is called introspection, a review of the wrong steps to put the best foot forward. That’s precisely what the BJP is doing after losing three Hindi heartland states in the assembly elections, barely six months before the party goes to the voters for a second term of Narendra Modi’s government.
The defeat in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, the states the BJP was ruling for more than a decade, and in Rajasthan has made the larger Sangh parivar restless. After enjoying the shared fruits of power, the signs of disaffection are showing and voices of dissent are getting expressed openly. The Rashtriya Swyamsevak Sangh (RSS), the BJP’s ideological fountainhead, had trained itself to peacefully co-exist with the Modi government in the past four years. It is getting impatient too. Questions are asked about what the government plans to do in the next four months to stem the tide and stay in the reckoning for the 2019 Lok Sabha polls.
It was the obvious question, but the answers are fairly unconvincing as of now. “The assembly election results are being analysed to study the impact of issues like agrarian distress, GST, Dalit anger, upper caste disillusionment and the Ram Mandir. Only then a strategy will be fine-tuned for the big battle,” says a party general secretary. Then again, he parries this poll defeat as nothing “serious” for the BJP, although it lost to its principal political rival, the Congress, which is staging a comeback after the face-loss in the 2014 parliamentary polls. “Rajasthan has the tradition of changing the government every election. It was touch and go in Madhya Pradesh. Chhattisgarh had a BJP government for long and people probably wanted change,” he explains.
A senior Sangh functionary that Outlook spoke to was more forthright. His analysis includes the Prime Minister and party chief Amit Shah. The RSS leader portends a big change even if the BJP comes to power in 2019. “It will be a BJP government and not a Modi government.” He digs out Shah’s statement at the party’s national executive in Delhi in September that the BJP will win 2019 and “no one will be able to remove us for 50 years”. And takes a dig at it. “Tall promises and poor delivery have led to a crisis of confidence in the Modi government. A crisis of perception can still be fought electorally but not that of credibility. The way things stand today, a second term for the party looks difficult, leave alone a 50-year-rule for the BJP. You can’t brag about ruling the country for half a century; you let your work do the talking.”
“Ram Mandir will continue in the backdrop, though the message to rein in fringe elements has gone out to the leaders on the ground.”
But most BJP and Sangh leaders do not foresee any major change of track ahead of the general elections. “It’s too late for the leadership to change their attitude even if they want to. The attacks on Congress and Rahul Gandhi will continue. The Rafale row will have to be handled smartly to stump the Congress. With the government a step closer to getting Vijay Mallya, that will be bandied about as a feat even if he does not return before the polls. Ram Mandir will continue in the backdrop, though the message to rein in fringe elements has gone out to the leaders on the ground,” a party general secretary reveals.
Moreover, there could be a renewed and gentler attempt to keep the NDA allies happy and reach out to new friends. Party leaders agree that the alliances need to be worked on and it is also required to keep internal dissent under check. The general feeling is that though not much can be done about new policies at this stage, the government will reaffirm its existing schemes such as the Ujjwala subsidised cooking gas for poor families or the Swachh Bharat cleanliness drive. The Ayushman Bharat health insurance scheme will be the focus area. “Healthcare policies have won and lost elections the world over. The government will try and get it in order before the elections,” says a BJP leader.
Since economic policies are perceived to have dented the BJP’s fortunes in the assembly elections, crisis management may be done to signal a course correction. The Swadeshi Jagaran Manch (SJM), a Sangh affiliate, believes the government has focused more on industry rather than agriculture, and is paying for it. The SJM national convener Arun Ojha says farmer unrest and unemployment were factors that went against the BJP. “We are not in favour of farm loan waivers. It is not a good tradition. A farmer takes a loan and avoids repaying, thinking the next government is going to write it off anyway. Instead input costs must be reduced as these have increased substantially,” he says. There are reports that farmers in Chhattisgarh, where the Congress promised a loan waiver, had not only stopped repayment of loans but also the sale of paddy in the hope of getting a higher value later.
The Bharat Krishak Samaj, which has been working closely with the BJP, agrees with the SJM argument. Its executive chairman Krishan Bir Chaudhary says the Modi government promised remunerative prices for crops while the Congress announced loan waiver in three states where it came to power. “Loan waiver cannot be the answer to address farm distress; neither is announcing higher MSP (minimum support price) for crops. In any case MSP helps less than 10 per cent of farmers. The only way to help farmers is to fix compulsory reserve price with a strict penalty clause, for crops, particularly staples like onion, potato and tomato, and also milk. This alone will help improve farm income and address farm distress,” he suggests.
The government lost no time in appointing Shaktikanta Das, a former finance ministry point man, as RBI chief after Patel quit.
The BJP had promised education reforms and more job opportunities ahead of the 2014 polls. These remained the government’s major drawbacks. “Today a person with an engineering degree is unemployable. No effort has been made to link education with jobs. The government’s term is almost over and it hasn’t been able to come out with its education policy,” says SJM’s Ojha. He suggests creating jobs through small and medium industries, another sector unhappy with the government because of issues such as the goods and services tax (GST) and the 2016 demonetisation of two high-value notes that wiped out more than 80 per cent of the cash in circulation.
Among the myriad issues besieging the government, the economy is pinching the most. The government is already on damage-control mode with the Prime Minister announcing plans to bring 99 per cent of goods in the sub-18 per cent GST slab. “Basically in Madhya Pradesh and to some extent in Chhattisgarh, the vote was against GST. Demonetisation could have been a part of it, but GST definitely influenced the vote,” says Dr Narendar Pani of the National Institute of Advanced Studies. Opinion on this is divided, though. Anirban Ganguly, director of the Syama Prasad Mookerjee Research Foundation (SPMRF), says: “The government had the gumption to take hard decisions as long-term strategy, including demonetisation or GST. It is essential to keep persisting on the discourse of development.”
BJP leaders believe the political discourse has graduated to the next level. It is now about performance and development, though these are hidden under a narrative of brutal barbs politicos throw at each other. The advisers are keen that development, particularly efforts to improve the lot of the deprived classes, should remain the focus of attention in the months ahead. The head of a government-affiliated financial think-tank feels that “there’s little economic option before the government. It is too late to spend money to make an impact. It is too late for the government to be able to create a counter-narrative to the Opposition’s campaign and promises of farm loan waivers and other assurances”.
Upset over the trend of ‘competitive politics’ that banks on populist measures, Ganguly says the BJP’s stand “has always been pro-farmer because consistently and incrementally we have been focusing on them. Modiji’s focus has always been on the marginalised and we are going to persist with that. How it is going to be seen on the ground is difficult for me to say”.
Besides the farm sector, the government seems keen to uplift the business mood with more money. Ahead of the state election results, the government appointed former economic affairs secretary Shaktikanta Das as the new RBI governor after predecessor Urjit Patel stepped down. At a discussion organised by the SJM, several participants expressed hope that the new RBI boss would ease interest rates, bring more liquidity in the market, give impetus to lending in the MSME (micro, small and medium enterprises) sector, and review and restructure non-performing loans (something that came to a pause after the federal bank took a tough position against restructuring bad loans in February). A point of contention during Patel’s tenure was the government’s reported demand for Rs 3.5 lakh crore from the RBI reserves to tide over the financial crunch.
This may remain a niggling topic. “Even if the government receives money from the RBI, it will take time for the state machineries to be geared up, get the programmes rolling. The government would have to improve the delivery system, including direct cash transfers,” an official source says. “In case of farmers, they would have to have the support of state governments. As it is, all the universal welfare schemes that reach out to the people have already been applied.”
BJP leaders admit that a large section of the party is keen that the delivery system of government programmes has to be improved in the next four to five months to bring about a change in public perception. But they also admit that the task is tough. It is well-known why delivery does not happen. Is it not a little late in the day to rectify the situation to make a difference on the ground and win back electoral support? The answer perhaps will come next summer.
Task Cut Out Ahead Of The 2019 Polls
- The rationalisation of GST to benefit traders and MSMEs
- Focus on Ayushman Bharat health insurance scheme, a possible game-changer
- Steps, other than a loan waiver, to ease the agrarian crisis
- Conciliatory moves towards existing NDA allies and reaching out to new ones
- Attacks on Rahul Gandhi and the Congress for ‘misleading’ the nation on Rafale