With a clean sweep in the elections in four out of five states, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has much to celebrate. It broke the jinx after 35 years in Uttar Pradesh, India’s largest state, by a clear majority, though with a reduced one. It beat the trend in both Uttarakhand and Goa, where the incumbent government was not popular and dissent broke out in the ranks.
In the troubled state of Manipur, it emerged as the undisputed leader. It is only in Punjab that people voted for the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) with the same fervour as they did against the BJP and the Congress by defeating all its senior leaders.
A Slew of Questions
These were the first major group of state elections spanning different corners of the country with their own geographies and challenges. Two years of the COVID-19 pandemic has ravaged the country in many ways. The economic distress leading to unemployment is a visible, bleeding scar emerging in all media reports from the ground.
The question was, who would the people blame for the trauma and anguish that they continued to face? In a country whose social milieu is increasingly connected through its migration patterns, how would the urban and rural youth ask for accountability from its political leadership? What was the hope and faith that the voters expressed through their mandate? Who would they trust to rebuild their future?
BJP's Muscular Approach to Governance
All elections are colourful and noisy marketing extravaganzas. Advertising begins much before the election dates are announced. Incumbent governments race to lay foundation stones, inaugurate projects and announce schemes to beat deadlines. Political rallies, outreach and campaigns are all part of the drama, which is both exhilarating and exhausting.
Amidst the noise and fury of these elections, one message emerges clearly. In all states except Punjab, which I will discuss later, the BJP has established its political presence as the party in charge.
In Uttar Pradesh, where it lost 57 seats, it created history by coming back with a clear majority. While the demographic maths worked in its favour, the Chief Minister’s claim of a strong administration and the provision of ration, shelter and security seems to have hit home. Though Hindutva was not used as an overt poll issue, the advertising and messages clearly pointed towards a certain community as ‘anti-social’ elements.
Neither the SP nor the Congress was able to articulate clearly their strategy against this muscular approach to governance. The SP has no doubt gained seats, but this is based on minority-dominated areas. It could not effectively counter the tangible gains perceived by the people cutting across caste lines. The Congress, with its women-led campaign, sounded effete and elitist. The message of the BJP underpinned by the slogan of ‘double-engine sarkar’ was both a promise and a threat.
What Powered BJP's Win?
To people whose backs were against the wall, the intangible ideas held out by the SP and the Congress of a more equitable social order did not hold substance. They wanted the basics and saw the BJP as being in the best position to deliver. This is the sentiment that powered the win of the BJP in both Uttar Pradesh and Uttrakhand.
It is the vote of hope but also of a compromise between the idealistic aspirations and a recognition of what is possible in the reduced circumstances.
In Goa, four parties teetered for a piece of the small political pie in the balmy state. Political pundits questioned the importance of leaders descending on the state that seems to be so different from the rest of the country. Again, this was a state whose growing prosperity has been deeply ravaged not just by the COVID-19 pandemic but by the complete stalling of its mining activities. While one may assume that many political campaigners and the trailing media travelled to Goa to escape the cold dreariness of northern winters, the local MLAs abandoned parties and changed sides without much ado. This made predictions even more difficult.
Here again, the voter seems to have played safe. Rather than abandoning the old partners of the BJP and Congress and go for the newer alliances offered by the Trinamool Congress and the AAP, there appears to be a cautious approach in voting. No other leader seems to inspire trust in getting a job done better than the BJP, and more importantly, its national leader Narendra Modi.
In these states, what emerges here is that for the first time, the BJP was fighting this election not against any credible opposition but against itself, against the promises made by the party. It was being judged against its own performance.
Extravagance, Awe and Strongman Tactics
And the performance has been substantial. Reaching out to the poor with rations, roads and electricity has created a tangible belief in the capabilities of BJP Chief Ministers. Women have played a major role by acknowledging the benefits. Even those who still did not receive the full benefits have been witness to the gains and are willing to wait for the advantages to trickle down. In Uttar Pradesh, the improved law and order, whatever the means used to achieve this, was important for a secure life.
The religious discussion has been an underlying current not emphasised overtly but used effectively in ads where ‘anti-social’ elements have been identified as belonging to a certain community. The Hindutva agenda, though muted, rode on the crest of the construction of the Ram Mandir.
As usual, Narendra Modi conducted his campaign with flamboyance and energy. The ‘double engine sarkar’ motto has hit home, emphasising that development would be faster and smoother with the state government aligned to the centre. The extravagant roadshows for inaugurating the Purvanchal Express with the full pomp and show of the Air Force emphasised this point.
Extravagance and awe, strongman tactics, and the photograph of Modi and Yogi walking together brought this message into sharp focus. The migrant, the small and medium industry continues to hope that this combination will bring prosperity and growth.
The campaign of the Opposition was against these very practical, visible and tangible factors. Their message was too vague and flimsy and, therefore, not able to translate itself into votes. The desperation of economic distress has made people think in a more practical manner. The focus has been on the basics of economic survival.
Not 'Ache Din', Just Survival
The only state that made a strong statement against the BJP is Punjab.The BJP completely misread the pride and the staying power of Sikhs manifested in the farmers agitation. The gesture of Narendra Modi to reopen the Kartarpur Sahib corridor and withdraw the farm laws was too feeble to impact public opinion. In Punjab today, the youth are not fully engaged in its future. They are looking beyond its borders, indeed, the borders of the country, to fly abroad. Many are stricken by the pervasive drug problem. Punjab is the land of the old and middle-aged farmer and the small industrialist. Reforms in both agriculture and industry seem to have bypassed Punjab.
The Congress, with total confusion in its ranks, was not able to harness any goodwill despite having been in power for two terms and also supporting the farmers’ agitation.
The defeat of its chief ministerial candidate and the state party president is a clear indication of the complete disconnect with the people and the multitude of cross-currents in the months leading up to the elections.
The change in the political leadership was neither properly communicated nor understood by the people. It is in this scenario that the AAP, with its track record in Delhi, its evidence of improved education, grassroots healthcare and digitisation of administrative procedures, struck a chord in a state battered by its debilitated youth.
The BJP has much to celebrate. It returns to power in four states. But in a state where there was a credible challenge, the people opted to keep the BJP out. The Congress stands completely irrelevant in the political landscape of the country.
However, for the people of India in other states, it was a hard-headed and practical decision to vote for the BJP. It has not been an emotional response based on the promise of ‘ache din‘, but rather a muted response for ensuring survival.
(Neelam Kapur is a former civil servant and former Principal Director-General, Press Information Bureau. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)