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State Polls: Are Modi, BJP Reading the Message for 2019 Correctly?

‘Brand’ Modi certainly enjoys support, albeit, from a gradually thinning group.

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Opinion
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The assembly polls in the five states was used by Prime Minister Narendra Modi as an occasion to test the waters, to see what is resonating with the people and what isn’t. This was also an opportunity to find out how much of his personal popularity was intact and the extent to which he could shield the government and party from the anti-incumbent sentiments.

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Too Late for BJP to Course Correct

Long after the last of the results were declared and after sycophants and aides would have made their way home, Modi would have sat in solitude and concluded the waters are indeed choppy. The saving grace however, is that the situation is not as worrying as it could have been. This can be stated particularly in the backdrop of the verdict from Rajasthan.

Having said that, it would be suicidal for Modi and the BJP to consider the threat to his campaign for 2019 as insignificant. It is vital to accept that the verdict was a vote against the politics and policies of the BJP government.

The crisis for the BJP is that rejection of this kind of politics has come too late in the day for it to make course correction. There is also the argument that he is naturally inclined to divisive politics, and that all development spiel was glib talk to befuddle voters. As of now, Modi neither has choice nor inclination, but to pursue centralised and majoritarian politics that has been this regime’s preference.

‘Brand Modi’ Hasn’t Collapsed Completely

However, the saving grace for Modi is that such divisive politics and his vicious campaign has worked to an extent wherever he upped the ante. Modi was in campaign mode of yore in Rajasthan; 13 rallies here, especially at the end-stage of the campaign, as against 10 in Madhya Pradesh and 5 in Chhattisgarh. This demonstrates that the value of brand Modi has not collapsed completely, but maintains a steady level, although this may not be as high as in 2014.

In the absence of empirical data, his popularity cannot be quantified, but its value can be estimated from the fact that the swing away from BJP in Rajasthan is not as high as in Chhattisgarh.

At the moment of writing, the vote share of the BJP in Rajasthan had declined by 7.5 percent compared to almost 9 percent in Chhattisgarh. This shows that Modi, perhaps singlehandedly, held BJP’s slide in Rajasthan where anti incumbent sentiment was higher at the beginning of the campaign. But it would require more than super-human capacities in 2019 even though Modi’s engagement in the campaign will be several times more intensive than what it was in 2014.

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Modi Firmly Boxed in a Corner

Modi’s worry is that the ground beneath his feet is sinking precisely in those states that propelled him to power in 2014. Out of the 282 seats the BJP won in 2014, almost 250 were from the Hindi heartland and western India. Of these, 200 alone were from the Hindi-speaking states. The losses in these three Hindi heartland states have to be seen not in terms of seats but in terms of the BJP’s vote share, which has dipped from 7 to 9 percent.

It can be made out from the tone and tenor of Congress leaders, especially Rahul Gandhi, that the party will be more accommodative in securing alliances in contrast to the strategy in this round, when the objective was to simultaneously maximise seats vis-à-vis potential allies, because the assembly round was merely the semi-final.

Modi is firmly boxed in a corner which has not proved a launch pad for a successful bout. The worry is that the more he heightens social insecurity the more he risks repeating this kind of erosion of popular support. Hope for Modi lies in it ramping up divisive politics to extreme levels, but this risks national security and invites international disapproval.

Moreover, identity politics has certain limits, political and constitutional, and with the judiciary alert once again after the wobble that was stemmed in January, this will be a risky proposition.

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A Robust Opposition Faces Modi

Not just issues, but Modi also faces the challenge of a higher level in the Index of Opposition Unity. In contrast, Modi is losing allies, and these defeats will further cut into his winnability. Additionally, the Congress policy of pursuing soft-Hindutva has paid dividends for the party, and has softened Hindu hostility for having consistently appeased minorities, mainly Muslims. It is a different matter that this approach of the Congress has dismayed many of its supporters outside the party-fold. But then, the Congress too is inspired by the Modi-Shah credo of converting the party into an electoral machine.

The saving grace for Modi is that if he is hamstrung by his hubris, the Congress is continuing to display laziness and a lack of urgency.

Several stalwarts continue with the lifestyle of their former feudal self, and even Rahul Gandhi with his energetic drive, has been unable to push many a leader. Yet, BJP will face a relatively more robust opposition than he has ever faced, either in Gujarat or nationally.

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The 3-Way Strike Against BJP

The swing away in the three states shows desertions from the BJP’s social base across the entire canvas of social groups. Particularly worrisome is the three-way strike of rural distress, urban disenchantment and drift of tribal communities, so assiduously wooed by the Sangh Parivar over decades.

On the positive side, this round has sounded warning bells, giving Modi sufficient time to make self-corrections.

But the Opposition too has been provided pointers to improve their strategy. There is no denying that the race for 2019 has suddenly been thrown open. Modi now not only has to gallop on the home bend, but also has to look over his shoulder to see if the man who he demonised, is catching up or not. Long used to leading rivals by leaps and bounds and cantering home, his predicament will only make 2019 a tough battle for him, and tantalising for those watching from the stands.

Follow all live updates for the state elections here.

(The writer is an author and journalist based in Delhi. His most recent books are ‘Sikhs: The Untold Agony of 1984’ and ‘Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times’. He can be reached at@NilanjanUdwin. 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.)

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