Farmers’ Fury Puts BJP at Serious Disadvantage in 342 LS Seats
What is likely to increase your winnability in elections: rate of inflation in excess of 8 percent, with prices of food items rising in double digits, or a subdued price environment? Since mehengai (price rise) remains a constant theme in all elections, a stable price regime is a sure-shot winner. That, indeed, is the case if we follow the conventional wisdom. However, what we discovered on 11 December was that the variable of ‘low price means an election victory’ does not always hold.
In all the years of the first term of the Manmohan Singh government, rate of inflation was never as low as what it is today. In fact, the rate of inflation of food items in the last year of his first term was close to 10 percent, one of the highest in almost a decade. But that did not come in the way of the Congress securing an even bigger mandate in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections. However, what we have seen now in the three Hindi heartland states of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh is complete reversal of what we saw then.
Occasional spurts in prices of certain food items aside, we have had a stable price regime in the last four years. Food inflation is almost negligible now, and prices of pulses are lower than what was the case a few years ago. Why is rural India angry with the current ruling dispensation then? The answer is very simple. Price rise does not pinch as long as your income is rising at a faster clip. However, if your income has nosedived, it does not matter whether rate of inflation is subdued or it is at an elevated level.
Stagnating Farm Income Fuelling Rural Distress
According to an Indian Express report, “the average annual increase in the wholesale price index has been only 2.75 percent for food articles and 0.76 percent for non-food agricultural articles. As against this, the same during the preceding five-year period of the UPA government amounted to 12.26 percent and 11.04 percent, respectively.” The same report adds that there has been “a marked decline in rural wage growth for agricultural and non-agricultural occupations after 2014-15, with the average yearly increase working out to about 5.2 percent in nominal terms. That is slightly above the corresponding rise of 4.9 percent in the rural consumer price index, pointing to a virtual stagnation in real rural wages.”
BJP Runs the Risk of Reversal of its Spectacular Show in Rural Constituencies
Taken together, this means that the income of a majority of the rural population has been stagnant since 2014, indicating real rural distress. Hence the verdict from the three Hindi heartland states, suggesting a rout of the BJP in the countryside. The BJP could win only 43 percent of all the rural seats in Madhya Pradesh, 34 percent in Rajasthan and a paltry 15 percent of such seats in Chhattisgarh. The fall has been substantial compared to the last assembly elections in these states and very steep since the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. This is continuation of the trend we saw in the Gujarat assembly elections where the BJP could win only 43 percent of the rural and semi-urban seats.
If the rural distress theme continues, what are the implications for the forthcoming Lok Sabha elections? Let us recall that for the first time in India’s electoral history, the BJP walked away with a major chunk of rural seats in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. The party had won 178 out of the 342 rural seats, which was a quantum jump from the 66 seats it had won in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections. The Congress’ rural tally, on the other hand, suffered a massive drop from 116 in 2009 to mere 27 seats in 2014.
What if the trend reverses as has been indicated by the results of as many as four states—Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh?
Congress Ascendance is Very Bad News for BJP
I have alluded to this point before and let me reiterate that the Congress gaining ground is very bad news for the BJP (hence, the BJP slogan of ‘Congress-mukt Bharat’ perhaps). In the three Hindi heartland states where the two principal parties are locked in direct contest, the Congress has improved from a winning strike rate of mere 23 percent in 2013 to 54 percent now.
What if the BJP-Congress turns out to be one among equals in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections? Once again, we have seen that happening in recent elections in Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh. That can potentially reduce the BJP’s Lok Sabha tally by at least 70 seats. The BJP incidentally had a winning strike rate of 88 percent in the 2014 elections in straight contest with the Congress. It looks like that is going to change now. And that is quite substantial too.
There is no denying that all elections are unique and Lok Sabha elections are never an aggregation of Assembly elections. But the recent Assembly elections do indicate a trend and that is not very positive for the ruling party unless something dramatic happens between now and April-May of next year.