On the way back from Bareilly, I asked the taxi driver: “Where do you hail from and whom did you vote for this year?” “I am from Meerut and we voted for Modi,” was his reply. “What do you mean by ‘we’?” I asked. “I mean my family members and neighbours,” said the cabbie. “May I know the name of your community?” “Yes, we are Jatavs.” “You are Jatavs and you haven’t voted for Mayawati?” I asked. “No, Modiji made sure that cooking gas reached our homes. My wife and mother are happy. Now, their eyes don’t water while cooking on a choolha (clay oven),” he said.
To conduct a post-mortem of assembly elections, my colleagues and I put many such questions to voters. There were two significant reasons for the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) victory: The Ujjwala scheme, under which cooking gas was made available to poor families, and the promise of a farm loan waiver, which helped consolidate the farmers’ votes. On top of it came the Diwali and Ramzan rhetoric. That took care of the rest. In 2014, if Narendra Modi was an icon of hope, in 2017 he emerged as a symbol of a politician whom the common man trusted.
The question now being raised is: Will the BJP manage to hold on to its 20-year-old rule in Gujarat in the assembly elections at the end of this year? Will it manage to displace the Congress in Himachal Pradesh? Who will come out on top in the five big and small assemblies going to polls next year? Similarly, the biggest challenge looking the opposition in the eye is making sure it doesn’t become extinct. Will the Congress manage to hold on to power in Himachal Pradesh, Karnataka, Mizoram and Meghalaya? Can it wrest power from the BJP in Gujarat, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh? Will it need a Bihar-like grand alliance to do that?
The initial answers to these questions will emerge in the next few weeks. Going by the law, within the next six months both Yogi Adityanath and Keshav Prasad Maurya will have to seek membership of either the assembly or the legislative council. That is why there will be bypolls in the constituencies of Gorakhpur and Phoolpur respectively. Will the Congress, the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party bury their ego and work in harmony on this occasion?
Amit Shah is taking decisions keeping this possibility in mind, it appears. The BJP has won every election it has fought under his stewardship, except on three occasions. The initial defeats inspired Shah not to repeat his mistakes. That is why the BJP reached out to top leaders of rival parties before the elections in Assam, Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand. He even paid attention to voters’ apathy towards caste and religion. He selected his voter and focused on him or her, the way executives of multinational companies identity their target users.
Not just this, even after the elections had been won, the people who were given the important posts were an extension of this formula. Yogi Adityanath is not merely a Rajput; being a saffron-clad monk he has the capability of eliciting the respect of every Hindu caste. Plus, his Hindutva hard-liner image can help polarize voters. To make sure the opposition doesn’t sway people by calling him a Rajput, one Brahmin and a leader from an other backward class (OBC) have been appointed as deputy chief ministers. The composition of the cabinet has been done keeping in mind leaders who can accumulate votes from their communities and their constituencies in 2019. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court’s recommendation that both sides resolve the Ayodhya conflict with out-of-court discussions has raised political temperatures. If the building of the Ram temple is announced, it will be the icing on the cake. The attempt will be to give Modi the credit for achieving something that Chandrashekhar, P.V. Narsimha Rao and Atal Bihari Vajpayee failed to achieve when they were prime minister—a negotiated settlement of the dispute.
What is apparent is that even as the BJP is working on many fronts at the same time, the Congress, the country’s oldest party, is yet to make a similar effort. Clearly, the Congress needs agile politicians. The biggest example of this comes from Manipur and Goa where the Congress could not show the agility needed for government formation despite winning the most number of seats. It is pitted against a team that keeps evolving its strategy on its feet and doesn’t take time in making tough decisions.
Now, let us have a look at the regional parties. Mamata Banerjee, Naveen Patnaik and Mayawati are growing old but they haven’t chosen their successors. J. Jayalalithaa made the same mistake and after her demise the repercussions are being felt by her party. The question that arises is whether these insecure leaders manage to knit together a coalition that wins the trust of the man on the street?
The trend from the 2017 elections is clear: the voter wants stability along with development. The time has come for the entire opposition to pay attention to these questions. The elections held between 2014 and 2017 have given indicators that could prove to be warning signals for them.
Shashi Shekhar is editor-in-chief, Hindustan.
His Twitter handle is @shekharkahin.