Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint
Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint

Opinion | Rahul’s moment, Modi’s challenge

With the Congress pulling Chhattisgarh back decisively, and on course to form governments in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, it has demonstrated that the BJP electoral machine is beatable

Another contentious electoral showdown has just concluded. But given that the country is less than six months away from the 17th general election, the fallout of these results holds added importance.

The first takeaway is that the verdict is undoubtedly a setback to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which since its audacious win in 2014 had morphed into an electoral juggernaut—staking itself as the principal pole of Indian politics. Yes, it did suffer a humiliating reverse in Bihar and an even worse defeat in Delhi at the hands of the Aam Aadmi Party—then the hottest political start-up in the country. These blemishes apart, it has steadily devoured electoral territory hitherto under the control of its principal rival, the Congress. Consequently, it has acquired an electoral footprint that stretched, till six months ago, from the northeast to the west and from Jammu and Kashmir in the north to the Vindhyas in the south. The feat was remarkable for a party, which till 2014 was a political pariah.

With the Congress pulling Chhattisgarh back decisively and managing slender wins in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh—all of which had the saffron party as the incumbent—it has demonstrated that the BJP electoral machine is beatable. More worryingly for the BJP, its narrative is beginning to acquire a stale overtone. Over the last year, in particular, it has acquired a shrillness dwelling on negatives rather than the more saleable message of positive change in an era when aspirations are growing.

By any measure, the BJP-led coalition at the centre has succeeded in implementing a mix of big-ticket reforms such as the rollout of the goods and services tax and initiation of a new bankruptcy law to deal with the burgeoning bad debt problem, even while it has pressed ahead with a social empowerment strategy for those at the bottom of the pyramid, including a staggering health insurance plan for 500 million people.

However, somewhere along the way it has been distracted by the opposition’s anti-incumbency narrative and become defensive. For the BJP, the task is cut out. Over the next six months, the party and its principal draw, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, will have to figure out a new political playbook to regain their stride in time for the 2019 showdown. Modi’s electoral success has been built by claiming the dominant narrative; every time his party has suffered a reverse, it is because it has allowed the opposition to define the electoral battle lines.

Second, for the Congress, the verdict is indeed a cause for celebration. After falling just short of a sensational upset in Gujarat, the Congress managed to outmanoeuvre the BJP following a hung verdict in Karnataka by hitching an alliance of convenience with the Janata Dal (Secular) to retain power. Getting back to winning ways—especially its landslide win in Chhattisgarh—will do wonders for a demoralised Congress cadre and for its feisty president, Rahul Gandhi.

More importantly, it would have robbed the BJP of the cushion, ahead of the general elections, of being in power in three states that overwhelmingly voted for the saffron party—they won all, but three of the 65 Lok Sabha seats from Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. It is indeed a victorious moment for Gandhi, something he can leverage to stake claim as the principal challenger to Modi in 2019.

However, it would be a mistake for the party to get carried away by the outcome. This is largely because in Uttar Pradesh, which elects 80 MPs to the Lok Sabha, it is a nonentity. More importantly, it has to take stock of its new-found strategy of playing the Hindutva-lite card.

Agreed, it is part of a plan to combat the narrative of it being an anti-Hindu party. It is a fine line to walk as like a broadsword, it cuts both ways. There is a danger that an alienated Muslim vote would consolidate behind lesser regional players, as it did in Telangana, and end up spoiling the Congress’ national ambitions. Presumably it is also aware that it has, like several other parties, by playing the Hindutva-lite card, forced an unprecedented rightward shift in Indian politics. This has attendant consequences with respect to the secular fabric of India.

In the final analysis, the two leading national parties also need to introspect on the direction of the national discourse. At the moment, its binary nature has facilitated a vicious discourse at a time when the country has to decide on contentious trade-offs such as development versus environment. This can happen only in a situation where the moderates have reclaimed their legitimate voice in a democracy.

Will the two leading national parties introspect on the direction of the national discourse? Tell us at