Home / Opinion / Can the BJP create a new policy narrative?

The dust of the assembly elections is settling. The Congress is nursing a bloody nose and gearing up for its interminable introspection. The Left is contemplating its continuing decline in West Bengal, and various regional parties are considering how best to consolidate their gains or work through their losses. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), meanwhile, has reason to cheer. But it also faces a crucial issue: how to parlay its performance into more effective policymaking and governance.

Finance minister Arun Jaitley had said in January that the government hoped to push the crucial goods and services tax (GST) through in the budget session as “halfway through the next session, the numbers in the upper House are going to change". That was misleading.

The phased, biennial nature of Rajya Sabha elections means that the upper House’s composition can often be out of sync with the popular mandate. That is currently the case. The elections to replace the 12 upper House members who retired in April saw no change in the balance of power. And the just-concluded elections won’t reflect in the Rajya Sabha to the BJP’s advantage until 2019.

Next month, however, the equation will shift somewhat in the BJP’s favour. Elections for 57 Rajya Sabha seats could result in it taking 18 seats to replace 14 retiring members. Factor in seven nominated members and alliance partner Telegu Desam Party’s potential three seats, and the National Democratic Alliance’s tally could surpass the United Progressive Alliance’s. But the lead will be too slim to allow the BJP to function unimpeded. What then?

Jaitley has hinted at the answer in a Facebook post made after the election results. The Congress, he writes, is “threatened with being pushed increasingly to the margins. Will it be the main challenger to the BJP-led NDA in 2019, or will it stand behind a hotchpotch combination of ideologically disparate regional groups?" The polls haven’t provided the BJP Rajya Sabha numbers—but they have given it an opportunity to shape a narrative of both its own pan-national relevance and the Congress’s loss of it that could have a real effect on policymaking.

The Congress’s obstructionism has been built on a foundation of its role as the main opposition—more a function of its legacy as an umbrella party claiming to represent diverse interests than numbers. The BJP hasn’t helped matters with poor floor management; perversely, its aggressive focus on the Congress has helped the latter punch above its weight, resulting in policy sclerosis. The parties may have cooperated on some issues such as the bankruptcy bill, but in several instances, the BJP has had to employ workarounds. Going the ordinance route as it did with the land bill and insurance bill—not to mention pushing Aadhaar legislation through as a money bill—is not a viable long-term strategy.

But the Congress’s failure in all four state elections dilutes the legitimacy of further obstructionism. The diverse interests it once represented are now better served by regional parties, leaving it with an inchoate message. Concurrently, the dynamics between the BJP and regional parties are set to shift. The latter no longer have a truly national party in the opposition to leverage against the ruling dispensation. That gives the BJP more room in dealing with them—crucial when it still needs their backing in the Rajya Sabha for the GST. This can allow it to build on the support it already has, such as in West Bengal where Mamata Banerjee, has reiterated her support.

There are other policy challenges as well. The Labour Bureau’s recently released data shows that employment generation in eight labour-intensive sectors ranging from textiles to automobiles was around 135,000 last year compared to 490,000 in 2014. And as Rajiv Kumar of the Centre for Policy Research points out, the 2005-12 period saw a backlog of nearly 50 million unemployed youth, with another 80 million set to join the workforce over the next decade.

This, not headline growth, will determine the Narendra Modi government’s fate come 2019. The policy prescriptions will not be easy. As we have argued in these pages, a structural transformation of the labour force via enabling small enterprises and ensuring that they have the space and means to grow is the only avenue to inclusive growth. That means tackling difficult reforms such as labour, where the centre has had to back down—and where state cooperation is essential given that it’s on the concurrent list.

The NDA administration is perhaps in an even stronger position than it was after the 2014 victory—and with another round of advantageous Rajya Sabha elections next year to look forward to. Now, it must show that it can leverage this effectively without being sidetracked by needless ideological battles as it has been in the past.

Will the BJP now be able to push its agenda more easily? Tell us at

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