It wasn’t long ago that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) seemed invincible as it swept to power in one state after another. The party’s footprint was spreading fast and the Opposition was at a loss over how to stop the saffron juggernaut. However, that was then. The BJP’s popular appeal appears to have flagged over the months since its grand electoral showing this summer, when it bagged more than 300 seats in the Lok Sabha. The outcome of the state polls in Jharkhand has dealt India’s ruling party yet another blow. Not only did it lose power to an alliance of the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha, Congress and the Rashtriya Janata Dal, its chief minister Raghubar Das fared poorly in his own constituency. Just a few weeks earlier, the BJP found itself at the losing end of a fight to form a government in Maharashtra, a state that is considered highly important in the country’s political scheme of things. In Haryana, where the BJP was seen as a shoo-in before the polls, the party did not record the performance it reportedly expected, even if it retained power. It remains India’s dominant political force, but analysts have begun to wonder if it is past its peak. Or does it simply need to rework its strategy?
One reason for the BJP’s downturn could be its excessive emphasis on national issues in elections that had voters in search of solutions to local problems. In this view, people tend to make a distinction between parliamentary and assembly candidates, even if the campaigns overlap. In Odisha, for instance, the electorate rejected the BJP’s effort earlier this year to dislodge the Biju Janata Dal government, endorsing Naveen Patnaik as chief minister for a fifth successive term, but the state’s simultaneous Lok Sabha vote went largely to the BJP. This dichotomy in preferences is best explained by differences in voters’ national and state level expectations. In Haryana, Maharashtra and Jharkhand, the ruling party tried to attract voters by speaking about issues such as the abrogation of Article 370, the construction of a Ram temple in Ayodhya, the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, and the National Register of Citizens. By most reports, the Opposition stayed focused on matters of local governance and policy. In Jharkhand, for example, the victors made an issue of tribal anxieties over land and other resources. Caste and other identity factors were in play as well, and it’s also possible that the arithmetic of these went against the BJP.
Another plausible factor that the ruling party would do well to ponder, however, concerns its rightward push of recent months. By the conventional wisdom of politics, a party that captures the centre ground tends to triumph. While the country’s midpoint may have shifted to the right, by and large, a political campaign that veers too far away from it could still face electoral resistance. Seen this way, the BJP’s ideological stance might be enthusing its core vote base without getting much incremental support. The party’s alliances appear to have weakened, even as Opposition unity has strengthened. This trend has sharpened since the BJP regained power at the Centre. In Jharkhand, the BJP’s ally Lok Janshakti Party fought on its own, even as three parties joined hands against it. In Bihar, its partner Janata Dal (United) has expressed reservations over its citizenship agenda. Perhaps the BJP’s leadership should revise its electioneering game plan and draw itself back to the middle ground of Indian politics. That is where power lies.