NEW DELHI: Sandeep Shastri, national coordinator of Lokniti Network, the research programme of the New Delhi-based Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), and pro vice-chancellor of Jain University based in Bengaluru, dissected the historic mandate of the recently concluded Lok Sabha elections, the challenges for Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his second consecutive term, and the reasons behind the second worst national performance of the Congress. Edited excerpts of an interview:
How do you look at the mandate of the 2019 general elections?
This is a decisive mandate in favour of the ruling party and the ruling alliance. I think, since 1971, we have not had such a mandate for the government that has been in power. Lots of people are drawing a comparison between Indira Gandhi’s re-election in 1971 and the current mandate, which was also on the issue of eradicating poverty. This mandate is also on the slogan of providing a strong government. I would also argue similarities between the leadership styles of the two political personalities.
In states where the competition was a straight fight between the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Congress, the BJP has done extremely well. The states where the two parties were in direct competition, the level of satisfaction of people with the performance of government is higher. The victory also underscores the importance of the Hindi heartland in the politics of this country. Last time also the BJP achieved a strike rate of 75-100% in the states of north India. The loss of some seats in the north has been compensated from the eastern part of the country—in West Bengal or Odisha.
There were regional variations. North, west and central India have become the entrenched BJP states and then are the eastern states where the BJP is an emerging party and the southern states which are still eluding the BJP, except Karnataka. The BJP had a clear political presence in the Hindi heartland, have an increasing presence in the east and North-East. The north-south divide is visible this time also.
The election was successfully converted into a presidential style battle. They made Prime Minister the mascot of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA), which made it a presidential form of election. The opposition was not successful in making it a policy fight. The BJP managed to set the agenda while the opposition was only responding. Modi made it clear that the BJP-NDA has a clear leadership but this was not the case with the opposition.
There is an argument that the chemistry of Narendra Modi trumped the caste arithmetic?
Most of the analysts made the mistake of extrapolation of votes. We said the votes of the Samajwadi Party (SP) and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) together would be more than that of the BJP. The same argument was there in Jharkhand and Karnataka. So we said the arithmetic was in favour of the opposition alliance. We talked about the caste alliance of SP-BSP, Jatav, Muslim and Yadav, but the BJP constantly worked on the formula of 60:40, that if you bring together 40% of the votes then we will bring together the remaining 60%. BJP managed to bring together the non-Yadav OBC, non-Jatav Dalit and upper caste votes. It managed a caste combination of social groups that are not part of the grand alliance. There is an assumption that if the leadership comes together, the arithmetic will work. But what is the guarantee that the workers of the party will come together? Are your supporters coming together?
Do you think the outcome of the general elections signifies a different kind of identity politics?
I would not concede that immediately because if we look at the Prime Minister’s campaign, in Uttar Pradesh he consistently emphasized that he belongs to the OBC that is because the BJP was doing non-Yadav OBC polarization. Much of his speeches in Uttar Pradesh focused on the fact that he belongs to the OBC. There is this argument that the BJP-NDA victory cuts across caste, but I am not too sure. The BJP has used caste to its advantage. Caste as an identity cannot be wished away easily. Caste as an identity will not get trumped in the immediate future. This could be an election when we have seen caste plus package. There have been leaders who have managed it earlier also. There have been leaders who have kept caste as a base and then brought in many other issues.
What are the possible reasons for the dismal performance of the Congress in the past two general elections?
Wrong strategy, misplaced focus, and uninspiring leadership, its a combination of these two factors. They allowed the BJP to set the agenda. They were only responding to what the BJP was saying. Some of the main points of the campaign such as Rafale and “Chowkidar Chor Hai" backfired because the BJP managed to leverage it to its advantage. The BJP started its own chowkidar movement. It has been more effective in capturing mind space. Not many remember “Chowkidar Chor Hai" but a lot of people would remember the chowkidar movement started by the BJP. NYAY was a great programme of the Congress but did it come too late in the campaign? Was there enough clarity about its implementation, where were the resources coming from? Were they able to effectively sell the idea? People asked if they are saying this because they are in the opposition. Why did they not implement it in the 10 years when they were in power?
This time the BJP has managed to expand its social base. It has managed effort to reach out to socially and financially weaker sections, the poorer section of society.
There is a question on the effectiveness of the Congress leadership. There is a question being raised, should it move towards a post dynasty leadership. The Congress should decide. Rahul Gandhi has taken a first step by offering to resign (as president of the party). There is a visible dearth of popular support for the leadership.
If you looking at leadership at the national level, that is a battle you will find impossible to win because there is so much of recovery that has to happen. An alternative strategy is either policy focus or focussing on leadership at the state level? Many would argue that the Congress needs the dynasty to keep it united but can that be a figure head and the real vote getters be its state leaders. In a sense the Congress lost the opportunity in December polls to invest in state-level leaders.
How do you see Modi’s second term from the governance perspective?
He believes that he would like to carve a space for himself in history. He is looking at a long haul and then the most important factor is would he project his role as more of a reconciliator. In parliamentary democracy, the second term is tougher than the first. Many times the ills of your first term revisit you in your second term. That is what happened with the United Progressive Alliance. As the NDA starts off its second term, I think caution is something they would exercise. A lot of people have voted for the party assuming that the unfinished agenda of the previous term will be completed now, especially the middle class and business segments of society.
Also, I think, they got away in the first term by not really focusing much on employment but that will not be the case in the second term. They have made serious promises in expanding employment space. One argument is also that unless this government does something serious about the manufacturing sector, it cannot deal with the unemployment problem. Construction, real estate sector and infrastructure reforms too need to come in. The government must also take along all sections of the society. At the leadership level, one hopes that in term-2 the speed at which the leadership responds to questions which come with regard to minority communities would be as fast as for other social groups which we did not see in term 1.
How do you see the expanding party organization and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s (RSS’) role?
I think the leadership of the BJP and the RSS are perfectly in sync. Some argue that there will be moments when the RSS may assert its authority like in the selection of Yogi Adityanath as Uttar Pradesh chief minister. For me, it is a clear assertion of the role of frontal organizations in the party. Of course, it also suited the BJP’s agenda to show that it is anti-dynasty. At the ground level, there are possibilities of tension between the BJP and RSS cadre but as you move up to the leadership level, I am not sure those differences exist.