Unlearnt lessons from UP

N Sathiya Moorthy, ‘Provoke’Chennai, April 27, 2017

 Prime Minister Narendra Modi has to start a talent hunt for spotting new ministers if the BJP wants to present itself as a future government in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, says N Sathiya Moorthy

Once again, pollsters and political pundits have got it wrong. Why, even Prime Minister Narendra Modi, campaigning for his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) indicated the party’s preparedness to consider a post-poll coalition government in the prestigious Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections. Incumbent Chief Minister and ruling Samajwadi Party (SP) boss Akhilesh Yadav would talk about such a course only after the exit poll results were out – and just a day before the counting of votes.

By all accounts, the BJP has swept Uttar Pradesh, as never before. It’s the second such victory after the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, which put Modi in power at the national-level. The UP sweep at the time also ensured that the nation had the first-ever stable, single-party government at the Centre after Rajiv Gandhi in 1984 (and lost it five years hence). Unlike in 1984, Modi did not have anything close to an ‘Indira Gandhi assassination’ to sweep the voter-mood in favour of the ruling Congress. He was a one-man demolition squad then. He has proved to be a one-man demolition squad, now.

Such thoughts and analyses are fine, yes. Finer still, if one were a BJP sympathiser or supporter, and more so if he or she were a ‘Modi bhakt’.  But his choice of Yogi Adidyanath as the Chief Minister of the nation’s most populous State has made most of those bhakts feel uncomfortable. It’s not (only) about the latter’s overzealous Hindutva identity and activities over the past so many years, as most of them think. They should be even more worried about the Yogi’s lack of ministerial experience at any level – especially, if there is truth in the BJP’s pre-poll claims that under the SP-Yadav raj, the State had suffered very badly.

Development mantra

Yogi Adiyanath’s choice for UP chief minister has raised questions about Modi’s ‘development mantra’ for the nation. It’s true that the BJP, both at the Centre and in most States, lack talented people to occupy ministerial positions at various levels, to be able to guide policy-making and programme-implementation. It’s worse in the case of States like Uttar Pradesh, where the BJP has not been in power for years now, to be able to spot talent and promote experience.

Either Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh, the tallest of UP leaders in the BJP and at times outside, too, did not want to go back to State politics, or Modi did not want him in Lucknow. It’s equally possible that the Prime Minister could not spare his Home Minister after circumstances had forced him to relieve Defence Minister Manohar Parikkar to lead the Government in native Goa, where too elections were held.

It’s not only that Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley has to hold additional charge of Defence, even if for a period, as he had done in the first few months of the Modi rule until the Prime Minister had spotted and convinced Parikkar to move onto Delhi. External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj has very bravely weathered a kidney failure to return to the South Block after a transplant. Whether she can, or should undertake strenuous foreign travels from now on would be for her doctors than for Sushma herself to decide.

All of it means that Modi has to start on a talent-hunt for new ministers, that too to occupy senior positions at the national-level. He has managed with his original team, and needs to give it a face-lift if the BJP has to present itself as a ‘future government’ ahead of the 2019 parliamentary polls. If the BJP or Modi bhakts thought that his aura and charisma could pull off for one more time, it’s a risk that they would be taking. It would be for them to decide.

Hero-worship

Human memory is short, more so if one were to ‘hero-worship’ Modi as none before at least in and for the BJP. Keeping Gandhiji and pre-Independence Congress aside, the party has had its share of idols in Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi in their times. Nehru’s death in office meant that he did not have to face the electoral ignonimity that the Congress had to suffer for the first time in 1967. Indira Gandhi’s image and youthful face of the times might have saved a complete rout but she had her turn only a decade later, post-Emergency, in 1977.

Rajiv Gandhi came and went in 1980 and 1984, respectively, without knowing what to do with such as massive mandate as what he had got after his mother’s assassination. He did not even have Modi’s oratorical skills and imagery, to be able to keep the mandate, even in State Assembly elections that followed his massive sweep. He talked big, yes, he talked more about reconciliation, and went about signing a series of Accords, be it in Assam or Punjab, or neighbouring Sri Lanka.

Where the Accords succeeded, it was despite Rajiv Gandhi. Where they failed, it was because of him, or the lack of vision that his advisors had (and he was still a novice in national politics – at best, misplaced good intentions). If one thing was sure about the 1989 elections that followed, it was that the Congress Party and Rajiv Gandhi would lose. He himself seemed to have had an idea about what was happening around, rather early on.

For a Prime Minister with the largest majority in the Lok Sabha, Rajiv Gandhi innovated the anti-defection law. He also piloted the panchayati raj scheme through two constitutional amendments. He seemed wanting to reach out to the grassroots, but did not seem to know how. His panchayati raj scheme ended up as a compromise than his dream vision. It put more money in the hands of the State Governments – and thus, the ruling parties at the regional-level. It took away development from the villages, and put even less money in the hands of the villagers than they were getting collectively, earlier.

Negative-vote

Despite what the BJP-centric social media would want the nation to believe – and they made the nation believe it, too – Manmohan Singh has been the only Prime Minister in recent times to win a second successive term (after Nehru and Indira Gandhi). On most other occasions, a party won or lost power on a negative-vote. In many cases, refurbishing or re-working the coalition did work.

BJP’s Atal Behari Vajpayee did win two successive terms in 1998 and 1999, but that he owed to coalition politics. The BJP’s projection as a ‘party with the difference’ and appeal for ‘Give us a chance’ did had the right traction with the nation’s voters. They had had enough of ‘third front politics’ but would not want the Congress back in power so early.

Modi is the nation’s ‘man with a difference’ just now. But the BJP is not the ‘party with a difference’, as it was in the past – not even in the eyes of its own cadre, sympathisers and supporters. To them all, the BJP does not exist. Modi alone does. Either Modi continues to win elections, whatever the circumstances and compulsions, or the BJP would lose. But unlike in the case of the combined leadership of a sick Vajpayee and a forgotten Advani, a Modi defeat, if at all it came to that, in the near future, that too in parliamentary polls, could well mean the near-end of the road for the BJP, a la 1984.

 

The fact is that the nation cannot afford it just now, yes. But then, the nation and the Indian voter cares the least about sentiment of the kind. They would not have voted successive coalitions for 25 long years, especially those shaky and sure-failures of 1996 and 1998, if they were concerned about, and only about, ‘stability at the Centre’. They would have given the BJP-NDA and the Vajpayee-Advani duo a full mandate from 1996 on (when opinion polls were free to be published any time of campaign-time, and all of them also predicted a ‘hung Parliament’).

Against this, Manmohan Singh, the ‘accidental prime minister’, won his second term in 2009, mostly on his own. The Congress Party and the UPA coalition of the time needed him more than the other way round. He also sought to break the dynastic hold over the Congress party as has always been alleged, to whatever limited extent as was possible. By not wanting to take responsibility as a minister, leave alone prime minister, and thus hold himself accountable, Rahul Gandhi might have also proved his ‘failure’ as party leader, capable of fighting from the front. Modi did it with great relish and got rewarded for the same.

It’s here that the BJP and Team Modi have to remember the party’s lessons from 2004 parliamentary polls. The Congress was down, out and had already been written off. Local media and foreign governments swore that Vajpayee and the BJP were returning to power, and the Congress rival under Sonia Gandhi would be wiped out. The reverse happened, instead. Not that Sonia Gandhi and her ‘Aam Aadhmi’ slogan won the day, but Vajpayee and ‘India Shining’ lost. An unprepared Sonia did not have much choice but to persuade Singh to become Prime Minister, in her place.

Politics is full of ups and downs, and personalities do win and lose elections – not ideology, symbols and symbolism. It’s the trend the world over, not just in India. Maybe because of the IT revolution, social media spread and job-intensive migrations and cross-migrations, nations and peoples are learning from one another. Donald Trump is a case in point. Did the American voters learn their lessons of 2016 presidential polls from India and Modi? Or, did India and Indians learn it from Barack Obama of 2008 and later on 2012. After all, India elected two political under-dogs – Manmohan Singh in 2009, and Narendra Modi in 2014.

‘Swing voters’

It’s easy for inveterate critics of Modi, if not the BJP, to argue that the part-led combine has got only 43.6 per cent of the vote-share in UP now and that the ‘combined Opposition’ did actually cross the half-way mark.  Yet, the analyst’s arguments about the successful ‘Bihar model’ for Assembly elections should not be over-looked either. If Nitish Kumar and Lalu Yadav could come together, the SP and BSP in UP too could do so.

Yet, leaving the Congress aside, and confining such arguments only to the UP poll results of 2017, there are however imponderables about the possibility and desirability of the SP and the BSP coming together, and the Yadavs and Mayawati working together. This is outside of the ‘Yadav family-feud’, where both sides are still licking their electoral wounds. Akhilesh especially is still recovering from the shock of total rout, in terms of seats.

Father Mulayam would have grown older by 2019, when the parliamentary elections are due. Whether he would have become wiser is another question altogether. Minus the hopes of becoming prime minister in the past, and possibly the President of the Union in more recent times, he is back to square one, not only fighting for UP, but also for the party that he once founded. For those that remember, the comparison with the late N T Rama Rao’s December years is odious but yet unavoidable.

Even more relevant is the possibility of the SP-BSP-Congress combine, if it came to that, being able to pool their ‘caste votes’ along with their ‘combined minority vote-share’ and still hope for the Modi-Yogi combine not to play the ‘Hindutva card’ in the parliamentary polls of 2019. Yet, it’s safe to assume that all major political contenders in UP have retained their traditional vote-share, and the decisive ‘swing votes’ alone have continued to sway the results, this time as in 2014. It’s this that parties and their strategists should be concerned about.

‘Anti-incumbency’ is the other factor that went against not just the SP in Uttar Pradesh and the Congress in Uttarkhand and Manipur. The BJP lost Punjab in the company of Akali Dal and Goa, to a greater or lesser extent, for the very same reason. Rather, the ‘swing voters’ in all five States went the other way round, or are beginning to do so. Though very marginal, in UP, the BJP lost around two percentage points between 2014 and 2017. Modi’s strategists cannot ignore this electoral fact and hope to continue spinning a fantasy that is fast seeking to disappear.

Yogi for prime minister?

It may sound preposterous for critics (of both Modi and the Yogi) and amusing to the latter’s supporters, if any, within the larger Sangh Parivar, where he is still a speck. But in his time, Yogi Adiyanath could be the Parivar’s prime ministerial candidate. At 46, he has age on his side. For now, he also has the kind of freshness and look of change that Rajiv Gandhi, Manmohan Singh and Narendra Modi have had infused into the political discourse and electoral battles of their times. Adiyanath has youth and youthful face on his side, but would he be representing the ‘young India’ of his times is for the BJP to ponder over.

As a political administrator, he is an unknown quantity just now. It’s not necessary that Yogi Adhiynath does not necessarily have to prove himself as chief minister before staking his claim to become the party’s prime ministerial candidate first, and possibly prime minister, too. It’s enough he continues to maintain the halo of mysticism around him, mischief or no mischief. Rhetoric, he has enough already – but he may have to give it a ‘national touch’.

All of it would of course be after Modi and his time. Whether it would be before or after the likes of Parikkar have had their turn is unknown. Parikkar, for instance, has got caught up in a snakes-and-ladders game, in which he was never ever a player. He did not want to climb up the ladder from Panaji to Delhi. Nor does he seem to be overawed by having to return to Panaji, when he was seen as having settled down comfortably in Delhi.

In a way, the UP poll results means that Modi is safe at least until 2019, and possibly even afterwards. It would have meant that Parikkar would be ready to take over, and others in the fray for the PM’s job might have out-lived their political and administrative utility for Modi and the party. Arun Jaitley and Sushma Swaraj top the list, and maybe Rajnath, too.

Whether Parikkar would end up as a Vajpyaee or an Advani is too early to say – but Adhinath would still be around, even if the BJP were to lose an election or two, in between. Parikkar would still be the BJP’s Vajpayee in his time, or at best an Advani, as for as relative moderation goes. Adhiyanath could however be the Modi of his time.

 

Incidentally, none expected Modi to be imagined as Gujarat’s ‘Development Man’ at the height of the 2001 riots. At least Adhinath has not acquired Modi-kind of post-riots image, not as yet.  Whether he would be BJP’s ‘Development Messiah’, and even more than Modi is seen to be, is not even for him or the BJP to think about – or, worry about. It’s for the Indian voter to do so. If nothing else, Adhiyanath is on a good wicket, just now!

 

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