The Bharatiya Janata Party looks set to register impressive victories in the Maharashtra and Haryana assembly elections. Psephologists, political experts and even opposition apologists agree. But for their track record of reading the public mood horribly wrong—which significantly improved after they started instinctively trusting ‘Modi magic’—reports from the ground do suggest possible devastation of the opposition parties in yet another round of elections.
The opposition also seems reconciled to its fate. Unless voters decide to change the usual electoral predictability in the Modi era, get ready to watch pre-Diwali celebrations in the BJP camp Thursday when the verdict of these polls is out. But before these celebrations start, let me add a note of caution—if only for troll fodder. The poll verdict and its magnitude, if it goes the BJP way, may not mean a thumbs up to the BJP style of politics or governance. If you were on the campaign trail in Maharashtra and Haryana, you would be surprised how no one is talking about ‘achhe din’ yet. If it’s the caste matrix working in the BJP’s favour in Haryana, the virtual demise of the opposition in Maharashtra has got the TINA (there is no alternative) factor working for it.
But the narratives that are likely to emerge post-verdict Thursday are likely to be two-pronged. First, it would be projected as yet another indicator of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ever-increasing popularity and a vindication of his governance model. But, before we discuss its validity, let’s look at the second likely narrative—that the Modi-Amit Shah duo has gifted two new mass leaders in Devendra Fadnavis and Manohar Lal Khattar, chief ministers of Maharashtra and Haryana. The party campaign celebrated the two. When was the last time one saw BJP president Amit Shah dismissed in sheer mug shots on the billboards and posters along with lesser mortals, while Fadnavis and Khattar stood tall with Modi in life-size pictures? That too, when the BJP has made nullification of Article 370 its central poll plank and hailed Amit Shah for completing the unfinished task of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel. Shah addressed 18 rallies in Maharashtra and Modi, nine.
A restlessness in Modi era
Travelling from Mumbai to Pune last Monday, I made a stopover at Lonavala as Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath would be addressing a meeting there. The retail shop owner near the Shiv Sena office in Lonavala, Ajit Giri, was bitter. His son, employed at General Motors’ Talegaon plant, lost the job as hundreds of automobile hubs located between Mumbai and Pune were hit by the economic slowdown.
Giri got a loan to buy his son a jeep to transport retail items. His son, a mechanical engineer, now has to often sleep in the jeep during his hectic travels.
Giri, a Modi voter, sounded a bit disillusioned: “What have we got? People still think achhe din shayad aayenge, but my son has lost the job.”
What about Fadnavis? “What has he done?” Giri responded in exasperation.
So, was he thinking of voting out the BJP? He was non-committal: “Who else is there? Let’s see. People have hopes…but nothing is happening.”
Near Adityanath’s meeting venue about a kilometre away, a group of people shared similar stories of unemployment forced by the closure of factories. They would vote for the BJP nonetheless. A familiar story of lingering hopes from Modi again.
Adityanath finally came to deliver an impassioned speech about how the removal of Jammu and Kashmir’s special status (through Article 370) made the idea of “one nation, great nation” a reality and how it was the “final nail in the coffin of terrorism”.
BJP workers clapped while others heard him nonchalantly. Travel down south to Pune and Satara, you encounter scores of Ajit Giris who had great hopes from Modi, but who are starting to grow restless. They haven’t lost hope in Modi yet, though.
More than Modi magic needed
On the way to Pune, my cab driver shared a joke apparently circulating on social media. “Before Modiji came, people thought they had nothing and he would give them everything. Now they think whatever they had, wahi kaafi tha. Wahi bach jaye, bahut hai (whatever they had was good enough; if they retain it, it’s enough).” Mind you, the driver was a ‘Modi fan’.
The fact that even Modi supporters no longer mind cracking a joke about him should worry the BJP.
Another noticeable change since the 2014 polls is people’s inclination to differentiate the national from the local elections. The assembly elections after 2014 Lok Sabha polls were all dominated by the personality cult around Modi, with few bothering about the BJP’s chief ministerial candidates.
Five years later, people still talk about Modi but the chief minister’s performance and local, regional issues seem to dictate their political thinking. If you were to drive from Ratnagiri to Mumbai and ask about Modi or Fadnavis or the dilution of Article 370, you would inevitably end up discussing the pathetic conditions of the state and national highways. It’s understandable as the 350-km drive takes around 11 hours.
Fadnavis and Khattar are not a Shivraj Singh Chouhan or a Raman Singh yet in terms of mass appeal. People in Maharashtra and Haryana find them “nice men” and many consider them honest too, but people wouldn’t vote in their names the way they did in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh for Chouhan and Singh.
With wholesale defections of opposition leaders into the BJP camp — and reverse migration, though on a smaller scale — the differences between the parties, ideologies and individuals were getting blurry for a section of voters. There was no dominant campaign issue either, even though the BJP did its best to make nationalism and Article 370 the big poll issues. If it was about Jat and non-Jat consolidation in Haryana, it was the battle of Marathas in western Maharashtra constituencies. In Satara, for instance, the National Congress Party was asking Marathas to avenge the registration of a money laundering case against Sharad Pawar, their tallest leader; the BJP, on the other hand, was banking on the descendants of Chhatrapati Shivaji, who had defected from the NCP, to get Marathas on its side.
Whatever may be the results on 24 October, it won’t be all about Narendra Modi, for a change. Much of it would be a reflection of the opposition’s death wish.
Another electoral victory of the BJP could result in the party becoming more unmindful and dismissive of the people’s growing impatience with the government’s performance, especially its economic management. Modi seldom talks about his achhe din promise, but people still remember it. These voices from the ground are, however, likely to be drowned in victory celebrations Thursday.