Will 220 be the new 272?

February is arguably the nicest month weather-wise in the national capital: the icy Himalayan wind gives way to a gentler cool breeze signaling a gradual change of seasons. This time, it also marks a possible shift in political temperature ahead of a big election year. Where Congressmen were once wrapped up at home in their woolens fearing an extended spell in the winter wilderness, suddenly there is a spring in the step of the opposition; by contrast, the BJP which has seemed invincible through heat and cold, now realizes that they cannot afford to take anything for granted in the run up to the 2019 general elections.

Two by-election results in Rajasthan appear to have been the immediate trigger for the shift in political momentum. Resounding victories for the Congress in the Lok Sabha seats of Alwar and Ajmer (the party led in all 16 assembly segments) suggest that 2019 may not quite be 2014. Remember, the BJP swept all 25 seats in Rajasthan in the 2014 general elections, part of a north-west India wave that virtually saw the party win ninety per cent of the seats in an arc stretching from Goa to Jharkhand. It was this wave that propelled the BJP to a remarkable electoral majority on its own. Now, the defeat in Rajasthan suggests that the saffron surge of 2014 is finally beginning to slow down. From targeting the government on the economy to the Rafael aircraft deal, the Congress appears to have suddenly found a voice. And buoyed by his ‘moral victory’ in Gujarat, a Rahul Gandhi too appears to be finally relishing the prospect of a electoral contest.

But before the Congress gets carried away, lets ask the question: is Rajasthan a mirror to the rest of India, or merely an aberration? Lets be clear: the BJP’s mascot in the twin Rajasthan elections was not Narendra Modi but the state chief minister Vasundhara Raje. To that extent, the by election results would suggest a growing anti-incumbency against the state government after four years in power. Rajasthan, after all, has a history in recent times of voting out the incumbent government every five years. To infer from the Rajasthan debacle that the Narendra Modi juggernaut has been halted would be an exaggeration but to also conclude that the BJP leadership can rest easy in the next year would be a miscalculation.

Truth is, the prime minister and his chief election manager, BJP president Amit Shah, have reason to worry. The agrarian distress is real and nationwide. Farmers have been temporarily placated with budgetary promises but translating promise into delivery has remained this government’s biggest challenge. The promise of ten million new jobs a year is clearly not happening, and wrapping it up in a plate of ‘pakoras’ is not going to address the ambitions of India’s young. So far, the growing disillusionment of the unrealized ‘achche din’ has not turned to anger, but that too can change in the next 12 months if
there is no visible improvement on the ground.

One sign of the shifting mood is reflected on social media, the echo chamber of contemporary urban political discourse. Where once the BJP and Mr Modi in particular ruled cyberspace, now there are Modi jokes that are going viral. The union budget, far from stemming the tide, has only aggravated the sense of disquiet: for the urban middle class in particular, the budget offers little hope that their wallets will have a distinct bulge in the immediate future.

Which might also explain the growing belief that the Modi government needs to quickly change the political narrative away from the economy to more emotional issues revolving around ‘religious nationalism’. That the East Delhi BJP MP Mahesh Giri has chosen to launch a Rashtriya Raksha Yagna in the week when there has been yet another major terror attack on an army camp in Jammu is not without significance: the ‘maha-yagna’ is a conscious attempt to stir a religio-national fervor ahead of the election season. The RSS chief has already offered his swayam-sevaks for border protection ‘if the constitution permits’. The VHP has also announced its plans to re-ignite the Ram Mandir issue even as the Supreme Court hears the contentious dispute. That the VHP’s original Ayodhya posterboys like a Vinay Katiyar are once again making inflammatory anti-Muslim comments is not surprising: in an election year, these leaders know they can get away by stirring the communal pot. The early signs from Karnataka too suggest that the BJP is looking to create a Hindu consolidation by raising the familiar bogey of Muslim appeasement.

And yet, whether an unapologetic old style Hindutva politics alone can deliver the spectacular results of 2014 for a ‘new’ India is uncertain. That election triumph was driven by a strong public anger against the ruling Congress-led UPA with Mr Modi’s muscular image embodying the face of change. That image has been dented but remains well ahead of what Rahul Gandhi and the opposition have to offer so far. A fragmented opposition may well be Mr Modi’s ticket to a second term in power: he is, after all, still the consummate election campaigner who will determinedly try and make the general elections a presidential contest between him versus Rahul and the rest. And yet, while the prime minister’s cheerleaders will seek to keep his larger than life image intact, the Indian voter has a history of eventually slicing through the rhetoric and propaganda machine. Indeed, what appeared as a done deal just months ago is no longer quite so guaranteed. The battle for 2019 has only just begun.

Post-script: A senior Congress leader in parliament insisted before a large group of journalists that Mr Modi would not be prime minister unless the BJP got 220 seats on its own in 2019. That the remarks were made within a earshot of several MPs from the BJP’s increasingly restive allies was interesting. Is 220 the new ‘272’ and can Mr Modi lead a genuine coalition government? Those are the questions that are still blowing in the February wind.

(a shorter version has first appeared in Hindustan Times)

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