Amit Shah’s stress about backlash for BJP’s Karnataka moves is showing

BJP President Amit Shah is deeply worried about the backlash that the BJP is facing in the wake of its desperate but doomed efforts to form a government in Karnataka

Photo courtesy: PTI
Photo courtesy: PTI

Valay Singhrai

It’s been a week since Karnataka’s fractured verdict came out. But, the BJP President Amit Shah is continuously trying to convince the public about two things: that it was an anti-Congress mandate, and that there was nothing wrong in their attempts to form a government without having enough MLAs.

In his latest press conference Amit Shah drew many uncomfortable questions about BJP’s botched attempt to form a government in Karnataka. Perhaps unexpectedly for Shah, he was also asked several questions about how BJP had formed governments in Goa and Manipur. In return, Shah targeted the Congress once again for cobbling up a coalition with JD(S). It is obvious that Shah is deeply worried about the backlash that the BJP is facing in the wake of its desperate but doomed efforts to form a government in Karnataka.

The pressure on the BJP president to portray Karnataka verdict as their triumph is massive as his carefully planned script to win 150 seats has gone completely awry.

But, the BJP has to blame its arrogance as much as it blames the ‘unholy alliance’ of JD(S) and Congress. “We have Amit Shah”, BJP’s Ram Madhav had said with a big grin on the day (May 15) votes were being counted for recently held Karnataka elections. He was responding to a question about how they will reach the majority figure of 112. Even before the counting of votes was over one of the most powerful persons in the BJP had appeared to give in to hubris.

A week later the grin has vanished from the faces of BJP spokespersons and leaders such as Ram Madhav and Prakash Javdekar. But, the pompousity and contempt for opposition parties and their respective leaders remains undiminished.

Speaking at a press conference in Delhi on Monday, the BJP president Amit Shah took potshots at Congress-JD(S) alliance. Giving away the BJP’s growing unease at the consolidation of opposition unity, he summarily dismissed this unity and declared that in 2019, the BJP will win even more seats than the 2014 election (282). Days earlier speaking at the concluding session of a ‘conclave’ organised by a leading (or shall we say misleading) Hindi channel, he dismissed Rahul Gandhi’s charges that the Modi regime had legitimised the ‘purchasing of MLAs’ and had overseen the ‘murder of democracy’. Shah’s response to these attacks was that he doesn’t take Rahul Gandhi seriously.

Mocking Congress for evolving a new theory in which defeats like the one in Gujarat and the latest one in Karnataka, are celebrated as victories, Shah smugly assured that like in the past four years, the BJP will continue to win elections- anti-incumbency in states like Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh notwithstanding.

To BJP’s credit it has been in power in MP and Chattisgarh for three terms now owing to several factors, including factionalism in the Congress in these two central Indian states.

But, the BJP’s continuous and bullish emphasis on consecutive successes in state elections in Assam, Maharashtra, Haryana, Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh, Tripura and Uttar Pradesh attempts to hide a common enabling factor: Anti-incumbency and the desire for change.

In Maharashtra, it was the Congress- NCP coalition that was in power before being voted out 2014. In Haryana too, the BJP government came to power after routing Congress’s Bhupender Hooda government. In both these states, it helped in no small measure that elections were held soon after the Modi-BJP wave swept the Lok Sabha polls in May 2014.

In Uttar Pradesh, BJP returned to power after an exile of 15 years on the back of people’s massive desire for change from SP and BSP. Religious polarisation unseen since the demolition of Babri Masjid in 1992 too aided the saffron party’s sweep of the state.

In Assam, the BJP was able to oust the anti-incumbency laden 15-year reign of Congress’s Tarun Gogoi only after it poached a disgruntled section of state Congress led by former strongman Hemanta Biswas Sarma.

In Tripura, a tiny and geographically isolated north-eastern state, the Left government had been in power since the last two decades. Here too, the BJP could win a majority after en masse defection by state Congress leaders.

In Uttarakhand, the BJP decimated the Congress, which had been in power since 2012, in fact like the other states that the BJP has won between 2014 and 2017, Uttarakhand doesn’t vote in the same party for consecutive terms. Himachal Pradesh, which the BJP won in November 2017, has a long history of voting in a new government every election.

Gujarat is the only exception where BJP has been voted back to power for a fourth term in 2017. In the state considered the citadel of RSS and the BJP, it was perhaps only because of the rabid communalisation of polls that the BJP could scrape over the majority figure of 92 by just 7 seats.

BJP’s straight victories in these six anti-incumbency ridden Congress-ruled states was also helped a great deal by the Congres-led UPA’s own national anti-incumbency. The pan-India discontent against the Congress in particular ensured that the party lost whatever fighting chances it had at winning in state elections in the wake of May 2014. A weakened Congress also made it easier for leaders like Hemanta Sarma (Assam) and Rao Inderjit Singh (Haryana) to embrace BJP and bolster its chances.

Besides its victories in these anti-incumbency ridden Congress states, the BJP has also been able to form coalition governments in states like J&K (with unnatural ally PDP), Jharkhand and Andhra Pradesh. In AP, the BJP could win just 4 seats in an assembly of 175. It essentially rode on the Telagu Desam Party’s success. Now this alliance is in tatters and the two parties have turned into adversaries ahead of 2019.

In north-eastern states like Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Manipur, Nagaland and Meghalaya, the BJP deployed its money power to engineer large-scale defections to form governments. In any case, regional parties in these states prefer to stay on the right side of the central government.

Anti-incumbency an Achilles’s Heel

Thus far, the BJP’s strategy of rebranding (with help from pliant media houses) its victories in state elections as solely Modi-led triumphs has been very successful. It has helped Shah-Modi duo in creating a myth in which not an ounce of credit is given either to the voting patterns of respective states or to anti-incumbency. It’s no surprise then that most Indians as well as media houses continue to be in thrall of Modi and his ability to win elections.

The Karnataka result calls for a review of this thralldom. That the BJP-Modi ‘wave’ could not produce a clear majority is a reflection of not just BJP’s ‘restricted acceptance’ in the southern state. The swift coming together of opposition parties and the Congress on a common platform is a sign that the media-supported illusion of BJP’s insuperability is now breaking faster than ever before. Moreover, anti-incumbency is the achilles’s heel of most governments, and BJP and Modi are no exception.

With elections due in three major north-Indian states where the BJP has been in power for 5 years(Rajasthan) and 15 years (MP and Chhattisgarh), the Modi-effect will face its strictest trial. The enduring and cascading effects of demonetisation continue to plague small-traders and are causing much strife across the Hindi belt. Alienation of a large cross-section of Dalits, Tribals and Muslims because of its pro-rich and pro-upper-caste Hindu image is another factor that will play a big role in the coming elections. Rising fuel prices and inflation are an added burden that BJP’s state governments will have to carry with them.

Rajasthan’s incumbent BJP government for instance is facing statewide resentment for its various anti-farmer policies. Voter confidence in Madhya Pradesh’s 15-year old BJP regime is at its lowest. In Chattisgarh, BJP’s Chief Minister Raman Singh, has so far been able to retain the state with tacit support from a near-invisible local Congress leadership. This time, with Congress’s Rahul Gandhi overseeing pre-poll preparations in the state, Singh is likely to face a stiff challenge.

Let’s not forget that it was anti-incumbency, as well as Modi’s attraction as a pro-development and decisive ‘Hindu heartthrob’ that fuelled BJP’s winning streak.

Congress too should remember that if it fails to convert BJP governments’ anti-incumbency into victories in the upcoming state elections it will have no excuse to justify its loss.

This article was updated at 2.04 pm on May 23, 2018 to change the headline

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Published: 23 May 2018, 7:46 AM