Whatever the final position of various parties turns out to be, it is evident that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has suffered severe body blows in the three Hindi heartland states it rules with substantial majorities – Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. It is too far behind in Chhattisgarh and will most likely not form the next government. The trends as of noon on the counting day show the Congress in the lead in the other two states as well, although these races are quite tight. Rajasthan would likely see a Congress government, though with a smaller majority than it expected. If at all the BJP wins Madhya Pradesh, it would do so by the proverbial skin of its teeth. That should come as no surprise (except to diehard BJP supporters) as all opinion surveys and most exit polls had predicted this outcome.
It would be tempting to attribute this result to the anti-incumbency factor said to be prevalent in these states, perhaps twice over, because the BJP rules the Centre as well. Analysts may also cite the case of Mizoram, where the governing Congress is staring at a major loss to the Mizo National Front.
That would be lazy thinking. The Telangana Rashtra Samiti (TRS) will retain power in what appears to be a landslide, not anticipated even by its most optimistic champions. And not to forget, both Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh had not displayed any aversion to their ruling dispensations in the two previous elections. We need a better understanding of how elections are won or lost.
There are two ways of managing a contest, including elections. The first is to show the best side of the contesting entity, what good it has done or is capable of and promising to do. The other is to count the faults of the opponent, by implication claiming oneself to be the less bad one. History not just in India but the world over provides us numerous examples of the positive approach being rewarded with success and hardly anywhere the fear of the other has an overwhelming appeal. This is because there could be consensus on what constitutes good – prosperity, stability, peace and a comforting sense of well-being. But the negatives are somewhat relative: A scion succeeding the parent is not always considered a bad thing because that is the natural order of things. Similarly, in a country mired in influence peddling, corruption is a fact of life and bothersome only if affects the voter’s immediate existence.
In 2014, candidate Narendra Modi made a rousing appeal to aspirations of a nation of the young. He knocked the socks off a completely unprepared and dispirited Opposition, routing it as never before. Four years and a bit later, Prime Minister Modi recounts the mistakes of the past and dangers of dynastic hegemony. The new, “improved” Rahul Gandhi, 48, may have become adept at name-calling, but he is nowhere near being a transformational leader Barack Obama the candidate in 2008, then 47, was. The battle turned into a personal slanging match between the leaders of the two main contending parties. Family, kinsfolk, and even provenance were not spared. This spectacle of politicians seeking ever lower depths is of a piece with what Donald Trump has practised as a candidate as well as American president in office.
What does this portend for the future? The blows to the BJP may be severe, but they are not mortal. The immediate past shows that the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah election juggernaut rolls on regardless of setbacks and manages outlandish victories.
The real question is whether it will draw the right lessons from the results at the end of 2018 for next year’s general elections and return to aspirational politics. Given the cacophony of voices surrounding the BJP leadership, chances are that the campaign will be even more strident in 2019 appealing to the fear factor. That may pay off, but at what cost to the nation?