Hindustan Times examines the political fortunes of the country’s top political leaders and what the verdict of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections means for them.
Narendra Modi, Prime Minister
It’s time to reload and deliver all over again
In early 2018, many members of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) were rattled. The party had just managed to scrape through the Gujarat assembly elections. It then lost a set of key bypolls in both Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan. The political climate was turning adverse and nervousness was palpable in the rank and file.
Some in the party went and spoke to Prime Minister Narendra Modi about it. Modi was, however, very confident. All he told them was to continue to focus on their work and stop worrying. “Janata ko vishwas hai, (people have faith in us),” he assured them.
A year-and-a-half later, it is precisely this faith in Narendra Modi that has helped the party to a spectacular general election victory for the second time in a row.
If 2014 combined a degree of anti-incumbency against the Congress and the appeal of Modi, 2019 was all about the PM.
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Not for the last four decades in Indian politics – Indira Gandhi is the closest example – has any leader commanded the national stage to such a degree, and evoked such faith among such a large section of the electorate. Across travels in the Hindi heartland, it was clear that the BJP itself, on the ground, faced several local challenges – poor candidates, adverse caste arithmetic, and anti-incumbency at the constituency level. But it was all overwhelmed because, as a party strategist put it, there was only one man fighting all the seats – Modi. The rest became irrelevant.
Modi’s election speeches combined a focus on vikas, or development, and national security with emphasis on honesty, a fierce attack on the opposition for being chaotic and lacking direction, and subtle Hindutva.
The messages hit home. And six kinds of Modi voters could be identified – those who felt there was no alternative; those who saw in him a strong Hindu leader; those who admired his strength in dealing with Pakistani terror; those who thought he was selfless; those who appreciated the government’s rural asset creation push; and those who reposed a very high degree of trust in him and would rather blame themselves for any setbacks in life (unemployment, stagnant farm incomes) than attribute it to structural policies of the Modi government.
Also read | Decoding the role Amit Shah played in PM Modi’s epic victory
When you win a national election almost solely in your name, when you succeed in converting a parliamentary election into a referendum on yourself, when you turn the rules of Indian politics upside down and beat a formidable alliance, when you lead your party into expanding to territories considered inhospitable, where does it leave you?
Modi has admitted that his problem sometimes is of overconfidence, but never a lack of it. Still, a mandate of this nature must leave even a man like Modi – who has been chief minister for 12 years and PM for five – with a sense of overwhelming responsibility.
The verdict means Modi will have to hunker down and focus on governance. From the economy to foreign policy, from improving administrative processes to establishing a more collaborative relationship with stakeholders across the political system, there is a lot to be done.
Modi must also help the BJP transition into becoming something more than just him. On the ground, it was clear that the party – despite its organisational strength – was often hollow, reduced to its core vote, with little appeal to swing voters.
The PM’s image may have helped the party win, but in this success may lie seeds of a possible future failure if the party does not keep up with the changing aspirations of a modern India, especially when it does not have a personality cult on which to bank.
The 2014-2019 era could be seen as marking Modi’s initiation into national politics and governance.
This time, he has all that a leader could aspire for – the overwhelming faith of citizens, a long administrative stint at the state but also at the central level, complete autonomy in decision making because of the political weight he carries, and a mandate to improve the lives of all Indian citizens. He has no excuse.
It is time for Modi 2.0.
Amit Shah, BJP chief
Shah proves mettle as BJP’s master strategist
If Narendra Modi was the brand – make no mistake, it was truly his election – Shah was the manager who took it to every household in the country and built a party machine that could convert it into votes.
In 2014, Shah managed only Uttar Pradesh and delivered the state to Modi. That made the difference between the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) being the single largest party in the Lok Sabha and having a majority. Since then, he has delivered successes (UP in 2017 being the most notable), but also failed (in Delhi and Bihar in 2015, and MP, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh in 2018). This was his first national election as the party president, and he has delivered.
There is, by now, an Amit Shah school of election management. This has involved enrolling millions of new members in the party; keeping them engaged through constant political activity, special outreach programmes and dividing them into booth committees; beginning the campaign early on by identifying social groups and target voters; setting ambitious targets; working in close coordination with the government to reach out to beneficiaries of schemes who could be tapped across caste lines as possible voters when the party is the incumbent; picking candidates after checks through multiple feedback channels; deploying enormous financial resources in the final few weeks of the campaign, especially in seats considered vulnerable; coordinating closely with the Sangh Parivar; striking alliances with smaller formations if they are adding crucial, even if minor, support groups; projecting an air of the inevitability of victory to win over swing voters through a ground offensive; and micromanaging each seat carefully.
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His structure aided the Modi brand and kept the BJP’s losses to a minimum in UP; expanded the party in Bengal and Odisha; and replicated its success in the states where the party was in a direct face-off with the Congress.
What does all this mean for Shah?
The first is that while he had been the second most powerful person in the party for a while now, this formally cements his position as a clear Number 2, and even as a possible successor to Modi. The second is that Shah himself won his first Lok Sabha election this time around, making the transition to mass politics. He is sure to get a top cabinet position unless Modi would like him to continue leading the party. The third is that Shah has a clear ideological agenda and makes no attempts to obfuscate it, be it the Citizenship Amendment Bill or removal of Article 35-A and, possibly, Article 370 that confer some privileges on Jammu and Kashmir. Expect him to push for a major legislative agenda in the next parliament.
Be ready for a stronger presence of Amit Shah in political and public life in the next five years.
Akhilesh Yadav, SP chief and Mayawati, BSP chief
Coalition fails to outshine BJP; time to decide if it is viable to stick together
The most formidable challenge to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was supposed to have come from the combined might of Akhilesh Yadav and Mayawati in Uttar Pradesh. Most watchers of UP politics were convinced that when the blue of Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and red of Samajwadi Party (SP) came together, they would outshine the BJP’s saffron.
That did not happen in these general elections. Saffron prevailed, and how.
Struggling to recover from a series of setbacks – winning only five seats in Uttar Pradesh in the 2014 general elections; losses in the 2017 assembly polls in which the SP briefly allied with the Congress – Yadav tried to position himself as an autonomous chief minister who was focused on development. He also chose to consolidate the Yadav vote and focus on backward communities by collaborating with Mayawati and Jayant Chaudhary of the Rashtriya Lok Dal.
Also read | ‘Looking forward to working with PM’: Arvind Kejriwal
Bypoll wins in Gorakhpur, Phulpur and Kairana – where candidates belonged to the Nishad, Kurmi and Muslim communities respectively – gave Yadav hope that he now had a winning formula that could be replicated during the 2019 general elections. This strategy had him and the SP playing second fiddle to Mayawati, which Yadav’s father, Mulayam Singh, did not approve of, but the son was now calling the shots.
Similarly, Mayawati had suffered three consecutive electoral defeats. She needed to supplement her core voter base of Jatavs. To that end, in the 2017 assembly elections, she focussed on Muslim voters and gave close to 100 tickets to Muslim candidates. She also quietly supported SP candidates in Gorakhpur and Phulpur. Even though Mayawati’s core base broadly stayed with her, giving her a healthy vote share, it was not enough to win seats in a first-past-the-post system.
Under the circumstances, Akhilesh, with his willingness to accord Mayawati the status of a senior partner, seemed like a beneficial alliance. She entered the pact with the SP on one condition: Keep the Congress out. Mayawati was apprehensive the national party would piggyback on regional forces to snatch Dalit votes.
On paper, the SP-BSP alliance looked strong, but it failed to halt the saffron juggernaut. Yadav and Mayawati relied mostly on their core social support base – Yadavs, Muslims and Jatavs – but it faced another social coalition in these general elections. Aside from banking on Narendra Modi’s image and government schemes, the BJP’s had its own alliance of upper castes, non-Yadav OBCs, and non-Jatav Dalits. The BJP’s coalition outnumbered the SP-BSP alliance in a range of seats.
Now, Yadav and Mayawati will have to analyse the voting patterns within their support bases and the findings are likely to decide whether the parties stay together or part ways.
Where does that leave the two leaders?
Yadav will face criticism from within SP – and his father’s camp – for having conceded too many seats to BSP in these elections. He will also have to see whether the Muslim-Yadav coalition of the party is intact or if younger, upwardly mobile Yadavs are moving away from the SP.
Yadav’s age is in his favour as is the goodwill he has retained among voters, many of whom maintain he made a better chief minister than the current incumbent Adityanath. This should give him some wiggling room as the party prepares for 2022 assembly polls.
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The biggest setback is for Mayawati, who has now faced her fourth consecutive electoral defeat.
Till May 22, she was harbouring ambitions of becoming Prime Minister, but the Lok Sabha elections suggest she is struggling to remain relevant. Her tactic of relying entirely on caste arithmetic has backfired. Critics say her style of politics is feudal; that she is inaccessible to most of her own party workers; and operates primarily out of Delhi or Lucknow. It is foolish to write any obituary in Indian politics, but Mayawati will need to reinvent herself to stay relevant in the future.
Rahul Gandhi, Congress president
His place in Cong will be unchallenged but it is time to face tough questions
Congress president Rahul Gandhi had only one goal in the 2019 elections: stop Narendra Modi from coming to power. In both private conversations and his recent public interviews, Gandhi continued to reiterate, with full conviction, that Modi would not come back.
If that is the yardstick he had set for himself, there can only be one conclusion : Rahul Gandhi has failed politically in 2019.
Over the past year-and-a-half, especially since the Gujarat elections, a new Rahul Gandhi emerged in the public sphere. He was more confident. He was willing to reach out and engage with the media. He appeared more focused and committed to acting like the leader of India’s biggest opposition party. He identified issues and sought to build awareness around them. Yet, despite an improvement in his party’s tally, it was not enough.
And in that perhaps lie lessons for the future.Gandhi’s first big handicap was his inability to evoke the faith of citizens in his leadership abilities. On the ground, it was clear that the Congress leader was not so much an object of mockery – as he was often in 2014 – as someone who attracted indifference, a fatal sign for a politician.
Many voters just did not consider him Prime Ministerial enough, felt he was just a beneficiary of the family name, had no administrative experience, and felt that even if his diagnosis of India’s problems was correct, he did not have the roadmap and skills to put things right.
If leadership was one issue, the second was narrative. Gandhi focused on two big themes in his speeches. The first was Rafale, alleging wrongdoing by the Prime Minister himself in the deal for the purchase of the French-made jet fighters . This may have been his way of trying to dismantle Modi’s image. But the issue had no traction on the ground. The technicalities of the deal were too complex and abstract for general voters.
Few believed Modi himself was corrupt or had made money on the deal. And with the Balakot strikes, there was even lesser resonance of the issue because Modi had successfully converted national security and strengthening defence forces as a campaign plank and appropriated the chowkidar (watchman, guard of national security) tag.
The other issue was Nyay. This was a possible gamechanger. Who would not vote for a party that promises Rs 72,000 annually to India’s poorest citizens?
But here, the Congress faced both a crisis of communication and credibility. The promise was made too late, the party apparatus was unable to communicate it on the ground, mixed statements from the party leadership about the timeline of the scheme and how it would be funded only added to the confusion.
The BJP managed to link the promise to what it sold as the Congress’ poor track record in tackling poverty.
Gandhi also was not able to communicate the advantages of a wide coalition to citizens. Some state-specific alliances indeed helped the Congress win more seats, but it also conveyed to the electorate a sense that the alternative to Modi would be a weak alliance, with no clear leader, and multiple contradictions.
In other pockets, where an alliance could have actually altered equations, particularly UP and Delhi, Gandhi was unable to reach agreements with potential allies.
And finally, the inability of the Congress to mount a stirring challenge in states where it is in a direct contest with the BJP would be the most worrying feature for the party.
In 2014, this could be explained away as a one-off event. But it is quite remarkable that where BJP is in power – Gujarat, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand – it is able to use power to make electoral gains, while where Congress is in power – Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan – anti-incumbency has set in so quickly that it actually pays an electoral price. Gandhi and state leaders must think deeply about this.
All of this has meant that Gandhi today confronts the biggest political challenge of his career. By virtue of being who he is, Gandhi’s position in the Congress will be unchallenged. But how does he plan to establish himself – or anyone else in the party – as a serious, credible challenger to Modi?
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Is it time to step aside and project someone else as the PM contender eventually? How does he plan to draw up an agenda that resonates with the aspirations of India’s voters, particularly the younger voters? How does he plan to reconcile the twin tasks of seeking alliances to halt the BJP march with rebuilding his own party?
How does he plan to take on a party which is cadre-based, better resourced, and more disciplined with his own mass-based, fairly disorganised outfit, which will now have even lesser resources? How does he plan to keep his own voters and supporters motivated in the face of a result of this nature?
Rahul Gandhi will have to answer some of the toughest questions of his political life if he wants the Congress to be back in the game in 2024, by which time it would have been out of power for a decade.
Mamata Banerjee, West Bengal chief minister
BJP inroads pose immediate threat
If there is anyone who is a street fighter in Indian politics, it is Mamata Banerjee. Having confronted a popular and often brutal Left Front machinery in West Bengal for most of her political life, in this election she had to face an adversary – the combine of Narendra Modi and Amit Shah – which was as adept at being the opposition as she was in her past avatar.
Banerjee’s grip over West Bengal had, in less than a decade, become as firm as that of the Left at its peak. She relied on her popularity, intimate knowledge of the state, sub-regional pride, and this has to be said categorically, her own coercive, and often violent, party machine.
But it was not enough. In a democracy filled with contradictions, there is always space for opposition. In Bengal, this opposition space had been almost entirely vacated by the Left and Congress. And if any party knows how to be a challenger in territories which have been inhospitable to it in the past, it is the new Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Ever since 2014, when it got a little over 16% of the vote share in the state, Shah was clear that the party needed to penetrate the east. The assembly elections of 2016 were a setback, but over the past two years, the BJP successfully positioned itself as the principal opposition force in the state.
The ground for it was laid by Banerjee, who came across to a substantial segment of the Hindu electorate of the state as inordinately in favour of Muslims. This was ideal for the BJP, which knows how to construct a narrative of Hindu victimhood because of what it sees as distorted secular politics.
When it became clear to anti-Trinamool voters that if any party could challenge her, it was the BJP, they began shifting. A left academic from Siliguri said, “I do not like the BJP’s saffron politics but in Bengal, it is today the party of resistance.”
Where does this leave Banerjee? She is now clearly vulnerable. Politically, she faces a stiff test ahead in the 2021 assembly polls. From throwing herself in the race to become PM to barely holding on to her own home turf, it has been a sudden and steep decline for Banerjee in 2019. If she wants to win in 2021, she will need to muster all the energy she had while taking on the Left. She will also have to recognise that the politics of appeasement brings in a counter-reaction, and the politics of coercion has its limits.
Nitish Kumar, Bihar chief minister
Leader with the instinct of a political survivor
In the middle of the Bihar campaign, a video went viral. Narendra Modi was in Darbhanga speaking at a rally. He ended his speech with the chant of “Bharat Mata ki Jai”. All the leaders on the dais joined him.
Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, however, looked on, waiting for the cry to end, before he got up to shake Modi’s hand.
The moment captured the distinct political traditions the two leaders come from. Kumar does not have a problem with the chant of “Bharat Mata ki Jai”, but he comes from a political culture where the chant has been “Jai Hind”.
Also read | PM Modi drops chowkidar prefix on Twitter, urges all to do same
It also exemplified the fact that, although the two leaders had come together, there was still some distance.
But with the Bihar results, Kumar – much criticised for his decision to dump Lalu Prasad even though they won a mandate together in 2015 and switch to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the middle of 2017 – has shown that he has the instinct of a political survivor. For a party with a limited social base, and despite leading what was seen as the weakest of the three big formations in Bihar – BJP, Rashtriya Janata Dal and his own Janata Dal (United) – Kumar knows how to be on the winning side.
Travels in Bihar showed the overwhelming popularity of Narendra Modi. The nationalism discourse had percolated to the remotest villages. Candidates of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) were disliked in some place, but people still voted for Modi.
And the NDA’s social coalition here was even wider than the one in UP. There was complete upper-caste consolidation; there was the presence of Extremely Backward Classes who have traditionally been loyal to Nitish but are now increasingly under the Modi spell; and a large segment of Dalits.
This coalition has delivered a sweep in Bihar. And it has happened despite what appeared to be clear signs of anti-incumbency against the Nitish Kumar government in the state.
Now what for the CM? With his remarkable performance, the JD(U) leader will emphasise his status as the face of the NDA in Bihar, and continue to claim the status of an equal partner. But the BJP’s ambitions have also grown in the state, and it will be tempted to strike a deal in the assembly elections of 2020 where it is considered the senior partner.
This will be a delicate process of negotiation. But after having tasted success together, one can expect that the two will stay together.
The “Single Man”, title of journalist Sankarshan Thakur’s biography of Nitish Kumar, has survived yet again.
Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, Congress general secretary
Relevance to new-age voters a necessity
When the Congress announced that Priyanka Gandhi Vadra would be the party’s general secretary in charge of east UP, there was a euphoric reaction from the party’s supporters. This was the moment they had waited for; many believed she would deliver the element of charisma missing from the Congress’s campaign till then. Observers, too. saw it as a possible game-changer.
Exactly four months later, it has to be said that Priyanka Gandhi’s entry into the political sphere made little difference to the Congress’s fortunes either nationally, or in her state of Uttar Pradesh.
In fact, in the latter, it may just have helped the BJP partly since the Congress has, in some seats, clearly cut off the anti-BJP vote which could have potentially gone to the grand alliance of Samajwadi Party(SP)-Bhaujan Samaj Party(BSP).
To be sure, both Rahul and Priyanka said repeatedly that their aim was rebuilding the party for the 2022 assembly polls. For a party that has barely any organisational apparatus left in UP, a weak state leadership, and no core social base, to expect any leader to deliver a miracle in four months would be unfair.
But to declare that you are actually preparing for an election three years away, in the middle of a crucial battle, is giving the game away. Why would voters then take you seriously?
The Congress leadership compounded this with another mistake, when it said that besides seats where their candidates had a strong chance, they had put up candidates to split the votes of the BJP in UP.
Once again, this was an admission of failure. If voters know that all the party hopes to do in a particular seat is play the role of a “vote cutter”, their motivation to vote for it inevitably dips.
Priyanka Gandhi did enthuse the party cadres in UP. She is a more spontaneous speaker than her brother. And the party could well think of 2022 as a target.
But it is time to understand that a famous surname is no longer sufficient in India’s electoral landscape. There is a new generation of voters – or a few generations of voters now – who have no memory of either Indira Gandhi or Rajiv Gandhi’s rule. Banking on the past will no longer be enough.
For Priyanka Gandhi, along with her brother, the challenge will now be to make themselves relevant to India’s new age voter.
May 24, 2019 07:11 IST
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