City City Bang Bang, Columns

Maharashtra- The aftermath?

The loss of power in Maharashtra is certainly a blow to the BJP, not the least because of the manner in which it happened. Having first decided to sit it out after the decision of the Shiv Sena to break a decades-old alliance, it later doubled down on a desperate, losing gambit that backfired in several ways. For one, the means that it used were deeply questionable and took an already debased political discourse to an even lower level. And it diminished the aura of invincibility that surrounds the Modi-Shah combine. 

The Maharashtra debacle and the optics that surround it, is, however, not the real issue. What is of greater significance is a pattern of losses and near-wins that the party has been experiencing of late. Apart from losing MP, Rajasthan and Chhatisgarh, it eked out a narrow victory in Gujarat, found ways to buy support in Karnataka and Haryana, and won narrowly in Maharashtra, only to be undone by its alliance partner. In both Haryana and Maharashtra, it was expected to romp home comfortably, but even though it emerged as the single largest party in both states, the victory was far from convincing. After winning by such a handsome margin in the Central elections, its mediocre performance at the state level is puzzling.

What makes it even more perplexing is the fact that as far the Opposition goes, it continues to be as listless as ever. The Congress has, if anything sunk deeper into a depressive, passive state of gloom, from which there is no easy way out. It is locked in a death’s embrace with the Gandhis and is sinking into oblivion in slow motion. Its central leadership is missing and its local talent is crumbling. Regional parties too have nothing dramatically new to offer. The image of a drenched Sharad Pawar taking on the might of the BJP government might be a stirring visual sight, but neither the NCP, nor the Shiv Sena have anything of substantial value to offer to the electorate. The same is true for regional parties across the country. There was a time when their emergence signalled the energy of a new kind of caste or sub-regional aspiration, but currently, all they offer is a cynical politics devoid of any new ideas or imagination.

Which means the problems that the ruling party faces are of its own making. The most obvious issue that it faces is the long-term decline in economic growth. The latest GDP numbers merely certify what has been experienced on the ground for a long time now. What is striking about the slowdown this time is that is centred around the most vulnerable sections of the population. Agricultural distress combined with the disastrous demonetisation experiment, has hurt those that serve as the real economic engine for the economy. What is striking is the lack of resolve shown by the government in even attempting to address the issue. It is not as if no actions have been taken, but they seem to lack a longer-term vision and a coherent plan. More tellingly, the feeling that industry has picked up is that the economy is not the most important item on this government’s agenda. It counts its successes elsewhere. 

The other problem that the party is facing is the direct result of its own hunger to win, no matter what it takes. By ignoring the causal variables that is leading to its below-average performance, and trying to manage outcomes by luring politicians from rival parties after the elections, it is altering the nature of the party itself. The newcomers are attracted largely by the prospect of sharing in the spoils of power (and of avoiding prosecution) and take away a significant chunk of the rewards from traditional party loyalists. Also, the fact that all the apparently corrupt leaders who join its rank, instantly get converted into lily-white purveyors of the truth, is something that is damaging the party, making a mockery of its anti-corruption claims. By using brute force to convert defeats into victory, it is setting itself up for even bigger defeats in the fullness of time.

The other factor that emerges from the Maharashtra experience is the party’s difficulties with is allies. By all accounts, it should have foreseen the trouble it might have with the Shiv Sena post the election results. Its overconfidence in its relative and absolute strength post the elections created a situation which it could have easily avoided or managed. The fact that it saw its partner as a burden was obvious to anybody, and to, therefore, be surprised the way it has been certainly speaks to a management failure. 

Perhaps, in the long run, it could work out for the best for the party. It can now test the hypothesis that it has nurtured for a long time- that it would do better on its own, free of the pesky demands of its weaker partner. On the other hand, what it might unwittingly have unleashed is a counter-narrative with genuine mass appeal. The Uddhav Thackeray swearing-in ceremony was replete with Maratha symbolism; the coming together of two very local forces could produce a strong state vs centre axis which could be emotionally resonant.

The paradox that the party faces is this. It depends on the energy provided by its central leadership for the electoral momentum that they help generate, but the more centralised its mindset becomes, the less easily it connects at the state level. Also, the agenda that it is invested in, translates more easily into electoral reward at the central level, but is not as much a variable locally. 

Jharkhand, UP and Bihar will all test the party’s ability even further. If the economy continues on its downward journey, and if the party continues to believe that its cultural agenda is what gets it votes at the state level, the party may continue to get more bad news.

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