Mukul Ke­sa­van

The assem­bly elec­tions of 2018 will de­cide whether the BJP can achieve its goal of a Congress-mukt Bharat

India Today - - INSIDE - Mukul Ke­sa­van teaches his­tory at Jamia Mil­lia Is­lamia and writes a col­umn for the Tele­graph, Cal­cutta

THE POL­I­TICS OF 2018 will be about the elec­tions of 2019. This is true of ev­ery year that pre­cedes a gen­eral elec­tion, but since Messrs Modi & Shah live in cam­paign mode, it’s likely to be even more the case this year. Ev­ery cen­tral govern­ment pol­icy will be read for its elec­toral im­pli­ca­tions and each move in the cul­ture wars—cow vig­i­lan­tism, Ay­o­d­hya, love ji­had, ghar wa­pasi—will be seen as a bid to turn a de­mo­graphic ma­jor­ity of Hin­dus into a political bloc, to lay the elec­toral foun­da­tions of the Sangh Pari­var’s avowed goal, a Hindu Rash­tra.

The eight state assem­bly elec­tions sched­uled for the year will be im­por­tant in them­selves, but they will also be way-sta­tions to the big test of 2019. A great deal hinges on th­ese state elec­tions; not just gen­eral elec­tion mo­men­tum, but also the NDA’s ma­jor­ity in the Ra­jya Sabha, some­thing it lacked for the ma­jor­ity of its first term in of­fice.

Of the eight states up for elec­tions, if the BJP were to win Megha­laya, Mi­zo­ram and Kar­nataka and re­tain the states the NDA al­ready rules, it would bring its tally of states up to 22 and re­duce the Congress to two: Punjab and the tiny statelet, Puducherry. If this were to hap­pen (and it isn’t be­yond the realms of pos­si­bil­ity), Modi and

Shah’s goal of a Congress-mukt Bharat will have been achieved in­side the BJP’s first term in of­fice.

So the Congress’s im­proved per­for­mance in Gu­jarat and the ru­mours of Rahul Gandhi’s re­vi­tal­i­sa­tion not­with­stand­ing, 2018 is a year when the party faces an ex­is­ten­tial cri­sis in the most lit­eral sense of that word. Its claim to be a na­tional op­po­si­tion, al­ready thread­bare given its political ir­rel­e­vance in Bi­har and Ut­tar Pradesh, will be in tat­ters if it were to lose Kar­nataka, the only sub­stan­tial state it gov­erns in south In­dia. It could still claim an op­po­si­tional pres­ence in many states spread over the sub­con­ti­nent but, mi­nus Kar­nataka, the Congress will be­gin to look like a po­lit­i­cally or­phaned rump, doomed to wither away in the ab­sence of the lifeblood of of­fice. A na­tional party with­out ac­cess to lu­cra­tive of­fice in even a sin­gle large, rich state is po­lit­i­cally or­phaned be­cause it lacks rent-seek­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties to fill its elec­toral war chest. Given that the Congress has lost the enor­mous pa­tron­age that con­trol­ling the Cen­tre once gave it, the loss of Kar­nataka could be fa­tal.

So for any political prospect, the clash in Kar­nataka is the most im­por­tant elec­toral bat­tle of 2018. This is not to say that the elec­tions in Ch­hat­tis­garh, Mad­hya Pradesh and Ra­jasthan aren’t cru­cial to the Congress’s fu­ture in the Hindi-speak­ing prov­inces that de­ter­mine any pan-In­dian party’s political destiny. It is to ac­knowl­edge that, with­out Kar­nataka, the Congress will have nei­ther a bas­tion nor an arsenal.

Till the mid­dle of 2016, there was a broad con­sen­sus in the me­dia that the Kar­nataka govern­ment led by Sid­dara­ma­iah was weighed down by its in­dif­fer­ent record as the in­cum­bent rul­ing party. It’s worth re­mem­ber­ing that the BJP was in power be­fore Sid­dara­ma­iah led the Congress to a win over the BJP in 2013. One of the rea­sons the Congress won that elec­tion was that the BJP’s vote share was se­ri­ously re­duced by Yed­dyu­rappa’s de­fec­tion. Yed­dyu­rappa, piqued at be­ing re­moved from the chief min­is­ter­ship be­cause of se­ri­ous cor­rup­tion charges, re­tal­i­ated by form­ing a break­away party, the Kar­nataka Janata Pak­sha (KJP). The KJP won just half a dozen seats in the 2013 assem­bly elec­tions, but suc­ceeded in cap­tur­ing 10 per cent of the pop­u­lar vote that might oth­er­wise have gone the BJP’s way, re­duc­ing it to 40 seats in the assem­bly. Yed­dyu­rappa’s re­turn to the BJP fold should help the party im­prove its tally but the Congress looks bet­ter placed to ward off this chal­lenge than it did a year ago.

Some credit for this must go to the chief min­is­ter. Sid­dara­ma­iah, born into a sheep farm­ing Ku­ruba fam­ily, is a late­comer to Congress pol­i­tics and he has brought to the party a grass­roots en­ergy and an OBC fol­low­ing that it sorely missed when it was led by cos­mopoli­tans like S.M. Kr­ishna. The govern­ment has tended its ru­ral con­stituency with a large loan waiver in 2017 and its agri­cul­ture min­is­ter Kr­ishna Byre Gowda has ag­gres­sively pro­moted the cul­ti­va­tion of mil­lets like ragi and ba­jra in re­sponse to the drought and wa­ter cri­sis that has made paddy and sug­ar­cane farm­ing im­prac­ti­cal.

In­ter­est­ingly, Sid­dara­ma­iah has adapted the BJP’s use of flag, an­them and lan­guage to re­gional or sub-na­tion­al­ist ends. He has made the case for a state flag, cast him­self as a cham­pion of Kan­nada and its com­pul­sory use in ed­u­ca­tion and at­tacked the im­po­si­tion of


Hindi on the state by the cen­tral govern­ment by point­edly protest­ing the use of Hindi sig­nage in Ben­galuru Metro sta­tions. This, to­gether with the fact that Kar­nataka con­tin­ues to be amongst the top four re­cip­i­ents among In­dian states of for­eign di­rect in­vest­ment and the hub of the coun­try’s IT in­dus­try, should give the Congress a sport­ing chance of re­tain­ing of­fice in this vi­tal state. Early polling by me­dia or­gan­i­sa­tions like Vishwa Vani and Pub­lic TV not par­tic­u­larly in­vested in the Congress sug­gest that Sid­dara­ma­iah might eke out a bare ma­jor­ity.

The prob­lem with this sce­nario is that it doesn’t ac­count for the BJP’s force-mul­ti­plier: Naren­dra Modi. Sid­dara­ma­iah won the 2013 elec­tion against a BJP govern­ment prin­ci­pally as­so­ci­ated with Yed­dyu­rappa and cor­rup­tion. He will fight the 2018 elec­tion against a party that will cam­paign in the name of a hugely pop­u­lar prime min­is­ter with a unique mas­tery of in­cen­di­ary rhetoric and political theatre. The elec­tion will be a chal­lenge for Modi too, a test of his abil­ity to trans­late his charisma into votes in a south­ern state. He man­aged it once be­fore in the 2014 gen­eral elec­tion when the BJP won a ma­jor­ity of par­lia­men­tary seats from Kar­nataka. Given how high the stakes are, there is lit­tle doubt that he and his lieu­tenant, Amit Shah, will do ev­ery­thing they can to re­peat that suc­cess.

The main rea­son why the Kar­nataka elec­tion can’t be called with any con­fi­dence de­spite ev­ery­thing that the Congress has go­ing for it (in­clud­ing di­vi­sions in the state unit of the BJP) is that Modi is an un­pre­dictable wild card, the joker in the pack. Should both par­ties fall short of a ma­jor­ity leav­ing Deve Gowda’s Janata Dal (Sec­u­lar) hold­ing the bal­ance of power, few peo­ple would bet against Amit Shah’s abil­ity to nob­ble the king­maker.

The Gu­jarat elec­tion showed that the BJP has be­gun to lean ever more heav­ily on the prime min­is­ter’s charisma to coun­ter­act the di­min­ish­ing re­turns of in­cum­bency. There is grow­ing spec­u­la­tion and rumour that gen­eral elec­tions might be called as early as the end of this year to make sure that the state elec­tions in Ra­jasthan, Mad­hya Pradesh and Ch­hat­tis­garh sched­uled for that time are held con­cur­rently. The rea­son­ing is that the set­backs that Va­sund­hara Raje and Shivraj Chouhan might suf­fer as in­cum­bents in stand­alone state elec­tions might be off­set by the gen­eral elec­tion josh gen­er­ated by Modi. Ra­jasthan is a case in point. Un­der Va­sund­hara Raje, the state has been some­thing of a petri dish for right-wing eco­nomic pol­icy and Hindu vig­i­lan­tism. The Congress still has a moun­tain to climb; the last assem­bly elec­tion saw it re­duced to a piti­ful 21 seats in the Ra­jasthan assem­bly, but un­pop­u­lar school clo­sures, un­spent bud­gets for so­cial and com­mu­nity ser­vices and an im­pe­ri­ous and di­vi­sive chief min­is­ter have cre­ated a political op­por­tu­nity for the op­po­si­tion.

In a year where the BJP holds all the cards—or­gan­i­sa­tional strength, the fi­nan­cial re­sources that ac­crue from be­ing the rul­ing party at the Cen­tre and in a ma­jor­ity of states, the prime min­is­ter’s charis­matic abil­ity to make the political weather—the op­po­si­tion, par­tic­u­larly the Congress, will have to play a poor hand per­fectly to avoid ex­tinc­tion. Should it fail in this task, the BJP’s prospects in the next gen­eral elec­tion, al­ready bright, could be rad­i­cally boosted. At the risk of sound­ing alarmist, it’s worth spelling out the political im­pli­ca­tions of a good elec­toral year for the BJP.

If the BJP ends 2018 as the rul­ing party in 22 of In­dia’s 29 states, it would be close to a two-thirds ma­jor­ity in the Ra­jya Sabha. Should it then pro­ceed to sur­pass its 2014 per­for­mance in the gen­eral elec­tion sched­uled for 2019, it could be close to the spe­cial ma­jori­ties needed to amend the Con­sti­tu­tion, cer­tainly closer than any political ob­server could have an­tic­i­pated in 2014. It is very un­likely that the BJP will win a two-thirds ma­jor­ity in the Lok Sabha in 2019 but very un­likely is not the same as wildly im­plau­si­ble. It was very un­likely in 2014 that a party with five state gov­ern­ments would be the rul­ing party in 19 states in less than three-anda-half years, but it came to pass.

Both its sup­port­ers and its en­e­mies be­lieve that the BJP and its ide­o­log­i­cal par­ent, the RSS, are com­mit­ted to lit­er­ally re­con­sti­tut­ing In­dia. When Ananth Ku­mar Hegde, the BJP’s five-term MP from Kar­nataka, an­nounced that “we are here to change the Con­sti­tu­tion”, peo­ple paid at­ten­tion de­spite his party’s dis­claimers and his own apolo­gies. With the el­e­va­tion of Yogi Adityanath to the chief min­is­ter­ship of In­dia’s most pop­u­lous state, Naren­dra Modi served no­tice that the BJP’s political project was to main­stream the feral fringe, to make the un­think­able, nor­mal. There should be noth­ing star­tling about the no­tion that the BJP and its af­fil­i­ates might want to for­mally re­con­sti­tute the Repub­lic; the project of a Hindu Rash­tra vir­tu­ally re­quires it.

Start­ing in 1848, France be­gan to mark trans­for­ma­tive pe­ri­ods in its pol­i­tics by giv­ing each re­worked repub­lic, a new num­ber. So the French are cur­rently on to their Fifth. If the Congress and other op­po­si­tion par­ties don’t get their act to­gether this year, In­di­ans in 2019 might find them­selves within reach­ing dis­tance of a Sec­ond Repub­lic.


Illustration by NILANJAN DAS


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