The results of four Lok Sabha and ten Assembly bye polls spread across the country give the opposition reasons to feel buoyant about capturing power in the next General Election but in effect the pathway to that goal is beset with the legacy of history of ‘United Front’ experiments, interplay of regional and national parties and perceptions of the people about how various regimes at the Centre performed since the emergence of coalition governments. The loss of Kairana and Noorpur seats of UP for BJP that yielded them to RLD and SP respectively and the victory of RJD over JD(U) in Jokihar in Bihar bring to the fore the reality of caste and region based politics of North India, the results elsewhere are explained more as the outcome of what essentially were the local factors in play.
Notwithstanding the bye election results that surely would compel the Modi regime to fine tune its work and projections in the run up to the 2019 general election, particularly in the rural sector, the big picture is that the voters will be influenced then by three questions: Were the principal reasons that brought Narendra Modi to power in 2014 still holding out? Was there scope for a discreet differentiation being made by the people between caste and regional loyalty in a local election on one hand and concerns for having a stable national government in a General Election, on the other? Had anti-incumbancy reached a point where the voter would be in the mood of ousting the present dispensation regardless of what the alternative could be? Judging from the present course of events and readings for the future all these considerations would work favourably for the ruling party in the next year’s polls.
The 2014 Parliamentary election brought BJP with Narendra Modi as the prospective prime minister into power because the common Indian was looking for a leader whose personal integrity was not in doubt and who was known to be strong handed in matters of governance. In the four years of BJP regime prime minister Modi has retained his spotless image for personal integrity, earned laurels for safeguarding national security and impressed all thinking Indians with his success in establishing India as a major power in the eyes of the world. In a national election this will keep the voters - other than those inextricably bonded to their caste-based party, favourably inclined towards Modi's leadership. The last assembly elections in UP and Gujarat where Narendra Modi was the face of the BJP proved the point. This was also to an extent the case in Karnataka where BJP came very close to winning a majority but could not form the government.
A development of significance, first noticed in the Gujarat Assembly election, is the successful revival of caste sentiment by the opposition in the electoral narrative, to supplement the gains of a determined campaign to project Modi government as being against the minorities. The issues of cow slaughter, vigilantism against the so called ‘love Jehad’ and veneration of symbols of nationalism like saluting the national flag or singing Vande Mataram, have been used by the opposition to spread the propaganda that minorities were not feeling safe in this country. The bye elections have confirmed that apart from the total opposition of the BJP government from the Muslim minority, a resurgent caste politics has got into the poll calculus again to challenge the ruling party. The call for unity amongst the regional parties against the leadership of Modi, anchored by the Congress, had succeeded in the bye polls primarily because the caste based parties, often wearing the cloak of a regional custodian, were desperate about their political survival against the ‘one nation’ protagonist that Modi government had become with its non- sectarian call of ‘sabka saath sabka vikaas’.
A historical recall of the role of caste based parties in India can provide indicators for the next general election. After many years of monopoly of Congress as the mainstream party at the national level when it broadly commanded the allegiance of upper castes, dalits and minorities, politicisation of the middle castes or backwards was spearheaded by the Lohiaites on the slogan of anti- Congressism. It claimed the socialist legacy but was essentially a caste- based mobilization, which also hijacked the slogan of Secularism to draw the support of Muslim minority at the cost of the Congress. Mandal Commission expanded the political hold of these caste based entities weakening the grip of the Congress to a point where it could only prop up an unstable mix of these parties in 1996 to ensure that BJP as the single largest party was not able to form the government. In the scene that prevailed then, Congress as the major player was in a position to pull the rug from under the feet of the short lived United Front governments of Deve Gowda and Gujaral.
The unity of the caste based regional parties and the Congress this time around is again on an anti-Modi plank but the people can see that an alternative United Front of the future will be far more fragile because of the reduced hold of the Congress and the expected fight on the sharing of the spoils.
As regards anti incumbency the appeal of prime minister Modi and the image of integrity, if not of performance in all cases, of his council of ministers remains intact. The campaign of the opposition is centred on rhetoric about ‘intolerance’, protection of minorities and non- delivery of promises. The excessive play of the Muslim issue might generate a silent backlash that could benefit the BJP. Stray law & order incidents involving individual fanatics have to be blamed on the state governments and not on the prime minister who clearly comes off as a leader who did not support the offenders of this type. Even if in UP and Bihar the BJP is not able to keep up to its last performance it will on the whole make up for it nationally because there is no marked anti-incumbency so far as the performance of prime minister Modi was concerned. And in a general election that is what people like to rest their evaluation on. There would be a keenly contested election to Lok Sabha next year but the BJP with the help of some smaller allies can hope to retain an advantage.
(The writer is a former director of Intelligence Bureau)