When PM Modi was here in London last month it looked to me that he was implicitly enacting the opening scenes of his general election campaign.
Nothing but portents of doom had been emerging in the Indian media – both from its gleeful opponents and mournful supporters – about the BJP’s prospects in 2019. What I saw as very many promising datapoints, not least the ground-level successes of most of Modi’s policies, were largely ignored or traduced by the Indian MSM. The unprecedented dominance of the BJP in the far north-east of the country passed uncommented on.
OK, I thought, Modi hasn’t begun to campaign yet. Wait until he does and we’ll begin to get a clearer picture through this gloomy miasma. We’ll see if the opinions and analyses of the secretly-delighted naysayers have any substance to them.
As Minhaz Merchant tweeted: “The Ayatollahs of (fake) secularism are back & everyone seems to be ganging up against Modi: the Church, Muslims, Dalits, activists, NGOs, the opposition, culture vultures, foreign media. Everyone except … voters.”
We have just had the Karnataka state election, and during the fortnight prior to voting, Modi did indeed go on a campaigning storm through the area, which must be seen as at least a rehearsal for his manner of presentation in next year’s big contest.
Now, the BJP is not traditionally big in the south
It has Andra Pradesh, but Karnataka, Telangana, Kerala, Tamil Nadu , Puducherry are all foreign to BJP dominance. The BJP is the party of the north, west and the Gangetic plain. Its founders were merchants exiled from Pakistan after partition, who had first formed the long-lamented Swatantra party (the nearest thing to classical Liberalism India ever had).
Its heartlands are Gujarat, Maharashtra and Madya Pradesh. But the BJP is now dominant – ruling alone or in coalition – also in the North and generally across India, except for the south and the Communist-Maoist strongholds in the east.
Congress clings on in a few places, including Punjab, where it is rewarded for its friendliness with fundamentalist Islamics.
According to the media prognoses, with as usual the honourable exception of India’s finest psephologist, the BJP was about to get knackered in Karnataka.
What actually happened turned everything around – even as it appears that Congress will manage to wrest the Chief Ministership by making a shaky alliance.
Some numbers: In 2013 the BJP was indeed hammered. Out of 224 seats Congress won 121, comfortably more than 50% of the vote. The Janata Dal (Secular) – an anti-Congress option – gained 40 seats, exactly the same number as the BJP. A few other parties shared the crumbs.
Last week Congress won 78, 43 fewer seats, while the BJP increased its total to 104, up by 64, or if you prefer, more than a 150% increase in vote. Thus we observe how Modi is truly hated in areas where the BJP previously did little business!
The JD(S) lost a couple of seats and slipped to 38.
The Aam Aadmi Party (Congress B-team) didn’t win a single seat.
Although the BJP didn’t achieve an overall majority of 112– short by eight seats – they were by far the largest party, and the Supreme court declared in support of his assertion on that basis that BS Yeddyurappa, the BJP candidate for Chief Minister, should form the new administration.
The only other party that could ally with Congress to oust the BJP would be the JD(S). That would not be received well by Janata Dal supporters because they had just voted against the ruling Congress Party, not the locally out-of-power BJP, but would end up with a Congress majority administration (even with HD Kumaraswamy as chief minister) just the same, courtesy of their treacherous JD(S) pols.
And yet, dear reader, it looks as if that’s just what is going to happen. Delicious – and I’ll tell you why.
What happened was that Congress petitioned the Supreme Court, which had given Yeddyurappa two weeks to form a majority coalition and establish a BJP-led administration. Congress petitioned the Supreme Court and somehow got the period reduced to only two days, which was an impossibly short time to cement any alliances.
Congress also basically kidnapped the new JD(S) MPs and is even now keeping them in purdah in hotel rooms while a deal with the Congress Party is stitched up. They don’t want any new MLAs taking fright and fleeing across the street to the BJP – a realistic fear.
Also, there is the matter of personal safety: on no account are the JD(S) MPs to venture onto public streets, to be possibly lynched by their angry voters! “You should also ask Rahul Gandhi why he has kept MLAs in hotels. They are still there,” joked BJP President Amit Shah.
Shah called the Congress manoeuvres a “betrayal” of the people’s mandate and questioned whether it would last. A fair point: Congress and the JD(S) have spectacularly fallen out before, and the Janata vote in Karnataka was clearly against Rahul Gandhi’s family party.
The question is what this might mean for the general election. The BJP almost always triumphs nowadays when there is a three-cornered fight, because the opposition will split, dividing the vote, almost always guaranteeing an NDA (National Democratic Alliance) victory.
Where opposition parties unite in a UPA (United Progressive Alliance) block, the BJP is vulnerable.
A senior BJP politician I talked to agreed in principal, but made the point that Modi and the BJP are both far more popular after four years in power and having achieved so much – which the voters approve and reward even if the media and the establishment refuses to acknowledge them.
He added that the popularity of Modi across India, even in the far north-east, and among minorities, is due to concrete progress and the withering of Congress propaganda in disinfecting sunlight.
Up from 40 seats to 104 in Karnataka is testament to this, especially in a traditionally non-BJP-voting southern state – but one in which Modi had indeed spent that whirlwind two weeks electioneering prior to the vote.
If the BJP vote improves on average by just one-third as well as it did in Karnataka – up by half on 2013, say – then it will not matter how united the UPA parties are: Modi will simply bulldoze them.