Victory vs growth – the dilemma BJP has to solve in the run up to 2019

Here is the BJP’s current strength : 281 Lok Sabha MPs and 10 sitting Chief Ministers. Additionally, the party is an active contender for power in at least 3 large states I can think of (Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Karnataka) and a bunch of smaller states (Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh, Manipur, etc). In the last two and half years alone, it has established first time Chief Ministers in 3 states (Haryana, Maharashtra and Assam).

What is terrifying to other political parties in India is that despite it appearing to have reached its full potential thanks to the “Modi wave” of 2014 general elections, the BJP is still growing in strength. In states where it was present as junior partner, it has now started to become the main challenger. It happened in Bihar, and it appears to be happening in Odisha:

What? How? Local elections are supposed to be a cakewalk for the ruling party, especially with Navin babu being the face of Odisha. But the BJD has barely limped past the BJP in the Zila Parishad Polls. It is ridiculous to talk about a “Modi wave” in Odisha local polls. This is a success achieved on the ground by an RSS/BJP cadre that is ever hungry for success.

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On a side note, the elite media said that the poor were worst affected by demonetization. I guess the following result means that there is little poverty in Kalahandi district of Odisha:


Coming back to my main point, while such explosive growth may bring jubilation to a right-wing impatient to see a collapse of the Congress ecosystem (a decades old entrenched ecosystem that will take time and grit to destroy), it is not without “near term risks” in the 2019 General Elections.

Such amazing success actually comes with heavy downsides. For instance, Navin Patnaik would have been one of the first partners the BJP could have counted on if it fell short of 272 seats in 2019. That possibility becomes tougher now.

In fact, a result like this one opens the door for an alliance between BJD and the Congress. At the same time, the door for any pre-poll or post-poll arrangement between BJD and BJP is closing. For one, such an alliance would be unfair to the BJP’s own workers, who have toiled hard to build up some anti-incumbency against the near invincible Navin babu. The BJP leadership in Delhi doesn’t even have the moral right to nullify those hard won gains by aligning with the BJD.

The same pattern is repeating all across the country with the BJP’s growth threatening the vote base of every other party. Bihar was just a trailer, where arch rivals came together to form  a Mahagathbandhan against the BJP. Simultaneously, even though Nitish Kumar has softened his stance towards the BJP, there is simply not enough space for a renewed alliance with the JD(U). Why? Because the BJP already has 22 sitting MPs of its own in the 40 seats of Bihar, not to mention 6 MPs of the LJP (and another 3 MPs of Upendra Kushwaha). Where is the space to offer Nitish Kumar? And again, such an alliance would be unfair to BJP workers who have grown the party in Bihar all the way to a winning position. It is not for Modi and Shah to step in now, declare an alliance and block their way in the last mile.

There’s Maharashtra, where the Shiv Sena is only a heartbeat away from joining hands with the Congress. Because of the egoistic and irrational nature of the Shiv Sena top leadership, the Sena may have shunned an alliance this time with the MNS, chances are that defeat in the BMC polls will make them wiser before 2019. Why? Because the BJP is now the dominant party in Mumbai; it has laid claim to Chhatrapati Shivaji and is making a successful bid for the Sena’s Marathi voters. The BJP’s growth is leaving no option for its opponents but to gang up.

Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and soon Mumbai may be glimpses of what “post-Congress politics” would look like in the short term. Here’s the simple arithmetic : most elections are won by a margin of about 5% votes. At many places, the Congress has been reduced to a rump party, which still polls 5-10% votes. Ironically, this makes the Congress a very attractive alliance partner for regional parties.

Generally speaking, if the Congress begins to rent out its 5-10% votes in each state to a regional player, the alliance will prevail over the BJP. That is why Rahul Gandhi is much welcome as a junior intern to Akhilesh Yadav : Rahul’s party will never rise again in Uttar Pradesh and Akhilesh Yadav could definitely use the 5-10% legacy vote attached to the Congress. If the BJP wins a majority in Uttar Pradesh, things could arguably get even worse, since even a BSP+SP+Cong+RLD combine in 2019 cannot be ruled out.

Not to mention Karnataka, where the Congress could ally now with Deve Gowda’s JD-S so as to save itself from a certain defeat. And we still don’t know all the “impossible” things that could happen as the BJP keeps growing in West Bengal and Kerala.

My final remark is that while the whole opposition “ganging up”  might give the BJP supporters a sense of unfairness, it actually isn’t unfair. Modi and Shah have stated their aim to turn the BJP into a dominant political system like that of the Congress in the 50s and 60s : right from Panchayat to Parliament. It’s a daring play and they have thrown the gauntlet right before all other parties in the country. It would in fact be unfair to expect the opposition to just roll over and die.

A “world conquest” like attitude runs the risk of making way too many enemies way too soon. It remains to be seen if Modi and Shah have the strategic depth and patience to carefully coax the raucous world of Indian politics into a unipolar ecosystem headed by the BJP.

Abhishek Banerjee is a math lover who may or not be an Assistant Professor at IISc Bangalore.

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