One of the worst moments for India as a nation was May 13, 2004. It was a day that put the brakes on India, possibly for a generation or more. It is not just that Vajpayee was voted out and UPA was voted in. The chilling effect of May 13, 2004 lasts even today. Without that day, India would already have been a $5 trillion economy.
So what are the things that Modi did in his first term that was different from what Vajpayee did? Fundamentally, there were two things. The first was making the rhetoric around “gareebi” the centrepiece of his communication. The more the Congress cried “suit boot ki sarkar,” the more ridiculous they looked. After 7 years in government and all the incumbency it has gathered, it is the one jibe from the opposition that cuts no ice anywhere. Who is anti-poor? Modi? You must be joking.
The second thing that Modi did was nurture the BJP’s state units. During the Vajpayee years, the NDA had become an expert at losing state elections. Often, they didn’t even seem to mind. The BJP deployed all their power at the Center. The party shrivelled in state after state. I think at one point during Vajpayee’s rule, Congress was ruling 15 states.
The BJP of today is far away from that historic low in states. As of now, the BJP has 10 Chief Ministers and the Congress only 3. But this could change easily. Next year, the BJP could well be down at least 3 CMs, in Goa, in Uttarakhand and in Himachal and these posts could go straight to the Congress. The following year, things don’t look too good in Karnataka.
The next big chance for BJP to actually snatch a state from Congress is all the way in December 2023, when there are elections in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh.
Some of this is because of the incumbency cycle in several states. During UPA 1, the BJP did reasonably well in state elections and the Congress went through a bad patch. During UPA 2, all the way until Dec 2013, Congress did quite well in states. All this was when the anger against the central govt was palpable.
The changing CMs of BJP
But some of this is not. The BJP has changed 4 CMs in the last few months, 5 if you count Uttarakhand twice. The only state where the change made the party look good was Assam. But elsewhere, it is a sorry sight. The latest is Gujarat.
To their credit, the BJP made all these transitions very smooth. In Uttarakhand, both times, neither the sitting CM nor the party workers said a word against the party in public. In Karnataka as well, the handover was super smooth. And the current equation between Basavaraj Bommai & BS Yediyurappa seems genuinely cordial.
This is from just yesterday.
Of course, the BJP took care of caste equations. In Karnataka, they have a Lingayat CM, making sure that the BJP’s core voters don’t feel slighted. In Gujarat, they now have a Patidar Patel as CM, neutralizing any appeal that Hardik might have left.
Even so, changing all these CMs so quickly is not a good look for the BJP. It shows that the party perceives real anti-incumbency and need for change. In a weird way, you could say it is an extension of the Modi formula in Gujarat. One of the key components then was to drop a number of sitting MLAs to destroy local anti-incumbency. Now that Modi is PM, perhaps the idea is to drop a number of Chief Ministers?
The Congress is bickering in the open. Take Rajasthan or Punjab or Chhattisgarh. But there is no doubt that the BJP is bickering too, although internally. You tell me which is better or worse.
I must make 3 key observations here.
First, I have broken one of my own rules by doing a headcount of BJP CMs and Congress CMs. Because the headcount doesn’t matter. What matters is the strength of the party in any particular state. Because that is what will count in the long run. Sometimes, you might lose a CM post but gain in strength. The two best examples would be Maharashtra in 2019 and Karnataka in 2018.
A JDS redux?
Right now, Fadnavis is not CM, but one day he will be. And that day, BJP will have its own majority in Maharashtra, something no party has managed since 1991. By coming together, MVA has created the political space for single-party rule by BJP in the state. Similarly, in Karnataka, the JDS made a huge mistake by taking the CM post in 2018. Their party is now finished, and BJP has entered all their old strongholds in the Old Mysore region.
During Modi’s first term, I remember when BJP supporters used to show the map of India with saffron spreading across state after state. I always refused to take that seriously. See how quickly that map has changed. What matters is which states are Congress Mukt.
Second, it does appear now that Yogi Adityanath enjoys the clear confidence of Modi. They haven’t changed him. They have openly announced that he will be the CM face in the upcoming elections and they expect him to win. Considering that BJP cannot afford to take any chances in Uttar Pradesh, if there was trouble, they would have replaced him for sure.
Third point. I believe the next BJP CM who will be changed is Biplab Deb in Tripura. Let’s see if this comes true.