Assembly Elections 2018: Why BJP’s Temple Politics Isn’t Going to Win Them 2019

Politics

Assembly Elections 2018: Why BJP’s Temple Politics Isn’t Going to Win Them 2019

Illustration: Akshita Monga

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ive Indian states are declaring their results for assembly elections today – Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Telangana, and Mizoram. The first two are among the largest states in India, part of the “Hindi belt”.

Two of those states marked a thumping win for the Congress – Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh have voted out their incumbent BJP governments – while Madhya Pradesh is turning out to be an electoral cliffhanger. In Telangana, the local Telangana Rashtra Samithi has vroomed away with the honours while the Mizo National Front has ousted the Congress in Mizoram. But what is going to dominate news cycles is the fact that Congress has wrested two (maybe three?) states in the Hindi belt from the BJP, even if it has lost one in the Northeast.

This is a big loss for the BJP, no matter how many times BJP leaders scream “anti-incumbency” and that the “semi final” of state elections does not affect the final results of the Lok Sabha elections in 2019.

What does this all really tell us? Simply, that Modinomics has failed to win hearts and minds where it really matters – at the ballot box.

Remember, Modi had promised to generate two crore jobs a year in the run-up to the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, twinned with the promise of development and galloping economic growth. The “Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas” slogan signalled a new narrative in Indian politics. Thanks to this vision, the Modi juggernaut captured the Centre and nearly every major state north of the Vindhyas over the next two years.

The “Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas” slogan signalled a new narrative in Indian politics.

With the BJP firmly ensconced at the Centre – with a brute majority, at that – and a large number of states, it was easy to believe that the government would deliver reforms that would usher in higher economic growth and jobs for the burgeoning numbers of youth graduating from schools and colleges.

If wishes were horses, pigs would fly.

And so it has turned out for the Modi government, too. GDP growth might be commendable according to the new formulae applied by the government, but is not even close to double digits. Delivery of public services such as health, education, and power continue to be abysmal, with Direct Benefit Transfer being the sole bright spot. The central government – far from pushing any radical economic reforms despite its majority – has regressed to the welfare state model that the Congress was accused of. So now we have the state bankrolling (again) farm loan waivers, free housing for all, free toilets under the Swachcha Bharat Abhiyan. While some of these are laudable, they are coupled with an impossibly high burden on petrol and diesel by way of excise.

In fact, farm loan waivers are a direct – and knee-jerk – response to farmer distress and protests in various parts of the country, from its political capital in Delhi to its commercial one in Mumbai. A belated revised MSP scheme has failed to assuage farmer anger, which stems from high input costs and unremunerative pricing at mandis – mandis which are eventually controlled by bania traders, who are traditionally BJP supporters. You do the math.   

Worst of all, the promise of jobs seems to have all but faded from the government’s mind. This R Nagaraj analysis in Mint newspaper makes it clear that the government’s claims of job creation are suspicious at best. Worse, as the government has tussled over their own data and nomenclature – drawing a difference between “job creation” and “employment generation” – the figures have actually fallen for them. According to a report in The Wire, “A Reserve Bank of India-backed research report stated that during the first two years of the Modi administration, employment in 27 sectors fell by 0.2% and 0.1% respectively. This happened even though GDP growth was at a decent 7.4% and 8.2% in 2014-15 and 2015-16 respectively. This resulted in a loss of nearly 10 lakh jobs, according to the research. Other independent estimates of job losses and employment rates, such as by the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE), also have not painted a flattering picture.”

The central government – far from pushing any radical economic reforms despite its majority – has regressed to the welfare state model that the Congress was accused of.

Might it be too late in the day for the central government to fix the problem?

And so we have it that in the absence of jobs, we have a brutal outpouring of cow vigilantism and calls for building the Ram temple in Ayodhya. Bands of roving goons have taken it upon themselves to punish, sometimes fatally, anyone they suspect of killing or smuggling cattle. This is clearly the BJP’s Plan B: When the government loses its way on the economy and job creation, it returns to its roots as a Hindutva party via cow and temple.

However, nothing will hurt this government more than this. As these state assembly elections have shown, the BJP would do well to recognise that neither cow vigilantism nor temple construction is a desirable nor a viable replacement for real jobs in the real economy. Following the assembly polls results, BJP Rajya Sabha MP Sanjay Kakade admitted as much, saying, “I think it’s because we forgot the issue of development that Prime Minister Narendra Modi took up in 2014, and turned our focus to statues, name-changing and the Ram temple.”

The electorate voted Modi in for his promise of development and corruption-free governance. They bought his “maximum governance, minimum government” and “na khaoonga na khaane doonga” promises. Four and half years down the line, these promises seem like a joke, as life goes on for ordinary folk, as it was under the Congress, with no visible change in either governance or corruption at the local level.

They bought his “maximum governance, minimum government” and “na khaoonga na khaane doonga” promises.

Of course, it is true that India is a large country where change can only be very slowly incremental. But the lack of any visible reduction in corruption – neither at the local level nor in the flight of scamsters Vijay Mallya, Nirav Modi, and Mehul Choksi, that took place under Modi’s watch – have only fuelled electoral anger.

As the Lok Sabha elections loom in the coming months, jobs and corruption could spell bad news for the BJP and its allies, as India’s once touted demographic dividend increasingly looks like a ticking time bomb. This, coupled with the growing breakdown of our law-and-order machinery, could scare investors away. The BJP will need an economic miracle to stanch the loss of public confidence – but first, it will need to pull back the communal rabble-rousers within its own parivaar.

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