Going by the election trends on Tuesday evening, the Bharatiya Janata Party will not form government in any of the five states that went to polls last month. Three of them, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan, have often been labelled as bellwether states for the Lok Sabha elections which follow just months later. In 2013, all three voted BJP, a precursor to its massive election victory the following year. But it would be premature to make predictions based on these results, which were the consequence of varied and complex factors.
In Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh, BJP governments that had spent three terms in power were battling anti-incumbency. In Telangana, the Telangana Rashtra Samithi has captured regional sentiments ever since the state was formed in June 2014. In Mizoram, the BJP was expected to win only two seats and finally got one, opening its account in the state. But if there is one takeaway for the BJP in these elections, especially from states in the Hindi belt, it is that the party cannot rely on Hindutva to propel it to victory.
These were the elections where Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath replaced Prime Minister Narendra Modi as the BJP’s star campaigner. Adityanath, now established as the party’s Hindutva mascot, was shipped around Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Telangana and Rajasthan as he spewed venom against “biryani eaters” and so-called minority appeasement, promised to rename cities to erase their Islamic past, invoked Ram, Ram Mandir and Ram Rajya, a saffron-tinted utopia where “benefits would reach everyone without discrimination”. Given Adityanath’s complaints about Muslims cornering state resources, it may not be wrong to conclude that by “everyone” he meant the majority community. The limits of such rhetoric have now been exposed.
As Sanjay Kakade, a BJP member of Parliament, admitted on Tuesday, the party “forgot the issue of development that Modi took up in 2014”. Hindutva could appeal to the faithful, the constituencies baying for the Ram temple and moved by communal rhetoric, but it cannot draw in the diverse coalition of voters that the BJP cobbled together in 2014. “Vikas” or development, the party’s major campaign promise that year, subtly changed meaning across constituencies. To the urban middle classes, it meant the promise of jobs, greater affluence and “smart cities” modelled on those of the West. To vast rural constituencies, it meant social and economic mobility, built on participation in this project of development rather than welfare and subsidies, what Modi dismissed as the Congress’s “mai baap sarkar”.
Today, the BJP cannot afford to ignore the acute agrarian distress that afflicts state after state, prompting thousands of farmers to march on the capital, demanding redress. Across Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh, farmers spoke of low minimum support prices, rising input costs and losses that have built year on year. Some angrily recall Modi’s promise to double farm wages by 2022. The devastating effects of demonetisation are still playing out here, disrupting traditional cash economies - job losses, farmers suddenly left without money to buy seeds in planting season and loans drying up as local traders ran out of cash. Short-term fixes, such as the Bhavantar Bhugtan Yojana devised by the Madhya Pradesh government, have not worked either.
Going ahead, the BJP will need to think of substantive measures to address these problems. The party’s traditional response, when cornered, has been to double down on Hindutva and hope the electoral arithmetic of communal polarisation would deliver the requisite number of votes. These results should be a cautionary tale against doing so.