Assembly results a blessing in disguise for BJP ahead of Lok Sabha poll
At one level, the outcome of the Assembly polls should have held no surprises. After fifteen years of anti-incumbency, the loss in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh ought to have been anticipated. But the BJP became a victim of its own hype, creating an impression of invincibility. That would explain the over-the-top euphoria in the Congress. Probably, the party needs to exaggerate its immense good fortune in Madhya Pradesh, the centrepiece of the December 11 verdict, in its desperation, at long last, to be able to thrust the mantle of leadership on Rahul Gandhi.
Indeed, if anyone has emerged a greater leader in this election it is Shivraj Singh Chouhan. His performance is bound to elevate him higher in the BJP hierarchy while it would make him the foremost leader from any party in Madhya Pradesh. Polling more popular votes but falling short of the half-way mark in the Assembly by a couple of seats is a quirk of the electoral system we have all come to live with. Yet, Shivraj has nothing to fear from the paratrooper from Delhi who is set to replace him as chief minister. Time is on his side.
Chouhan’s loss despite his success in large measure in addressing rural distress, especially through the novel Bhavantar scheme, is not easily explained. The BJP won half the rural seats, though he had disbursed thousands of crores in difference between the market realization from the sale of farm produce and the minimum support price fixed by the government for each commodity. No other state had performed better than Madhya Pradesh in the agriculture sector in the last decade. Maybe actual performance matters less than other factors. Complacency also contributed to the BJP loss.
For sure, BJP would have done far better had it not given cause to its traditional constituencies to feel aggrieved. GST had angered the trading classes, notebandi had sucked out cash from the rural households, prices of petrol and diesel were ruling high all through the elections, hurting both the middle class and the tube-well owners in the farm sector. Paradoxically, lower food prices too meant unremunerative yields on farm produce. Putting one’s finger on a single factor for the voter behavior is always difficult , but had Modi devoted a little more time to Madhya Pradesh, the outcome would have been different. Shivraj and Raman Singh were left to spearhead the campaign on their own.
Both Modi and Shah, instead, devoted extra attention to Rajasthan. Vasundhara Raje, who was widely believed to be fighting an already lost battle, needed to be bailed out. Modi’s last-minute burst in Rajasthan helped make the contest much closer, with the party polling a mere half-a-percent fewer votes than the Congress. The feared wipe-out of the BJP did not materialize. Instead the voters denied the Congress a clear majority. Vasundhara survived a fright to give battle to the Congress yet again.
However, discounting the loss in three States, quite a few BJP leaders believe that it could prove a blessing in disguise. The party had become too arrogant, too Modi-Shah- centric, ignoring not only the ordinary workers but even veteran leaders. Less arrogance would be reflected in the revival of the consensual decision-making process which was the norm till the heady success in 2014, with the Modi-Shah duopoly marginalizing everybody else. The two became the party high command. With faith in the much-vaunted Amit Shah election machine diminished by the December 11th verdict, the BJP President is bound to come across less arrogant and more accessible and accommodative towards party members.
The warning from the voters could not have come at a more propitious time for the BJP. Ahead of the parliamentary poll due a few months from now, the leadership can begin to allow ordinary workers and mid-level leaders a sense of participation in the party affairs. It can address the simmering discontent in its traditional vote-banks of traders and upper castes, the latter unhappy at the reversal through an ordinance of the apex court decision prescribing minimum precautions before invoking the full fury of the SC-ST anti-atrocity law. At the same time, it can address the misgivings of the SCs-STs who were misled to believe that the impugned Supreme Court order was a conspiracy. In sum, the Assembly outcome gives an opportunity to the BJP for a course correction.
What steps will the government take to arrest the fall in farm incomes might prove crucial ahead of the parliamentary poll. Unremunerative prices for farm produce antagonize rural voters. This will have to be addressed on a war footing. A universal scheme to pay landowners a fixed sum per acre ahead of every crop season a la the Telangana government, seems to be a sensible solution until long-term farm sector woes can be resolved in a holistic manner. Knee-jerk solutions such as farm loan waivers merely buys time without tackling the real crisis.
Meanwhile, buoyed by the Assembly results, the protagonists of ‘Mahagathbandhan’ will renew efforts to try and field one opposition candidate against the BJP in most constituencies. The ruling party has to be prepared for a one-against-all challenge. However, the BJP is fortunate to have in Modi a leader whose connect with the ordinary voters is still strong. An overwhelming majority wants to see him continue as prime minister for a second successive term. This alone goes a long way in extinguishing the challenge a `Mahagathbandhan’ might pose to the BJP. A host of welfare schemes, virtually free housing, subsidized cooking gas to millions of rural households, village electrification, Mudra loans to self-employed small businesses, etc., cannot go unrewarded. The voters are not ungrateful, politicians often are.
For sure, the control of three Hindi heartland States gives the Congress a certain boost in its effort to woo the voters with populist goodies, and for raising funds for the party. But thanks to an ever growing awareness about the difference between a state and a parliamentary poll, ordinary voters can be expected to prefer Modi to any of his challengers, including an untested and inexperienced Rahul Gandhi. Besides, the lack of clarity on prime ministerial candidate will hobble any Mahagathbandhan whose sole objective is to oust Modi. Without an alternative programme, or ideology, the Rahul Congress cannot defeat Modi’s BJP by merely latching on to the tail of a cow.
**** **** **** ****
IL&FS, a gravy train for top bosses
The near-collapse of the Infrastructure Leasing and Financial Services, which triggered a crisis in the wider mutual fund sector, was man-made. Its top brass treated the company as a gravy train, helping itself to grossly obscene pay packages, living in the lap of luxury, travelling first-class and hiring offices and homes at highly inflated prices. Some one hundred and fifty cars, mostly BMWs, Mercedes, Audis, etc., were at its disposal. The swanky guest house in Delhi’s Sunder Nagar boasted of half-a-dozen luxury cars. Chauffeurs of top managers enjoyed pay packages of Rs twenty-five lakhs, that is, higher than what a secretary to GOI earns. Ironically, quite a few managers were former IAS officers. With Rs. 95,000 crores of public money at stake, it will be a miracle if even half of it can be recovered. But, rest assured, none in the top management will be penalized. They will all move on to the next gravy train.
**** **** **** ****
Hum sab chor hai
It did not surprise many that a businessman under investigation by a government agency had hired on rent Priyanka and Rahul Gandhi’s farm house. This is a standard practice when you are trying to buy influence. Long years ago, the house in a cooperative society in Gurgaon was rented out by the then President of India to a businessman, though it was hardly occupied. Why, in the same colony an editor had rented out his house to an airport concessionaire which ensured that no reports of wrongdoing against the tenant, --- and there was plenty of wrongdoing --- ever featured in the newspaper. Come to think of it, several years ago a former Union Cabinet Secretary took a huge sum in advance from a public sector bank against the future rent to be paid when the house was ready. Moral: why single out politicians? Hum Sab Chor Hain.