Modi and Amit Shah for the first time have something serious to worry about
The results of the by-polls, especially in Kairana, are a reminder that, against a united Opposition, the ally-short BJP will be severely tested in 2019.
- Total Shares
The results in a slew of 15 by-polls across India carry an ominous message for the BJP: the tide is turning. The message for the Opposition is equally clear: unite to win.
The defeat of its candidate in riot-torn Kairana to the Opposition-backed Rashtriya Lok Dal will be especially galling for the BJP. It had won the constituency comfortably in the 2014 Lok Sabha election. Two things have changed since. First, 2014 was a Modi wave election: the BJP swept 71 out of 80 parliamentary seats in Uttar Pradesh and, with its allies, won 73 in all. Four years later, the wave is over, replaced by fatigue and ennui.
Second, in 2014, the vote was split by multi-cornered fights, allowing the BJP to win big in Kairana and across UP. In the Kairana by-poll, the Opposition fought as one block. Can the Opposition translate the same unity to the 2019 Lok Sabha election? In states where multi-party contests earlier split votes, it obviously can. Where there are largely binary contests, it may not work.
For the BJP, the usual excuses will be trotted out for the by-poll defeats and "introspection" promised. The win over the Shiv Sena in Palghar in Maharashtra will be used to prove that it can defeat even an estranged regional ally. That though emphasises the BJP's biggest failing in its four-year tenure: allies.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP party president Amit Shah have erred badly, possibly fatally, in their treatment of allies. Instead of regular quarterly meetings with NDA partners, the BJP has taken them for granted. Telugu Desam Party's (TDP) Chandrababu Naidu was snubbed when he pressed his demand for special status for Andhra Pradesh. Multiple efforts to meet the prime minister failed. His phone calls went unanswered. In the end, when Modi did meet Naidu, the die was cast. The TDP's exit not only reduced the NDA's numbers in both the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha, it emboldened other NDA allies to voice their grievances.
Smaller allies such as Ram Vilas Paswan's Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) and the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) have been complaining quietly of neglect by the BJP. Communication over strategy, discussions about the economy and tactics for future elections have rarely taken place.
The problem with the Shiv Sena is of an entirely different order. Uddhav Thackeray, who like his late father Balasaheb Thackeray, has never fought an election in his life, is a prickly individual. Amit Shah has given him short shrift over the years. When Balasaheb Thackeray was alive, the late Pramod Mahajan made it a point to pay his respects at Matoshree, the patriarch's residence, every time he was in Mumbai. Shah and Modi have largely ignored Uddhav. Moreover, the Shiv Sena believes its Hindutva appeal in Maharashtra is being undercut by the BJP. It therefore attacks its larger ally on a daily basis but hesitates to walk out of either the NDA at the Centre or from the Devendra Fadnavis-led Maharashtra government.
As Union transport and shipping minister Nitin Gadkari recently said, the BJP-Shiv Sena partnership is like an unhappy marriage - the partners can neither live with nor without each other. In such cases though, as the BJP should know, divorce eventually follows.
Nitish Kumar's Janata Dal (United) is yet another ally which feels poorly done by. The JD(U)'s defeat to the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) in the Jokihat by-poll, however, leaves Nitish with few options. The RJD doesn't want him back and the BJP treats him like a regional leader past his best instead of what he is: a valuable ally.
Apart from Modi and Shah neglecting the BJP's relationship with its allies, the biggest cause of the party's waning popularity is the mismanagement of the finance ministry. The choice of Arun Jaitley as finance minister was always a poor one.
Jaitley has upset the middle-class (a strong BJP constituency) with his five mediocre union Budgets (including the interim Budget in July 2014). He has alienated traders (another powerful BJP constituency) with the unnecessarily complex rollout of GST. He has even managed to anger industrialists (who donate heavily to the BJP) with tax raids and intrusive tax laws that the Central Board of Direct Taxes (CBDT) has used to engage in what many have dubbed tax terrorism.
The mishandling of the fuel price rise is the latest proof of how disconnected the ministry of finance (MoF) bureaucracy under Jaitley is with ground realities. Reliance on the bureaucracy worked for Modi in Gujarat because in a state babus rarely defy orders. In Delhi, bureaucrats with old loyalties are often part of a corrupt ecosystem. They have delayed or upended many government proposals.
The malignant influence of the bureaucracy is equally visible in the recent order by the ministry of defence (MoD) to open cantonment access to civilians. This will make the families — women and children — of defence personnel vulnerable to terror attacks. Indeed, Modi's Pakistan policy has been inconsistent with Most Favoured Nation (MNS) status and Wagah border trade remaining unimpeded despite multiple Pakistan-sponsored terror attacks.
There's little doubt that Modi has led a corruption-free government and implemented innovative schemes on financial inclusion, banking reforms and rural electrification. But a truncated defence budget and poor spending on education and healthcare have been significant failures. The Nirbhaya fund remains unspent. A Lokpal is not yet in place after four years. And vacancies in the CIC have effectively hobbled the RTI.
None of these add up to maximum governance and minimum government. The results of the by-polls, especially in Kairana, are a reminder that, against a united Opposition, the ally-short BJP will be severely tested in 2019.
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