Cover Story: Battlefield

2019: What Lies Ahead

PR Ramesh is Managing Editor of Open
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Modi and Shah expect to consolidate power in Delhi on the strength of the hinterland

LAST YEAR, A REPORT BY THE Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations, an entity that also studies agricultural competitiveness, showed that farm sector growth in BJP- ruled Madhya Pradesh had been so high that farm incomes had risen sharply from 2005-06 to 2014-15. This was mainly on the back of a 185-per cent leap in the state’s wheat production. Raju Sachde is among those whose expanding earnings have translated into a better school for his pre-teen children and a new motorbike. The ICRIER report, authored by agricultural economist and former chief of India’s Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices, Ashok Gulati, is not the only one that suggests that nothing short of an agricultural revolution has taken place in MP under Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan, one that has catapulted the state to become the country’s second biggest contributor to the Central granary (after Punjab), displacing Haryana. As key factors for this success, the ICRIER report refers to focused policy moves that cover the supply to farmers of irrigation, electricity, all-weather roads and easier mandi access, apart from a sound harvest procurement system based on Centrally-assured Minimum Support Prices (MSPs) plus special bonuses.

That report should lay to rest doubts on the farm situation in MP, especially the memes of the 2017 deaths in Mandsaur of protesting farmers that have been used by opposition parties like the Congress to paint a grim picture of poverty and portray the Chouhan government as anti-farmer and anti-poor. Today, the outcome of state polls are poised to show the people’s verdict on the hinterland boom in MP, now increasingly seen as a model for other states to replicate in order to revive a sector that began to stagnate under UPA rule.

Across BJP-ruled states, Mofussil India is also emerging as the primary beneficiary of a wide variety of policies put in place by the Narendra Modi Government, as the BJP expects to consolidate its power in Delhi on the strength of the country’s hinterland. Given their acquaintance with ground conditions across the land, Modi and his confidant Amit Shah have been particularly sensitive to the aspirations of those who have felt left out by the country’s development thrust, and most of their efforts have been aimed to the millions on the margins. If the BJP clinches wins in MP, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan, of which the party is confident, it would confirm the Modi-Shah approach as a workable template for the 2019 General Election. Their message: that rural Indians, aided by BJP policies, can emerge from the shadow of their urban cousins and finally come into their own seven decades after Independence.

Under Modi, the BJP has been on an aggressive mission to expand its reach well beyond its traditional urban middle- class vote base. Modi has won over large sections of the youth in semi-urban and rural areas by offering them a vision of modernity and prosperity that would not be out of place with the party’s Hindutva stance. Social scientists have noted the broad transformations that have come about as a result. In effect, the political economy of the post-Congress era has now yielded to what could be called the Modi era. According to a social scientist, “Under Modi, it is for the first time that the very vocal urban middle-class of India is feeling the heat on policy driven and targeted subsidies for essentials. For decades under Congress rule, they have been highly demanding beneficiaries— way beyond their electoral size or importance—of a sizeable chunk of subsidies. Significant portions of these, including for electricity, roads, transport, cooking gas, affordable housing, PDS rations, micro-business loans, farm sector inputs and so on, now accrue to voters of the hinterland. But middle-class voters are having to put up with this because they have little political option but to vote BJP.” Adds the social scientist, “Modi has tapped powerfully into the material, political, ideological, infrastructural and vision-wise yearnings of the youth in what the British once called ‘the boondocks’ and ‘mofussil’, by focusing policy and targeting subsidies at these sections. Subliminally, this has meant some heartburn, even disenchantment, among the thus-far-entitled sections of the urban and semi-urban middle class. But the dividends for the BJP as India’s political force majeure with no challengers... and for Modi’s personal popularity across the country have both been exponential.”

BJP has won over large sections of the youth in semi-urban areas by offering them a vision of modernity and prosperity that would not be out of place with the party's Hidutva stance

While the Prime Minister’s own popularity is one reason that the BJP might have an advantage in 2019, the support of rural voters is expected to seal the ballot in its favour. By government estimates, over 220 million people have benefited from various schemes, a figure that exceeds the 170 million votes that BJP secured in 2014. These beneficiaries are being monitored for their feedback as well as vote-swaying potential. This is part of a comprehensive programme that reaches out to every small town, district, tehsil, village, mohalla and kasba in state after state. Going alongside has been the rise within the BJP of leaders and Cabinet members drawn from beyond the metros and other cities, politicians who complement Modi’s own vision.

The schemes have rural housing, toilets, health support for the poor, as well as household electricity, cooking gas, smartphones, internet access, online transaction ease, and credit for small businesses, with the result that what was once dismissed as ‘mofussil’ is now increasingly modern. The electoral effects have been clear. The BJP and its allies are in power in 20 of India’s 29 states, effectively covering four-fifths of the country’s map. Of the six most populous states—Uttar Pradesh, MP, Maharashtra, West Bengal, Bihar and Tamil Nadu—the BJP rules four. In comparision, the Congress rules just Karnataka and Punjab among major states. Since 2014, the BJP has also expanded its footprint to the Northeast, besides making inroads elsewhere.

THE BJP’S POLITICAL supremacy hasn’t come easy. It was underpinned by precision planning, painstaking groundwork and well- shaped political strategies. Screened subsidy policies for the hinterland have meant that 12.5 million people now subscribe to the Atal Pension Yojana, 52 million have got Direct Benefit Transfers since 2014-15 and 12.5 million pucca houses have been built—with title deeds turned over—under the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana, by the Centre’s claim. There are 330 million beneficiaries of the Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojana. Plus, 136 million LED bulbs have been distributed, 58 million LPG connections released under the Ujjwala Yojana, and almost 5,500 schools covered by the Atal Tinkering Labs programme.

Swachh Bharat, aimed at raising hygiene levels and assuring women the dignity of a proper toilet instead of having to make do with open fields, has had a major impact. Almost 95 million toilets had been built by the end of 2017, and 533,000 villages declared free of open defecation. Over 31.5 million children have been vaccinated under Mission Indradhanush. And now the Pradhan Mantri Jan Arogya Yojana, billed as ‘Modicare’, is expected to transform health conditions across the country once it is rolled out.

While the Congress tries to revive its appeal among the poor, it is seen to have diluted its secularism with the temple runs and ‘Janeudhari’ status of Rahul Gandhi being played up by his party

As for other measures, since Modi’s ascent to power, some 14.6 million small loans were sanctioned under Pradhan Mantri Mudra Yojana at relatively low rates of interest to aid local entrepreneurship. The improverished farm sector, a source of routine news of farmer distress and suicides, has also got attention in the form of several schemes. By official figures, nearly 144 million have been covered by insurance under the Pradhan Mantri Fasal Bima Yojana and almost 140 million under the Suraksha Bima Yojana, while 169.4 million soil cards have been despatched.

“The state that will ring in the biggest dividends is Madhya Pradesh,” says an agri-economist. Procurement levels were low in the pre-Modi years, he says. In 2005-06, government purchases of wheat at grain mandis stood at 6.2 million tonnes; this shot up to 14.5 million tonnes in 2011- 12. Official statistics put the latest year’s figure at 21 million tonnes. Chouhan gave farmers a bonus of Rs 100 per quintal above the Centre’s MSP (set in 2007-08), hiking it to Rs 150 in 2012-13.

AN ADDED ADVANTAGE for the BJP is that the Congress remains weak in its opposition to it. Congress President Rahul Gandhi has persisted with the line that Modi’s policies aim to help only big corporate houses, but some of his own partymen appear wary of amplifying this theme. “More large companies are bankrupt today than ever before, more projects stranded than ever before, more banks have been restrained from lending than ever before,” former Finance Minister P Chidambaram recently said.

Having broken away from Nehruvian socialism in 1991, when it ushered in economic reforms, the Congress still seems uneasy about its ideological stance. While people’s aspirations rose sharply across the country, the party found itself at a loss to address these, with the result that it began losing its traditional vote banks of Dalits, STs, OBCs and other marginalised groups. Today, while the Congress tries to revive its appeal among the poor, it is also seen to have diluted its secularism, with Gandhi’s temple runs and ‘janeudhari’ status—together with his gotra lineage claims—being played up by his party. It is true that recent election patterns show a sharp decline in the influence of minority preferences on poll outcomes. Yet, this ‘soft Hindutva’ approach of the Congress, seen as ‘reactionary’ by critics, could prove tricky for the party.

The popularity of Narendra Modi is one reason that the BJP might have an advantage in 2019. But the party is also counting on the support of millions who have gained from its rural schemes

True, Modi’s BJP has been on a victory streak—in UP, notably—by keeping Muslim voters outside its ambit of appeal. However, the Prime Minister has appealed to Muslim women on the matter of Triple Talaq reforms, and also made efforts to woo Bohras, a Shia group of Muslims. On a trip to Indore in September to meet Syedna Muffadal Saifuddin, a Bohra leader, Modi described this small trader community as the ‘backbone of the nation’, a statement seen as a warm signal to Indian Muslims.

Modi’s efforts to win over more and more voters could be why the Congress has sharpened its attacks on him as an individual, with many a Congress leader making intemperate remarks against him along the campaign trail in poll-bound states.

The decline of the Congress has been so steep that it cannot do without alliances with regional parties to stay electorally relevant. While the party contested around 95 per cent of all assembly seats in the 1960s, this has dipped to 63 per cent in the state elections of the past two years. In 13 states, the Congress is not among the top two contenders for power.

Consider the BJP, in contrast. In the 1990s, it had only about 5 per cent of all MLAs in the country; today, the saffron party has more than 35 per cent (a number the Congress last saw in 1993), while the Congress has less than one-fifth. On current trends, analysts say the BJP is set to dominate the Rajya Sabha by 2024, which would enable it to push through key pieces of legislation.

Whether the Congress can rally opposition forces to stall outright BJP control of India’s governance remains a question. An effective anti-BJP coalition is not easy for it to forge, given the fragmentation of these forces. Few regional satraps are keen on a Congress-run government, while past experiences suggest that only a multi-state party can play the fulcrum of a stable national alliance; even the Janata Dal, which led a coalition at the Centre, was a multi-state party. Some states have direct BJP-versus-Congress clashes, such as Rajasthan and MP, but in many others, regional parties remain ranged against the Congress for state-level power— West Bengal, Odisha, Tamil Nadu and Bihar, among them. West Bengal Chief Minister and Trinamool chief Mamata Banerjee has stayed non-committal on an alliance with the Congress for 2019, and she is thought to favour a coalition of regional interests that leaves the Congress in the cold. Mayawati of the BSP has also kept her cards to herself on joining hands with the Congress, as seen in her refusal to ally with it for the just-concluded state polls. In recent UP bypolls, the SP and BSP have fought the BJP jointly, but without the Congress. In Bihar, the RJD is sure to up the ante vis-à-vis the Congress in 2019. While the Congress appears to have formed an alliance with the TDP in Telangana (after the latter quit the BJP- led NDA), how long such a partnership of convenience lasts is a question. More opportunist deals are in the offing as the next General Election nears, but it’s also clear that a long-term Congress revival hinges on eating into the support of regional parties that it tactically needs as allies for 2019. It also depends on fighting off BJP attempts to wean its classic vote banks, which will be an uphill task for the party.

On an alliance with the Congress for 2019, Mamata Banerjee has stayed non-committal. She is thought to favour an anti-BJP coalition that leaves Rahul Gandhi's party out

During the recent farmer protests in the capital, it was mainly Left leaders such as Sitaram Yechury and D Raja, along with lone rider Sharad Yadav, AAP’s Arvind Kejriwal and NC’s Farooq Abdullah who made their presence felt.

Moreover, barring West Bengal, Odisha and Telangana, regional parties seem to be weakening. In Haryana, the INLD has split. In Tamil Nadu, the AIADMK is floundering, and the DMK looks past its prime. In Uttar Pradesh, neither the SP nor BSP seem in a position to regain their glory days versus the BJP.

The BSP peaked in 2007, and backed by the Left, pulled out support to the UPA in 2009; but despite being projected as a prime ministerial candidate that year, the Lok Sabha tally of Mayawati’s party rose from just 19 to 20 seats. In 2014, the BSP drew a blank in the lower house as the BJP swept UP. Reduced to mere Jatav support, the BSP today faces a threat from the Bhim Army of Chandrashekhar Azad Ravan eyeing Dalit votes.

The SP’s Akhilesh Yadav has not been able to consolidate his power after he took the party’s reins from his father; having allied with the Congress for the 2017 state polls, he now wants a tie-up only with the BSP. But while Mayawati has a record of being able to transfer the votes of her supporters to an alliance partner at the hustings, it’s not clear if SP supporters will return the favour in case the two parties fight the 2019 General Election together.

THE RISE OF THE Modi-led BJP would not have been possible without a strategic grid laid down as a policy-based foundation aimed at meeting the aspirations of millions who felt left out of India’s development agenda. At the operational level, much credit goes to Shah, who has worked on the party machinery and galvanised party workers in accordance with a blueprint to make the BJP the juggernaut it is today. Starting from voting-booth levels, the BJP president has taken special care to recruit members, reaching out to universities and student groups, thus expanding the appeal of the party to vast new territories where the saffron surge of the 1990s had not reached. Shah also rid the party structure of deadwood so that it could forge ahead under Modi’s leadership.

Shah is well known for his micro- management of party affairs, but this differs from the top-down issuance of orders that marked the Congress high command culture for decades. The BJP president regularly interacts with party workers, helping them iron out local problems and discuss ideas.

Social media tools like WhatsApp have been widely used to create a culture that lets even local-level workers participate in deliberations. Not only do they get to meet their party chief, many workers are proud to be ‘followed’ on Twitter and other social media platforms by the Prime Minister himself.

As the General Election of 2019 approaches, Shah has engaged not only full-time volunteers to work with the campaign, but also 400,000 plus enthusiastic part-timers. These ‘vistaraks’ have been asked to fan out and organise local events to canvass support for the party. The ground-force has a well defined structure: there are shakti kendras that work with booth panels and panna pramukhs in charge of voter lists, all of them under the oversight of senior party leaders who have been designated to travel around and stay overnight in various villages for the purpose. This network also helps the BJP identify disgruntled leaders of rival parties who might be ready to switch over to the saffron camp.

Together, Modi and Shah have overseen an electoral and ideological outreach that exceeds any effort undertaken by a political party in recent memory. The partnership between the two, with the Prime Minister setting the policy pace and the BJP president working to convert it into electoral success, looks set to assure India’s ruling party a renewed mandate to govern India in 2019.