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India’s Latest By-Elections Deal Modi a Rare Blow

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The Pulse

India’s Latest By-Elections Deal Modi a Rare Blow

What do the by-election results in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar mean for the BJP’s chances in 2019?

India’s Latest By-Elections Deal Modi a Rare Blow
Credit: Flickr/ Narendra Modi

The by-poll results in Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state, and Bihar came as a huge setback to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which has been recently been winning election after election. In Uttar Pradesh, the BJP lost two of its seats in the Lok Sabha to the Samajwadi Party; in Bihar the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) held on to a Lok Sabha seat and a state assembly seat, with the BJP taking the other assembly seat.

The results can be called a true game changer, raising hopes among the opposition parties about the potential for a unified opposition to take on the powerful BJP. The results also reflect a growing disillusionment among the people over Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s BJP. The Modi government is besieged with several crises like agrarian distress, growing unemployment, and the inability of the party to manage its coalition partners.

Since Modi won the general elections in 2014 on the back of an unprecedented mandate, his party has won several state elections, even notching gains in unchartered territories where it previously had no presence. Recently, the BJP won the elections in the northeastern State of Tripura by unseating the left government, which had held power for over 25 years. The BJP, which had no presence in the state before the elections, astounded pundits when it came away with an absolute majority. Analysts attributed this success to Modi’s charismatic leadership and the party chief Amit Shah, who seemed to have the formula to win all elections.

The BJP, by cleverly allying with regional parties, had also formed governments in Nagaland and Manipur. Successive defeats in state elections, barring a few exceptions, had put the opposition parties into disarray, with little idea of how to stop the Modi juggernaut in the 2019 elections.

Against this backdrop, the reversal in recent by-elections has come as a major setback to the party, especially in Uttar Pradesh (UP), which had given an unprecedented mandate to the BJP both in the 2014 general elections (when the BJP won 71 out of 80 seats) and in the 2017 assembly elections (where it won 312 out of 403 assembly seats).

The UP results this time are not an aberration; the losses reflect a growing disillusionment over the BJP. Moreover, the result assumes special significance given that all parties which have won national majorities in the past have done so on the back of results in UP. It is said that the road to New Delhi passes through Lucknow, UP’s capital. Although no party can expect to win every election in a democratic set up, the BJP’s loss in the Gorakhpur parliamentary constituency was a particular shock. A BJP bastion for over 30 years. Gorakhpur is the seat of temple politics. The seat was recently vacated by Yogi Adityanath, after being anointed as the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh. Both Adityanath and his mentor have been winning elections for over 30 years.

The question now is whether the Modi magic is on the wane. It must be said that the Indian voters have matured over the years, and are more inclined to vote based on government performance. The recent results show that voters are now moving away from religious politics and voting for candidates on merit.

What, then, has gone wrong for Modi? The prime minister made tall promises in the run up to the 2014 elections, pledging to create millions of jobs for the youth, provide clean and transparent governance, and bring back billions of dollars stashed away by politicians, businessmen, and industrialists in foreign banks. Unfortunately, he has not been able to deliver on his promises. This coupled with demonetization, poor and hasty implementation of the Goods and Services Tax, growing agrarian distress, and unemployment growth has come to haunt the government.

The Indian economy, growing nearly at 7 percent per annum since 2014, won praise from leading international financial institutions. However, the optimism was short lived; Modi decided to demonetize all currency notes worth 1,000 and 500 Indian rupees in an effort to unearth black money. Sadly, the drive backfired, as many tax evaders — with the collusion of bank officials and other middlemen — managed to convert their black money into white. Although the Income Tax Department has a list of offenders, it will take years before they are brought to book.

Second, the hasty and poor implementation of the Goods and Services Tax (GST), though a laudable scheme, negatively affected small businesses. Both demonetization and the GST severely impacted India’s GDP growth, which came down from a healthy 7 percent to below 6 percent. Between this double blow, many small businesses closed down as their business models were based on daily cash transactions.

Modi has also failed to create the 10 million jobs a year that he had promised during the run up to 2014 elections. By October 2016, India had created just 1.5 million new jobs, against 12 million job seekers. According to the International Labor Organization, the number of jobless persons in India is likely to increase over the next two years with no change in the unemployment rate. Questions are increasingly being asked about Modi’s ability to fulfill his “10 million jobs a year” campaign pledge, especially when only one year is left before he faces re-election.

Agrarian distress is also a major source of concern for the Modi government. The rural population is unhappy with Modi, as the Gujarat elections in December 2017 showed. Modi, who had promised to double farmers’ income, has failed to do so. While he did take the initiative of introducing a crop insurance scheme, it has only provide partial relief to farmers because of the failure of monsoons. It is estimated that over 37,000 farmers have committed suicides, unable to service their debts.

Another major setback for Modi have been the recent bank fraud cases. One of the major public sector banks has lost over 110 billion Indian rupees ($1.7 billion) because of fraud. Modi’s opponents accuse him of allowing diamond czar Nirav Modi and his uncle to escape India, especially when the bank had alerted the Central Bureau of Intelligence of the fraud. Similarly, another industrialist, tipped off about a possible arrest, is now cooling his heels in the United Kingdom.

Although many of these scams began during the previous Congress government, Modi’s inability to bring the corrupt to book has led to people’s disenchantment, especially when he had previously boasted that he will come heavily on all corrupt businessmen.

Finally, the BJP has failed to instill confidence among India’s minorities and other socially deprived communities. The rising sectarian strife on account of cow vigilantism has created a sharp divide among religious groups. The cow vigilantism has led to the murders of many innocent persons; the deafening silence from Modi over these killings, and also his inability to act against a few of his ministers for openly supporting these groups, has not served his cause. The recent results in Bihar’s Araria district, a predominately Muslim constituency, are a case in point; Muslim voters largely voted for the opposition.

Modi should introspect on the losses in UP and Bihar’s by-polls, and should take steps to push for big ticket reforms that can address the issues above. He should understand that his success in future elections depends on his performance and his ability to fulfill the aspirations of millions of people. Rhetoric should now give way to execution.

It would not be fair to apportion all the blame for India’s current woes on Modi’s shoulders, as he has enacted several reforms that have made an impact on the lives of poor people. but if he fails to address the agrarian crisis, rising unemployment, and prevailing social tensions, it is unlikely that next year his party will get reclaim majority it won in 2014. This is not a good sign for India, especially when the fortunes of India’s major opposition party, the Congress, are on the wane.

K.S. Venkatachalam is an independent columnist and political commentator.