On December 11, liberals in India finally had reason to smile. The governing Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) electoral losses in state elections across India proved that stopping the juggernaut of the Hindu nationalist party, steered by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, is not impossible.
The BJP has been voted out of power in three northern Hindi-speaking states – Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, and Chhattisgarh – which elect 65 members to India’s 543-member Lower House of Parliament. The north, along with India’s west, is the most industrialised part of the country and holds the key to political power.
For many, these results have raised the prospects of Modi experiencing an upset in parliamentary polls which are due to take place in late April or early May 2019. For a very long time, most India observers assumed the upcoming national elections would be an easy win for Modi and his party.
In March 2017, after the BJP won more than three-fourths of the seats in India’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, former Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Omar Abdullah even said opposition parties “might as well forget 2019 and start planning/hoping for 2024”. However, much has changed since then.
The public has lost faith in the prime minister and his empty promises and so, the election that everyone once assumed to have already been decided now appears to be an open race.
Why the popular vote is important
The main opposition Congress Party has managed to form governments, albeit with slender majorities, in all three states the BJP lost control over earlier this month. However, the most significant aspect of these results was not the success of the opposition, but the significant erosion in the BJP’s share of the popular vote.
In India’s “first-past-the-post” electoral system, the number of legislative seats secured by each party may be paramount in determining the winners and losers of each election, but the changes in each party’s share of the popular vote still serve as a good indicator of larger scale shifts in electoral preferences.
In this month’s state elections, compared with the previous round in 2013, the BJP’s share of the popular vote has declined between four to eight percent in the three states it lost. The decline was even more significant – 14 to 17 percent – if we compare these latest results with the vote share the party had secured in these states in the 2014 parliamentary polls.
This is the first time such decline in BJP’s popularity has been seen across several states. Although the Congress party did not gain correspondingly, the trend over previous national elections following state polls in quick succession shows that such electoral shifts may increase in the interim.
Too early to beat the victory drum
However, there is also a converse argument. Some analysts are pointing out that the recent state elections were contested mostly on local issues, without major campaigning efforts from Modi. As a result, they argue that the BJP would do significantly better in the upcoming national vote, with the prime minister personally leading the campaign and telling people that their choice is between a decisive and charismatic leader like himself and an unknown person at the helm of an inherently unstable and non-ideological coalition.
This argument, popular among key Modi aides, is not without basis as even the most ardent supporters of the Congress party are not yet betting on it securing a majority on its own. At best, the party hopes to regain numerical respectability in Parliament and state legislatures, and enlist several regional parties as partners in a coalition.
Moreover, the Congress cannot even guarantee that a future coalition government would be headed by its president, Rahul Gandhi, because several opposition parties have already voiced reservations about such a scenario. This uncertainty about who would lead the government in the event of Modi’s defeat would likely be used by the current prime minister to try and fan the Indian public’s fear of uncertainty and instability.
Thus, while the results of last week’s state elections are indeed promising for India’s liberals and the religious minorities who have been the main targets of BJP’s majoritarian regime, it is still too early for them to beat the victory drum. Even if the BJP loses its majority in the upcoming national election, the coalition government that replaces it will still be facing the arduous task of transforming India back into a democratic republic that it was conceived to be almost 69 years ago when its constitution was adopted.
Divisive identity politics will shape the 2019 vote
Prior to the 2014 elections, Modi presented himself as an eternal optimist in a bid to secure the vote of more than 150 million first-time voters. During a speech at the Shri Ram College of Commerce in 2013, for example, he picked up a glass of water and said some would see it as half full, others half empty, but for him, it was “half water and half air”. This optimistic attitude coupled with ambitious promises about economic recovery undoubtedly helped him win the election, but after four years in power, this rhetoric is no longer working.
As demonstrated by last week’s state elections, the BJP has lost a lot of support across India since 2014, mostly because it failed to generate jobs for the youth and resolve the crisis in the agriculture sector that is causing unrest in rural India.
As an incumbent who failed to increase people’s income levels, Modi is now fully dependent on the politics of identity-based on demonisation of religious minorities to stay in power. He now needs to not only prevent the public’s disappointments from turning into anger, but he also needs to find a way to make people believe in him once again. To achieve this, he is likely to ratchet up his divisive, Hindu nationalist rhetoric and step up his attacks on the country’s minorities – he already embarked on this strategy when he helped rekindle the Babri mosque dispute.
So far, the Congress has responded to Modi’s nationalist, majoritarian appeal by consciously masking its belief in pluralism and not emphasising its support for minority rights on the campaign trail. To the dismay of most liberals, Rahul Gandhi has stepped up his visits to Hindu temples in the last year, in an apparent attempt to counter Modi’s subtle suggestions that the Congress president is not suitable to represent the interests of India’s Hindu majority.
In this context, it is hard to claim that the BJP losses in state elections would certainly translate into a national election loss. By focusing on appeasing the nationalistic feelings of the Hindu majority on the campaign trail, rather than emphasising its belief in India’s pluralist and democratic character, the Congress has agreed to fight the election on Modi’s identitarian terms. This would likely only encourage the prime minister to adopt an even more extreme Hindu-nationalist posture.
In the next four months, Modi will most certainly focus his efforts on trying to convince all voters to cast their votes not based on their personal economic and social grievances, but their communal identities. If the opposition does not take immediate action to move the discussion away from ultra-nationalism and towards the everyday grievances of all Indians, despite the disappointment the BJP experienced last week in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, and Chhattisgarh, Modi could still secure a second term in 2019.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.