On the 20th of January 1989, just 10 months before India was to face a general election, more than three lakh farmers had gathered in the city of Nagpur under the aegis of Shetkari Sanghatana led by Sharad Joshi. On the dais were three of the tallest opposition leaders of India then – Atal Behari Vajpayee, Vishwanatah Pratap Singh and Chandrashekhar. Each one of them went on to become the Prime Minister of India over the next decade.
That Nagpur rally of farmers symbolized the advent of Bharat over India. Rajiv Gandhi, the then darling of the Delhi establishment, was being challenged from the center of Bharat by three of the top opposition leaders and the masses at the same time. In that farmer rally, while Vajpayee eloquently argued about farmers being denied remunerative prices, V.P. Singh in his inimitable style thundered about the central government looting 12000 Crores every year from the farmers.
The fire that was lit by the farmers in the western state of Maharashtra engulfed all of India in the next 10 months. Contrary to popular belief that it was the Bofors scandal that led to Rajiv Gandhi’s fall, it was actually the widespread rural despair and the massive drought of 1988-89 that ultimately led to the collapse of the Nehru-Gandhi power structure. So much so that history is witness to the fact that no Gandhi has been able to hold any meaningful office in India since 1989.
In many ways, the Modi mandate of 2014 rivalled that of Rajiv in 1984. It is just that BJP’s sheer lack of political infrastructure in parts of Southern and Eastern India led to a more north-western skew in the Modi mandate of 2014. Since then, Amit Bhai Shah and sections of the RSS have relentlessly worked towards expanding the saffron scope in key geographies of the southern and eastern India. Their efforts may well bear fruits in 2019 as BJP has a fighting chance in parts of the North-East, Odisha, West Bengal and Kerala, while Tamil Nadu offers an interesting scenario of hope for the NDA as the state is potentially ready to shed its Dravidian cloak for the first time in many decades in the post-Jaya, post-Karuna political milieu.
In the northern hemisphere, the three powerful state governments led by the three very popular Chief Ministers, Yogi Adityanath, Nitish Kumar and Shivraj Singh Chauhan (possibly in that order) may well ensure a repeat of 2014 in 2019. It is therefore the western zone – alarmingly, the home zone of the Prime Minister – that is currently the most vulnerable political geography for Modi. In the 2014 elections, BJP and NDA not only secured more than 50% votes in each of these four western states but also won a whopping 93 of 101 MP seats that are part of this territory. The scale and depth of the NaMO juggernaut is perhaps best symbolized by the fact that NDA managed to take a lead in 69% of the polling booths that went to polls in the western region in 2014. Such a brute one-sided contest has rarely been witnessed in the polling booths of India since the Indira Gandhi era when Congress controlled the entire election machinery.
Yet, since that Modi peak of 2014, most of the socio-political churning is being witnessed in this western hemisphere of India. From the unexpected Bhima-Koregaon riots and the Una Dalit unrest to the Patel reservation agitation and the Karni-Sena-Rajput shenanigans, the western zone resembles a political warzone with a million battles raging all the time. A very recent and possibly a clear example of this western divergence is the box office business of the Sanjay Leela Bansali blockbuster, Padmavat which has managed to earn a whopping 265 Crore nett despite the absence of the entire markets of Gujarat and Rajasthan. In the Hindi film distribution business, both Gujarat and Rajasthan are very important markets due to deep-rooted film going culture among the populace coupled with a large presence of movie theatres and a much higher ticket price index compared to other north Indian Hindi speaking states. In recent memory, no Hindi movie has been such a big box office draw without Gujarat and Rajasthan actively participating and thereby lies the divergence.
One year before India goes to elections, the western Indian mass markets are showing significant divergence both in political reactions as well as socio-economic choices and these are worrying signals for Narendra Modi who it must be stressed had won 93 of the 101 MP seats of this geography to become the Prime Minister of India. Let us try and analyse the five signals that are emerging out of western India in order to make sense of 2019.
The Demographic Conundrum: Currently, the biggest threat to the Modi coalition of USHV – United Spectrum of Hindu Votes – comes from the powerful middle castes. Today, nowhere else in India are the powerful middle castes more agitated than in the western hemisphere. Marathas who constitute 26% of Maharashtra’s electorate, Patidars who constitute 15% of Gujarat’s electorate and Rajputs and Jats who constitute 6% and 9% of the Rajasthan electorate respectively are on a direct collision course with the USHV coalition. This demographic cleavage needs to be reworked by both the Prime Minister through direct interactions as well as by the larger Sangh ecosystems through innovative outreach mechanisms if BJP wants to come close to repeating the 2014 performance in these states. The primary point of friction between the Modi political economy and the powerful middle castes of India is that the Prime Minister has been strongly pursuing policies to liberate governance dispensation from the power elite which has rendered most of the middle castes toothless in the rural and small town establishment. The saffron redressal mechanisms to assuage middle castes mostly lies in symbolism and messaging, but how BJP and the RSS go about it will be a crucial test of our times.
The Socio-Economic Conundrum: In various studies that 5Forty3 Datalabs has undertaken in this region, two significant contraindications have emerged in the socio-economic paradigm. On the one hand, the two marquee reforms undertaken by the Modi government – demonetization and GST, especially the latter, have had a far greater negative impact on Gujarat and Maharashtra than any other states because both these mature economies have had a long running culture of MSMEs who have found it difficult to make the transition from an informal to formal economy. On the other hand, our ground research in both these states has shown that another of Modi government’s big social schemes – the Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yoajana – has had the least impact among women voters as compared to other states like Uttar Pradesh or even Haryana. In essence, the Modi government economic agenda has at best been neutral and at worst has had a negative impact on the more mature economies of the western hemisphere at least till now. The Prime Minister will have to address these issues immediately if he hopes to turn the tide.
The Data-Political Conundrum: There are two structural vulnerabilities that BJP faces in the western hemisphere as of today. At the macro-level, the NDA has been facing erosion of base due to breakdown of political coalitions. The whole drama of being in government with Shiv Sena in Maharashtra and the Mumbai municipality while fighting elections separately is one of the symptoms of the deeper political malaise. At the micro-level, the social coalitions that BJP had coalesced at the polling booth levels are severely stressed today due to various counter currents. Extrapolating the data from our primary research using the 5Forty3 data-tech platform, MAPi – Micro Analytics Projections (INTELLIGENCE) – predicts that in the 1.65 lakh GUIs (Geographic Units of Intelligence) of western India, BJP is currently vulnerable in a whopping 97000+ polling booths with significant trend reversals from the 2014 peak. How BJP manages its ground game, leveraging data-technology, in order to retain these vulnerable polling booths will have a big impact on 2019.
The Governance Conundrum: One of the oft repeated complains of Gujarati voters in the run-up to the state assembly elections last year was that governance had gone for a toss after Modi had moved to the center. Issue mapping analysis of Gujarat was consistently showing that increased hyperlocal corruption was becoming a big factor against the administrative failure of the state government while the Modi administration had successfully managed to put curbs to localized corruption during his reign of more than a decade. Similarly, in Rajasthan, we find big gaps in the governance regime of Vasundhara Raje government along with sheer lack of coordination between the government and the party/Sangh ecosystem which has led to widespread disenchantment. In Maharashtra too, the Fadnavis government finds itself in a constant quagmire due to fights with coalition partners which has restricted the expansion drive of the BJP. Modi, Sangh and the BJP leadership will have to take some hard decisions as quickly as possible if they are to rectify these governance gaps.
The Anti-Incumbency Conundrum: In February-March last year, even as BJP was heading towards a historic mandate in the northern states of Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand, the small western state of Goa surprised the saffron brigade by producing a hung verdict. The electoral outcomes of both Goa and Gujarat last year were counterintuitive to the prevailing political mood of the Indian masses. Just this month, the severe drubbing that BJP received in Alwar and Ajmer bye-polls of Rajasthan further reinforced the anti-incumbent mood of the western hemisphere. Needless to say, BJP is indeed facing a three-tiered anti-incumbency obstacle in the west as it is in power for considerable time now at the centre, the state and in almost all the Lok Sabha seats too. The Modi challenge here is to minimize localized anti-incumbency by bringing in new faces and hard sell his own Prime Ministership as the only viable and sustainable solution for India’s long term growth.
Footnote: The one key difference between Rajiv Gandhi in 1988 and Narendra Modi in 2018 is that the current Prime Minister retains overwhelming trust of ordinary Indians who see him as incorruptible and unsusceptible to familial pressures of Bhai-Bhatijavaad, while the late former PM had already lost the support of most of the masses 4 years into his term. Modi still fully retains the ability to convince India to vote for him, bypassing the middle layers. What is more, unlike that winter afternoon of Nagpur in January 1989, there are no Vajpayees or V.P Singhs or Chandrashekhars among the opposition ranks to stand up to Narendra Damodardas Modi. If the party apparatus and the Sangh ecosystem can find the strength to market sustainably incremental progress as the true path to India’s long-term success story, then a pro-incumbency wave may yet wash away all the western conundrums to scale bigger peaks than 2014.