This article was originally published at Swarajya
A week ago, Maharashtra’s major urban local body elections threw up one clear winner: the BJP, which won eight of the 10 major municipal corporations, and came a close second in Mumbai, the biggest daddy of them all. It got 82 seats to Shiv Sena’s 84 in Mumbai, and its vote share was less than 1 per cent below that of the Sena at 28 per cent. And this, when it had fought only 195 of the 227 seats on offer. Sena contested all 227.
Barring Thane, the BJP conquered all, including the big mini metro of Pune, and Nagpur in Vidarbha. Much has been written in the past week about how the BJP’s footprint is growing, and how Devendra Fadnavis is now the unchallenged leader of the party in Maharashtra, having proven his worth in these elections.
But it is worth looking deeper for the message the voter is sending us, things that may not be apparent at the surface.
First, there appears to be a gentle consolidation of Hindu votes. Despite fighting each other, between them, the Sena and the BJP got 57 per cent of the Mumbai vote. When they were together in the last election in 2012, they got less than half this vote. This means each party separately got more than what they got together earlier. This is significant.
Second, considering the BJP’s good performance in Odisha’s local polls, and its earlier win in Assam, and looking ahead at Uttar Pradesh (assuming it emerges as the single largest party, if not with a majority), there is another signal here: minority politics is proving counter-productive for the so-called “secular” parties. They have to change course, and improve their signalling to the majority community. In states with a significant minority population (like Kerala and West Bengal), the scope for a Hindu consolidation against “secular” parties is limited only by the BJP’s lack of strong local leadership. This is what holds the key to the party’s growth.
Third, the BJP retains its pole position in national politics, and faces its main challenge in regional parties. This is not only because of the towering image of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, but a steady withering of the other national party. The Congress, even assuming it wins Punjab, is facing a huge challenge for the “secular” space from another fledgling party with national ambitions – the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). Any rise in AAP’s vote share in any state will come only at the expense of the Congress, which is why Punjab is so crucial for the Congress (and AAP). Goa will be another test case, and after that Gujarat.
Fourth, parties like the Shiv Sena face the problem of falling between two stools – a narrow Marathi manoos focus, combined with a broader Hindutva agenda. The rise of a national Hindu party like BJP makes the Sena’s Hindutva agenda redundant; the existence of Maratha outfits like NCP makes the Hindi belt formula (one caste/community group, plus minorities) created by Mulayam Singh and Lalu Yadav less available for the Sena. It is easier for the Congress or NCP to play the Maratha/Muslim/Dalits card than the Sena. It can neither become the larger Hindutva force in the state nor become a “secular” regional party when there are entrenched parties already occupying that space. The only choice available for the Sena is to accept its little brother status – as long as the BJP does not offer it humiliating terms. Another option is to get Raj Thackeray’s MNS to merge with it, and remain a small Marathi manoos party with local clout. The point is you can’t play the Marathi card and the Hindutva card together. You can’t be driving migrants from the Hindi belt away and then expect your Hindu credentials to get you votes beyond the Marathi manoos.
Ego is the problem standing in the way of the Sena getting this message. Logically, the Sena should bargain for the mayorship in Mumbai and retain the Sena-BJP coalition in the city corporation. If it allies with the Congress or NCP, it will be writing its own death warrant as it will cede the entire opposition space to the BJP.
Fifth, the BJP cannot also overplay its Hindu credentials. The Hindu vote that is currently gravitating towards it is being herded there by the aggressive minority politics of the Congress and regional parties. This vote is not a hard Hindutva vote, where Ram mandir and Hindu rashtra are clarion calls. It is a soft Hindutva vote driven by excessive minority appeasement. Logically, the BJP will lose this floating vote if it becomes too aggressively Hindu; it will also be challenged by the regional parties and Congress playing soft Hindutva politics, as both Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi did in their time.
The BJP has to play its cards wisely, and not crudely. The Hindu consolidation is not a signal for more aggressive negative politics. Modi has introduced just the kind of soft Hindutva agenda in UP. We now have to see if it works.
The reaffirmation of the BJP’s Hindu identity – which is happening more by chance than design – does not mean the end of aspirational politics (sabka saath, sabka vikas). The two go hand in hand. When every party is claiming to be a champion of vikas, it means aspirations need the additional zing of community consolidation to get any party over the hump.
Indian politics is entering interesting times.