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BJP’s dwindling fortunes in states a result of top-heavy central leadership; party yet to address lack of empowered local leaders

The Delhi election results have given rise to a curious dialectic. Even in its comprehensive loss, the BJP’s ideological dominance is not in question. But while that dominance — led by a very strong central leadership — has made the party virtually untouchable at the Centre, it has also simultaneously affected its ability to dominate local narratives, and consequently resulted in a series of losses for the party at the state-level.

Amid the brouhaha over its latest miserable performance, it is useful to remember that while BJP increased its tally in Delhi Assembly by just five seats in 2020 from three in 2015, during the Lok Sabha elections just about six months ago, the saffron unit had wiped out AAP and bagged all seven Lok Sabha seats. This dialectic, and the tectonic shift in the grammar of Indian electoral politics in favour of a Hindu consolidation, have led commentators to argue that the AAP’s recent victory has been achieved within the ideological framework set by the BJP and that it is now the ‘new normal’ in Indian politics.

Some posit that a “saffron victory lurks within the BJP’s defeat”, while some point out that AAP chief Arvind Kejriwal worked within the “boundaries set by the Hindu nationalists” and was forced to embrace “a softer version of their politics”.

However, the BJP’s undoubted ideological hegemony notwithstanding — that has birthed a new, competitive Hindutva politics where Opposition leaders are found reciting Hanuman Chalisa, going on a temple run or giving doles to Durga Puja organisers — the fact remains that the party is bleeding on the ground.

In the past two years, the BJP has either lost power or been defeated in 10 state elections — Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Odisha, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Maharashtra, Haryana, Jharkhand and Delhi, and as Swaminathan Aiyar points out in The Economic Times, BJP’s control of Indian territory has shrunk from 70 percent in 2018 to barely 35 percent today.

The BJP’s vote share too reflects this stark anomaly. The difference between its tally in Lok Sabha and state Assemblies is huge. In Delhi, for instance, it received 57 percent of the votes in 2019 when Narendra Modi was seeking a second term in office but during the Assembly polls, its share nosedived by 18.35 percentage points.

Delhi merely reinforces the pattern witnessed in the past two years. Among the states where BJP has taken a beating, at places its tally has fallen by more than 50 percent compared to its Lok Sabha vote share. As an article in Scroll points out, the BJP’s erosion of power in states has resulted in a situation in 2020 where the party controls “the smallest number of states for any party that has a majority in the Lok Sabha in India’s history”.

This is, of course, unsustainable. If the losses keep piling up for BJP, not only does it create an impression that the party is unable to hold on to its political gains, it also makes implementation of its national agendas difficult. The Opposition will have a clear majority in the Upper House of Parliament and the government will increasingly struggle to pass its laws in a hostile Rajya Sabha. It is worth exploring, therefore, the reasons behind BJP’s apparent inability to replicate its Lok Sabha dominance in state elections.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP national president Amit Shah. AFP

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP president Amit Shah. File photo. AFP

One of the oft-repeated reasons cited by many analysts is that voters are making a clear distinction between national elections and state elections. While Modi remains the overwhelming choice at the national-level where his mass appeal and BJP’s ideological hegemony remain unchallenged, at the state-level, election outcomes are being determined by local and hyper local issues where regional satraps have a clear advantage.

Delhi offers a case in point. So, if strong regional leaders who have mass base within their geographical boundaries are proving more than a match for BJP, the question is why the BJP is unable to develop strong leaders at the local- and state-levels? In Delhi, the BJP had no answer to Kejriwal’s focussed campaign. The AAP chief steadfastly avoided engaging with the BJP on national issues, and the more BJP tried to set terms of debate on national and ideological agendas, the more Kejriwal kept harping on local factors and welfare benefits delivered by the AAP.

The BJP had no answer to Kejriwal’s simple message: Kejriwal versus who? This was a replication of Modi’s campaign during Lok Sabha where the prime minister turned the mode of election presidential.

In Delhi, while Shaheen Bagh did offer BJP a chance to make the campaign ideological, and raise some issues of national resonance, its overwhelming reliance on a polarising narrative made it apparent that it doesn’t have any leverage to challenge Kejriwal on local factors. Th BJP was aware that it was taking a risk in doing so. After all, recent results have proved the veracity of the theorem that voters give precedence to bread-and-butter issues in state elections. But the BJP did not have a choice.

The BJP had two clear disadvantages. First, it had no clear governance agenda to buttress its ideological push. These are complementary impulses, and exclusive focus on ideological agenda in state elections is counterproductive. Second, it lacked a figure such as Kejriwal to challenge Kejriwal.

This is a clear failure on the BJP’s part — a phenomenon not restricted to Delhi. For all the strength of its national leadership, the BJP seems strangely hobbled at the state-level. Devendra Fadnavis in Maharashtra, BS Yediyurappa in Karnataka, or the Sarbananda Sonowal-Himanta Biswa Sarma duo in Assam apart, the party suffers from lack of strong regional leaders.

It has no worthwhile face in West Bengal where it faces a tough challenge in 2021, it had to bring Yogi Adityanath out of the hat in Uttar Pradesh — a rare instance of a state election being dominated by national issues, but in other states the saffron unit either lacks a strong regional candidate, or its leaders remain victims of anti-incumbency.

To a certain extent, the strength and dominance of central leadership works against the BJP’s interests at the local level. The state units, as Rajya Sabha MP Swapan Dasgupta pointed out during a chat show with The Print, suffer from a lack of local autonomy because of excessive reliance on central leadership.

The BJP can just fix this by empowering local units and entrusting them with more responsibilities — not only in executing strategies but also shaping them. And it needs to invest in new leadership at grassroots-level and bet big on them. The top-heavy structure of BJP is an impediment to its success.

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