Buoyed by three victories, the Congress now assumes that Rahul Gandhi is the automatic favourite to lead an anti-BJP alliance in 2019.
Buoyed by three victories, the Congress now assumes that Rahul Gandhi is the automatic favourite to lead an anti-BJP alliance in 2019. But not all Opposition leaders are impressed. Congress ally Chandrababu Naidu, who organised the successful anti-BJP conference a day before the vote count, has lost ground after his Telangana defeat. The victor, K Chandrashekar Rao, is not a Gandhi fan. He prefers a federal front to a national-level mahagathbandhan, as do Mamata Banerjee and Mayawati. Eventually, it is Behenji who will decide what form the alliance takes. She may have grudgingly given her support to Congress governments in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, but Mayawati has not forgiven the Congress for rejecting her demands for a tie-up in Rajasthan and MP on her terms. She remains adamant that in an electoral alliance in Uttar Pradesh, the Congress can at best expect eight seats, since the party won two seats and six Congress candidates came second in 2014. The formula is unacceptable to the Congress, particularly as in some of the seats, such as Ghaziabad and Lucknow, the BJP was ahead by huge margins. Mayawati maintains her share of UP’s 80 seats is 40 and has already selected most of her candidates (40 is also the number of seats Banerjee hopes to win). The Congress believes that the BSP leader will eventually climb down under public pressure for a united front. It calculates that if it wants to play a decisive role in an alliance, its own national seat tally in 2019 should be a minimum of 125 seats, slightly less than the halfway mark of 272 in the Lok Sabha.
Caste a shadow
From the defeat in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, the BJP takes comfort in the fact that the difference in popular vote between it and the Congress was a mere 0.1 and 0.5% respectively, and in MP, it was in the BJP’s favour. The BJP does not believe that issues mentioned in the media such as rural distress or demonetisation were the key factors for the decline in the party’s vote share, but that anti-incumbency and some poor ticket selections, particularly in Chambal, could have contributed. Petroleum minister Dharmendra Pradhan is confident that in the Lok Sabha polls the crucial Modi factor would give the party the necessary edge in the same states. But despite such comforting analyses, there are two important warning signals from the election results which should concern the BJP. The party lost a large number of reserved Scheduled Caste seats compared to 2013, and it would have lost more but for the BSP undercutting Congress votes. It is also clear that Brahmin voters have moved away from the party because of the ordinance on the SC/ST Atrocities Act. Many opted for the NOTA option. The BJP lost 13 seats in MP because of NOTA votes.
There were sniggers that new RBI governor Shaktikanta Das has a history degree, compared to the impressive academic credentials in economics of his two predecessors. But many forget that several previous RBI governors were not trained economists, but drawn from the civil services. The first Indian RBI governor, CD Deshmukh, was an ICS officer best known as a Sanskrit scholar. Several of his successors were from the ICS or IAS. KR Puri was chairman of the Life Insurance Corporation of India. The Opposition’s apprehension is that the ruling party has selected a governor without economics degrees so that the RBI will obligingly share the reserves with the bank and the money released could be used for election sops. Ironically, Raghuram Rajan, as chief economic adviser to prime minister Manmohan Singh, had written to the RBI suggesting that it lower the bank’s reserves so that the money could be spent on national development (he changed his tune when he became RBI governor). Arvind Subramanian in the 2015-2016 Economic Survey pointed out that the reserves with the RBI were in excess and incompatible with global standards. The criticism against Urjit Patel by government sources is that he lived in an ivory tower without interacting with the real financial world.
Perhaps one reason Narendra Modi did not go all out campaigning in the Assembly elections is that he sensed that the BJP was not on a winning wicket and he did not want to take blame for a possible defeat. The number of his election rallies was much fewer than in Gujarat and Karnataka. Even in the election posters, unlike in the past, Modi and Amit Shah did not dominate; the respective chief ministers were given equal prominence. Interestingly, Modi conceded defeat in Madhya Pradesh on Twitter on Tuesday night at a time when the official results were not even in and the MP BJP was still trying desperately to woo Independents to cobble a majority.