Few will contest the fact the recent by-elections have shocked the BJP. It lost ground everywhere, even in Gujarat and Rajasthan. These results come on top of its poor performance in Bihar by-elections and Uttrakhand by-elections. What might be the lessons from these political events?
The Amit Shah hype should be over. As I have argued previously, the BJP won LS seats in UP due to the Modi wave, not because of some grand political strategy of Amit Shah. The test of my argument is evident in UP by-elections. Modi did not campaign. If Amit Shah is such a Chankya, why did the BJP perform so poorly – it even lost seats it held previously.
While one can debate whether the Modi wave is over (as Arvind Kejriwal says), the BJP must understand that it cannot take the electorate for granted. It needs to deliver both in the short term and in the long term. Basic issues like food inflation need to be addressed. Strolls along the Sabarmati, interviews with Fareed Zakaria, or major speeches might impress the chattering classes of New Delhi and are important in their own right. But they do not provide any relief to the common Indian who is struggling to make his/her ends meet. Political parties that neglect the common man, do so at their peril.
PM Modi must realize that he cannot run India the way he ran Gujarat. He will need to trust people and appoint competent individuals to his cabinet even when they are not 100% with him. The current cabinet suggests that either the BJP is populated by incompetent MPs or the PM is so insecure that he rather have a few overworked minsters (Jaitley and Gadkari) and a few incompetent ones (Smriti Irani), instead of including experienced and thoughtful ones.
Similarly, the BJP needs to build a cadre of strong leaders. To do so, the Delhi-centric approach to party management must end. Without strong state leaders, BJP will lose ground, at least in state politics. Given the federal structure in which India functions, without cooperation from states, the degrees of freedom available to the Central government are rather limited. Building a strong state level-party organization means that the PM will need to learn to share power by appointing strong local leaders to his Cabinet.
BJP will need to stop the toxic “love Jihad” rhetoric. I’m glad the PM has made it clear that he considers Muslims to be as patriotic as anybody else. But this is not enough. He needs to rein in his party and if possible, the RSS as well (the poisonous statement Togadia made on Garba dance). Indians voted for good governance and tolerant order. The PM and the BJP must make it clear through their words and deeds that communalism has no place in Indian politics. The quick reaction to floods in Kashmir was wonderful and showed that the PM is seeking to send a strong message of inclusiveness. BJP needs to do the same.