Tuesday without question was the worst day the Bhartiya Janata Party has faced in the past four-and-a-half years. Conversely, it was the best day the Indian National Congress has had for perhaps even longer. It is important therefore for both national parties to introspect, especially on the path ahead of them and up to the general election next year.
While pundits will analyse local factors that lay behind the Congress’ successes and the BJP’s losses, there is one fact that neither the Prime Minister nor his party’s president can now overlook. While the 2014 elections were won on an agenda of change and subsequent state elections on the substantive steps taken towards fulfilling that agenda ~ including controversial ones such as demonetisation and GST ~ the BJP’s campaign in these state elections was largely centred around Opposition bashing and raising contentious issues that ought to have ceased to matter.
If voters concluded on this basis that the party in power had not very much to say about its achievements, or about its agenda for governance, they cannot be faulted. Of course, the Congress fell into the same trough of name-calling and pandering to baser instincts, but parties in Opposition generally do better when they bash those in power than the other way around.
Introspection by the two national parties will have to revolve around the need to reinject some gentility into the political discourse, difficult as that may seem after the acrimony of recent weeks. Certainly, the default position of the BJP – to be divisive and to pander to the illiberal Hindu – will have to change. There is only so much that the gods and the cow can do to help.
The second set of imperatives that both parties must confront is the need to build up strong alliances. Were the BJP to check, it will find that even its rivals are enjoying a quiet chuckle at its discomfiture. During its spell in power and except to an extent in the North-east, the BJP has not exactly endeared itself to even traditional rivals such as the Shiv Sena and the Akali Dal.
While the Congress too is a difficult alliance partner, adversity must force it to shed its natural arrogance if it is to be a serious contender in 2019. At the time of this writing, it was clear that the Congress had won Chhatisgarh and was a serious contender in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh.
Whether it needs to or not, it would do well to bring into the embrace of governance in all three states those of the smaller parties it wants to befriend in 2019. Although the context is quite different, the Congress has enough historians in its ranks to remind its leaders of the events of 1937; it is never a bad idea to be magnanimous in victory.
The Congress has suffered a serious setback in Mizoram and has had a disastrous outing in Telangana. It now has no presence in the North-east, which must be galling and its alliance in the southern state failed to ignite. The BJP, even if is foolish enough to explain its reverses as the outcome of anti-incumbency and not antipathy towards its top two leaders, must consider this as the worst possible result in the build-up to 2019.