The big question the morning after a state assembly election verdicts in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh in which the reins of power have shifted from the BJP to the Congress is this: Has Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party suffered a setback, or is this a crisis? I believe it looks like the former but may actually be the latter.
When you play for high stakes, when your charisma is a crucial asset, when promise is your power and oratory is your skill, the focus is on the future. That is the situation Modi was in during his juggernaut-like run to power in New Delhi before his spectacular win in 2014.
But charisma can wane in the altar of criticism, and product may end up looking in hindsight like a package. Promises are viewed through the prism of on-ground performance and smart oratory might seem like empty words when the future becomes the present.
This is the framework in which BJP president Amit Shah and company need to introspect after the Hindi heartland defeat. Hidden in this verdict is a hard truth for the BJP: Congress-mukt Bharat (an India free of Congress) is just a personal fantasy for the RSS elite, while anti-incumbency voting is a harsh reality. Overplaying everything from cow protection to strange noises of Hindu cultural supremacy wane when it comes to millions of voters who want electricity, water and better farm prices.
A setback becomes a crisis when the focus goes wrong and energies are spent in places other than where they should be. I do believe the BJP is in a crisis and this is not the first time. But it would be as unwise to write it off as it was unwise of the party to dream of a Congress-mukt Bharat so soon as it took reins as the country's only fully-fledged opposition party rule after decades of Congress dominance.
The BJP was in a crisis in 1984 after being decimated by Rajiv Gandhi's sympathy wave election following the assassination of Indira Gandhi. Two decades later, its 'India Shining' plank bombed despite decent governance by Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee in a coalition.
What the BJP needs to ask itself now is this: Is 'Achhe Din', the promise of good days made by Modi, as empty as the 'India Shining' slogan of 2004? At that time, the BJP was at the wrong end of anti-incumbency, and a decade later, it was at the right end. It is as if nothing has changed in Indian politics as Tweedledee turns to Tweedledum and back and so on and so forth.
The point is that Modi was supposed to change all that. All his speeches go back 70 years, not seven. His slogans pretend as if India never had the Green Revolution, never had an IT boom, never did the Pokhran nuclear tests and never won wars in 1965 and 1971. It is if he was not trying to create history for the future but was re-engineering the past to show a vacuum, like a magician making a rabbit disappear under a hat. Such talk works when the rabbit in question turns up from inside another hat or turns up as a pair from the same one. We have seen no such magic.
What we saw instead were farmers protesting in rural towns and workers standing in long queues outside ATMs after the demonetisation of high-value currency notes in 2016, often for their masters. Between an agrarian mess and demonetisation, we have seen smart slogans wither in the political heat of democracy. What Rahul Gandhi's Congress has done this year is to tap into the real performance gaps just like Modi tapped into the 2G spectrum scam and the coal allocation scam in the run-up to general elections in 2014.
In the middle of all this, one man whose record is better than it seems is departing Madhya Pradesh chief minister Shivraj Chouhan. To nearly win back power after three terms in a row is something the BJP seems to have got right despite all the odds stacked against an incumbent amid an agrarian unrest. Weeks before MP went to vote, Chouhan said vikas (development) mattered more than mandir (Ram temple) in the elections. He spoke of his Sambal welfare scheme with a focus on irrigation, electricity and farm prices. If the verdict is any indication, Chouhan may have done a better job in MP than Modi did in Gujarat, because Madhya Pradesh is a tougher state to manage, in terms of poverty, size, communities, ecological diversity and stage of socio-economic development.
With 41% of the votes for the BJP against Congress's 40.9% and 109 seats in the 230-member state assembly, the performance by the Chouhan administration in a third re-election bid is remarkable. Given that Congress has heavyweights including Digvijaya Singh, Kamal Nath and Jyotiraditya Scindia in the state, it is even more so. Never mind Chouhan's ministerial rank gamble offered to a dubious godman called Computer Baba that only backfired.
In hindsight, Modi may be more of a smart leader than the Great Statesman that his bhakts make him out to be. There is probably plenty of talent within the BJP that needed him for motivation when it was down in the dumps. But pre-election oratory and post-election performance are two different things.
BJP faces a crisis unless it junks the Gujarat model hype for something closer to what Chouhan has done in Madhya Pradesh. However, within the party, the big leader's halo is not exactly data-driven. This can work up to a point. But, just like troubled companies such as Essar Steel and Reliance Communications proved to be debt-driven in growth, the BJP's nationwide surge may be in terms of borrowed time, which, like borrowed money, is counted for payback at some point.
In the end, there is a wisdom in the crowd when millions of voters go to the polls. They carry in their heads not the heady ideology of Hindutva but matters of everyday concern such as electricity, health and education.
(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL.)