The sweeping victories of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Maharashtra’s local elections mean that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has won his demonetisation gamble.
Earlier, too, the BJP had come out on top in a series of civic elections across the country and returned more recently as a major contender in Odisha.
But the Maharashtra victories have confirmed that, first, Modi has retained much of his 2014 magic; and, secondly, the people did not consider demonetisation as either “despotic” or “inane”, as the two noted Left-leaning economists, Amartya Sen and Prabhat Patnaik, described it.
True, the real test of the Prime Minister’s risky scrapping of high-denomination currency will be available on March 11 when the results of the assembly elections in five states will be announced, but the signs from Maharashtra should reassure the BJP that it will cross with relative ease that electoral Rubicon as well.
If the BJP has faced considerable resistance in Mumbai, the reason is that it was up against a well-entrenched local party which has built its base by exploiting local sentiments.
Even then, the BJP cannot but have severely dented the Shiv Sena’s confidence by running it close in the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) elections.
Now, the Shiv Sena will think twice before breaking away from the BJP since there has obviously been a substantial erosion of its parochial appeal based on aggressive acts such as blackening the faces of those it does not like.
Or forcing a Muslim to eat during the period of fasting during Ramzan as the Shiv Sena members did in Delhi’s Maharashtra Sadan while protesting against the quality of food served there.
Along with the Shiv Sena, the other chauvinistic outfit, the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS), which earned notoriety by targeting North Indians earning a living in Mumbai, has also been cut down to size.
Its decline began at the time of the 2014 assembly elections when it could win only one seat and is continuing apace.
Arguably, therefore, the BJP’s success signifies a revival of Mumbai’s cosmopolitan culture, which has been under considerable strain ever since Bal Thackeray emerged with this insular agenda in the mid-1960s.
It is clear that the political trend which made the BJP the first party in the 288-member assembly with 122 seats hasn’t abated. As a result, the other supposedly pan-Indian parties like the Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) have suffered a serious decline — with the NCP being the worst sufferer.
Next to Modi, the credit for the BJP’s good showing will go to the mild-mannered Chief Minister, Devendra Fadnavis, who proved to be a contrast to the Shiv Sena chief, Uddhav Thackeray, who still tries occasionally to display his father, Bal Thackeray’s hallmark belligerence.
After the electoral setback, however, when the Shiv Sena has barely been able to keep its nose ahead in the poll outcome, winning 84 seats to the BJP’s 82, Uddhav will have to decide whether to remain as a part of the saffron alliance in Maharashtra and at the Centre.
Yet, he cannot be unaware that he can no longer afford to throw his weight around since his hopes about emerging as an influential regional player have been dashed.
His only consolation will be the virtual decimation of his estranged cousin, Raj Thackeray’s MNS. It is not unlikely that Uddhav will now be ruing his summary rejection of Raj’s offer of a tie-up before the polls.
Uddhav may have read the tea leaves right in the matter of the Shiv Sena’s primacy over the MNS. But he will be aware of the clouds over the Shiv Sena’s future.
As the BJP gloats over its first major post-demonetisation success, its other source of joy will be the discomfiture of the Congress, which has become “a crowd around a fading dynasty”, as Finance Minister Arun Jaitley has said.
The assembly election results may still breathe life into the dynasty, especially in Punjab. But, for the present, there is little doubt that the somewhat tattered Grand Old Party is in serious trouble.
What this means is that the BJP no longer faces a major challenge at the national level. It may come up against major obstacles at local levels, such as in Mumbai or in West Bengal, Bihar and Kerala.
These regional parties may chip away at the BJP’s overall vote share. But its tenure at the Centre is unlikely to be disturbed any time soon.
At the same time, it is clear that the BJP remains as heavily dependent on Modi as before. It was fortunate to have someone like Devendra Fadnavis to keep the flock together in Maharashtra. The party also has successful Chief Ministers in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Haryana. But none of them can match Modi’s popularity at the national level.
This paucity of leaders is bound to be highlighted, especially in Uttar Pradesh, when the election results are out. But, for the present, the BJP has reason to smile.
(Amulya Ganguli is a political analyst. The views expressed are personal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)