The big saffron-colored bus, driven by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and carrying his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its associates, blew a tire on May 10.
The BJP’s incumbent government lost heavily in legislative elections in the southern state of Karnataka. (The bus, of course, is a metaphor: bus driving is not among the many virtues ascribed to Prime Minister Modi).
Karnataka is the eighth most populous state in India. It has the largest per capita GDP of all the major states, and Bengaluru, India’s swinging IT center, is its capital. It is the only southern state where the BJP has managed to win government.
This time the party lost 40 seats and was reduced to 66 seats in a 224-seat house. The rival Indian National Congress party took 43% of the vote, won 135 seats and will form the next state government. Turnout was strong, at 73% of the 53 million eligible voters.
The BJP threw everything into the campaign to retain its foothold in the south. Narendra Modi spent 10 prime ministerial days campaigning and did a five-hour, 25-kilometer road rally through the streets of Bengaluru. That may have paid off: the BJP gained seats in Bengaluru even as it was clobbered in the rural areas around the city.
The loss was not a complete surprise. Karnataka has not returned an incumbent government for nearly 40 years and the outgoing administration was widely seen as corrupt and incompetent.
But the extent of the defeat may have surprised even the Congress party. The BJP ran a well-financed campaign fuelled by predictable attempts to keep Hindu antagonism towards Muslims on the boil. But the party pinned its hopes on what is now referred to as the “Modi magic.” It may have helped in Bengaluru, but not elsewhere.
Rahul Gandhi, the weary 52-year-old national leader of the Congress party, campaigned in the state and did a walking tour a few months before the election. But his presence counted for much less than competent local leadership, a canny sense of caste configurations and motivated party workers.
The administration of these elections was fast, efficient and fair. Voting was done on standalone voting machines, with 58,500 polling stations. Counting began two days after polls closed and the results were clear by lunchtime. While the system — single ballot, first-past-the-post — makes the process simple, the Election Commission of India continues to provide a model for the world.
National elections are due next year. Modi and the BJP look strong favorites to win a third term. Yet the current political map of the federation seems at odds with BJP domination of the national parliament.
The BJP controls only eight of India’s state governments and is in coalition in six others. The other 14 states, comprising more than half the population, are ruled by local parties or the Congress.
The map now shows a chunk of saffron BJP states stretching from western Gujarat to the vast Uttar Pradesh. There is also saffron in the less densely populated northeast, which is a complex mix of eight smaller states. The fringes of the map — the south, east and west — have non-BJP governments.
On the same weekend the Congress won the Karnataka election, a new political party won a parliamentary seat for the first time in a by-election. The candidate of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) — known as the common man’s party — founded in 2012, which already rules Punjab state, defeated the Congress, the BJP and a Sikh-based party in the industrial town of Jalandhar in Punjab.
The AAP has already won two elections for the government of the National Capital Territory of Delhi, but the BJP central government, which controls the police and appoints the Lieutenant Governor, has tried to hobble it.
The upstart party got another win in the same week when the Indian Supreme Court ruled that the elected government of Delhi had the right to run Delhi without having constantly to clear decisions with the Lieutenant Governor.
With national elections due next year, some analysts speculate that a coalition of the Congress and parties like the AAP could win. But the chances of such unity seem slight. Even if it were stitched together, similar experiments in 1977 and 1989 suggest it would soon fall apart in government.
Narendra Modi’s big orange bus has plenty of spare tires. It also has a well-tried capacity to find “dangerous Muslims” and uncultured pseudo-intellectuals. One of its goals is a “Congress-free India”, and old BJP ideologues have hankered after a single strong central government.
Yet the BJP may run the risk of appearing to be too much of a Hindi-speaking operation, based in north India and promoting a doctrinaire version of Hindu culture. Such conformity may appeal to Hindi-speaking Hindus in northern states, but it may alienate speakers of India’s many others languages (such as Bengali, Odia, Punjabi, Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Marathi and Malayalam).
India’s remarkable 75-year survival as a single unit has depended on its flexible federation and its democratic capacity to let regions do many things as they please — and even for the central government to carve out new states when demands are irresistible.
But the big saffron bus carrying BJP ambitions will be back on the road in a wink: elections in three more states are due by December.
Robin Jeffrey is a Visiting Research Professor with The Institute of South Asian Studies in Singapore.
This article was originally published by East Asia Forum and is republished under a Creative Commons license.