All eyes in India have understandably been on some important political developments over the past few days.
First, the by-election results of 3 parliamentary seats and 2 legislative seats were made more interesting by fact that BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party, a Hindu nationalist party, and India’s largest) had to face a surprising rout in the strongholds (Gorakhpur, Phulpur) of Uttar Pradesh’s Chief Minister (Yogi Adityanath) and Deputy Chief Minister (Keshav Prasad Maurya).
Second, there has been talk of other regional parties joining hands and forming an Anti-Congress Front. Two days after the election results, the exit of the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) from the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) and its decision to pass a no confidence motion (which BJP is likely to win) has certainly made the fight for 2019 more interesting.
While it remains to be seen whether the opposition parties in 2019 can give the BJP a run for its money, those interested in US politics will have closely followed the result of a Congressional by-election (18th District) where Democrat candidate Connor Lamb (a 33 year old Marine) defeated Republican Candidate Rick Saccone in a close contest. This is a significant win after the triumph of Senator Douglas Jones in Alabama. Jones became the first Democrat to win a Senate Seat in Alabama (a Republican stronghold referred to as “Ruby Red”) since 1997.
The US President, who is quick to comment on virtually every issue, on Twitter, remained silent on the result of the 18th District.
The US President did state, at a private fundraiser for Missouri Senate candidate Josh Hawley, that the Democrat candidate’s stance on key economic issues was akin to that of Trump:
The young man last night that ran, he said, ‘Oh, I’m like Trump. Second Amendment, everything. I love the tax cuts, everything.’ He ran on that basis, Trump said. He ran on a campaign that said very nice things about me. I said, ‘Is he a Republican?’ He sounds like a Republican to me.
Lamb conservative on social and economic issues?
While Republican Representative Chris Collins of New York said that he doesn’t “think you’ll see another candidate like Lamb,” another representative from the state of Pennsylvania, Mike Kelly, argued that Lamb was “more like a Republican.”
There is some truth in the President’s assertions, because Lamb did support the President’s imposition of tariffs on aluminium and steel imports. Said Lamb: “we have to take some action to level the playing field.” Even on issues like gun control and abortion, his views were to the right of conventional Democrats, though not absolutely in sync with the Republicans.
Why Trump can not ignore this defeat
Irrespective of what US President Donald Trump may say, the fact is that he had won the state by 20 points in the US Presidential election of 2016, and his economic agenda had found strong resonance. Trump, along with Vice President Mike Pence, had also campaigned for Saccone.
Significantly, in the last two Congressional elections, Democrats had not even bothered to field candidates in PA 18.
The announcement to impose tariffs on aluminium and steel had been made one week before the election, clearly with an eye on reaching out to large sections of ‘blue collar workers’. The US President calculated that he would be able to regain his popularity, but the results clearly show that Trump’s ‘ultra nationalism’ and economically inward looking policies by themselves will not suffice. He will also need to change his style of functioning and not continuously sack individuals.
Republican Speaker Paul Ryan himself had dubbed this verdict as a ‘wake up call’. Other Republicans have been forthright in their analysis of the defeat and blame Trump’s approval ratings for the same.
Doug Heye, a Republican strategist and former spokesman for the Republican National Committee, said:
There is a very real problem facing Republicans in the months ahead and that problem is Donald Trump’s approval rating.
What does Lamb’s win mean for the Democrats
Lamb’s victory may also result in some changes within the Democrats. Lamb has been pitching for a change in leadership and does not get along particularly well with Nancy Pelosi, Minority Leader of the US House of Representatives:
I have said, and I continue to say, that I think we need new leadership at the top of both parties in the House.
Pelosi however was quick to deny that Lamb’s criticism of her had anything to do with the outcome:
I don’t think that that really had that much impact on the race […] He won. If we hadn’t won, you might have a question, but we won — the ‘D’ next to his name was very significant.
The electoral verdicts in India and US have one common message: ‘economic insularity’, and the whipping up of ultra-nationalist emotions can not make up for vacuous policies.
There are messages for the opposition in both the US and India; in spite of right wing nationalism having failed to address substantive issues, the voter is looking for new options — leaders with imaginative ideas outside of the cozy club .
If one were to specifically look at India, the fence sitters may not be particularly happy with the existing order, but does that imply that they will automatically tilt towards the opposition? The politics of doles and sops will not work. A progressive social agenda, which is in sync with the diverse ethos of this country, has to be complemented by a pro-reform economic agenda (which is of course inclusive, and sensitive to the concerns of the poorest).
What is clear however is that Trump’s re-election in 2020 and Modi’s in 2019, are not a done deal. One would have to say though, that in spite of the recent UP verdict, there is a higher probability of Modi being re-elected than Trump.
It remains to be seen whether the current populist right narrative, which is a lethal cocktail of inward looking economic thinking and conservative social policies, can be countered effectively, and defeated at the hustings, by a progressive, forward looking agenda. Will India and the US take the lead in challenging this narrative?