What do the results of the just-concluded Assembly elections in Haryana and Maharashtra signify? The best newspaper heading that I came across this morning (October 25) was the one by the Hindustan Times – “BJP wins, Opposition rises”. Nothing better sums up the results.
Compared to the results in 2014, this time the BJP’s performance has been poorer. In Maharashtra, the party, along with its ally Shiva Sena (I, actually, have always doubted whether the Sena is BJP’s friend or foe. No wonder, therefore, that voters in Maharashtra have also punished the Shiva Sena; they have not approved of the Sena’s tactics of being the ruling party as well as the opposition party at the same time) has just managed the numbers to continue in power for one more term of five years. Of course, as I write, there are speculations in certain quarters that the Sena is bargaining hard with the opposition Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) of veteran Sharad Pawar and the Congress to repeat the Karnataka-model two years ago (where the Congress with much bigger numbers decided to make minor JD-S leader Kumaraswamy the Chief Minister in order to stop the BJP, which had emerged as the single largest party, from forming the government to make the young Aditya Thackeray (the first member of the Thackeray family to contest elections) the youngest ever Chief Minister of the state. But I doubt whether that will happen, given the ideological divergences between the Sena and the Congress. In all probability, the younger Thackeray will remain content as the Deputy Chief Minister under the incumbent BJP Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis.
In Haryana, the BJP has emerged as the single largest party with 40 seats, seven fewer than last time. But with the return of five party rebels who won as independents and support of two more independents, Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar is now all set to commence his second term.
The very fact that the BJP has just managed to cling to the power in these two states, and that too just within four months of attaining overwhelming victories in the national elections in these two states, provides enough reason for a deeper analysis. But few words of caution here are necessary. One, in Haryana, though the BJP has fewer numbers in terms of MLAs, it got more votes than what had in 2014. In 2014 the BJP got 33.2 per cent votes and won 47 seats in Haryana. This time, it got 36.5 per cent votes but bagged 40 seats. Similarly, in Maharashtra, Chief Minister Fadnavis has a valid point when he says that by having 105 MLAs, BJP’s strike rate has actually improved, given the fact that it contested fewer seats than last time – 164 in 2019 as against 260 in 2014.
However, it is not a rocket science to understand that in India, the first-past-post system ultimately matters in electoral outcomes. In other words, the number of legislators does not reflect accurately its vote-base. And that has been the case since the advent of electoral democracy in the country, the BJP, or for that matter any other political party, should not grudge the results based on this system. On the other hand, the party should acknowledge gracefully that opposition, which was rudderless in these two states only four months ago during the national electioneering, has done very well in recovering bulk of its lost ground. In fact, there are also merits when many opposition leaders and independent analysts say that had the Congress been a more cohesive unit in Haryana and had the alliance partners–the Congress and the NCP–coordinated better in Maharashtra, the results in the two states could have been quite different. The BJP could have been dislodged from the office.
This is not to suggest that Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who was the principal campaigner for the BJP in the two states, has lost considerably in his popularity and charisma. On the contrary, the results only confirm that Indian electorate is mature enough to make a distinction between national and state elections; their national and local preferences are not identical. In the state-elections, the people are affected by factors that they can overlook while voting in national elections. In fact, results in Haryana this time are not at all surprising if one takes into account what happened in 2009. In May that year, the UPA led by the Congress party formed the government at the Centre, and in the process, it had nine of the 10 Lok Sabha seats in Haryana. That time, Haryana had a Congress government with Bhupendra Singh Hooda as the Chief Minister. Few months later, when elections to the Assembly were held, the Congress was reduced to 35 seats in the 90-member Assembly. But Hooda continued to rule, and for this he garnered the required number by breaking Kuldeep Bishnoi’s Haryana Janhit Congress party. Just replace now in 2019 the Congress with BJP and Hooda with Khattar. At least, the BJP has got more seats than the then ruling party in 2009 and Khattar, unlike Hooda, has not broken any party; he has managed the supports of the independents, most of whom in any case are party-rebels who contested when denied tickets by the BJP.
Coming back to the importance of local factors in the state-elections, let us identify some of them in Haryana and Maharashtra. First, it is the importance of local political dynasts – leaders belonging to the clans of Hooda, Chautala, Bhajan Lal in Haryana, and of Pawar, Chauvan, Thackeray and Shinde in Maharashtra. Second, it is the assertion of identity politics, particularly that of castes. It is obvious that in Haryana, BJP lost badly in as many as 45 seats dominated by the Jats, who resented against a chief minister who is a Punjabi-Khatri. In Maharashtra, it is equally obvious that Marathas led by veteran Sharad Pawar rejected Fadnavis, a Vidarbha -Brahmin. Thirdly, and this is a corollary of the above factor, in local elections voters do not attach much importance to the factor of corruption if the corrupt leaders belong to their caste or religion. We all know how the Congress and NCP leaders in these two states are accused of myriads of corruption cases. And yet, they have done very well.
Many analysts say that while in national elections four months ago, people voted Modi because of his nationalist image and actions (Balakot operations), in the latest state elections, people were more worried about the decline of economy, farmers’ distress, lack of jobs and other hard economic factors. No doubt, economy is an important factor, but in my humble opinion, this has not been a decisive factor in Indian elections, unless there is a serious food-inflation (excessive price of onion and tomato, for instance, resulted in the loss of BJP in Delhi and Madhya Pradesh in 1998). People talk of farmers’ distress; but then one must point out that during the 10 long years of UPA rule in Delhi and Mumbai between 2004 and 2014, the number of farmers’ suicides was not less, if not more, than during the last five years of BJP-rule. And all told, subsidies by the Modi regime to the farmers have been more, not less, than what they got under the UPA rule. Similarly, if unemployment is the big issue for BJP’s reversal, then it should have been more apparent in the urban areas such as Mumbai, Gurugram and Faridabad. But in all these cities, BJP has nearly swept the polls.
This being the case, I am not one of those who are absolutely certain that the BJP is going to do very badly in the next round of elections in Jharkhand and Delhi. It may lose, but one cannot say that with certainty because local factors vary from state to state. All told, after Modi’s clear victory in 2014 in national elections, the BJP lost badly in Delhi and Bihar. But then it bounced back in Uttar Pradesh and Assam. So nothing is permanent politics. This is particularly true with the BJP which has got a better record than its rivals in course-corrections.
Be that as it may, let me point out in the end that BJP’s below-expected performance has pleased immensely some of the ardent followers of the party as much as its opponents. They think that people have given a warning signal to the Modi-Shah duo that notwithstanding their commitment to make India powerful and prosperous, their extremely arrogant style of functioning is turning friends into foes. It so happens that I happen to be, not deliberately though, meeting and hearing more and more such people with each passing day.
By Prakash Nanda