There is no doubt that the vote was against the ruling establishment
It was meant to be a dull counting day. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was expected to consolidate on the huge gains made during the Lok Sabha elections, and sail through very comfortably in both Maharashtra and Haryana assembly elections. The reports that were coming from the ground suggested some discontent with the BJP governments in the states, but they were expected to return with a thumping majority, owing to a weak and fragmented Opposition. The reports also made clear that a meta-identity of majoritarian nationalism has helped the BJP overcome dominant versus non-dominant caste divisions. The party’s national leadership toiled hard on the campaign trail in both the states, and the Congress national leaders seemed virtually absent. Most exit polls, except the one with the track record of correctly predicting the maximum number of elections in the past five years, had emphatically announced huge majorities for the BJP-Shiv Sena in Maharashtra, and the BJP alone in Haryana.
Indian voters have once again surprised election analysts like me. Though the BJP-Sena has crossed the majority-mark in Maharashtra, and the BJP has emerged as the single-largest party in Haryana, there is no doubt that the vote on October 21 was against the ruling establishment. The BJP has not only lost significant chunk of votes in comparison to the 2019 general elections, but its performance points to the party’s fragile base as far as the assembly elections are concerned.
What explains this change in electoral fortunes of parties within a matter of few months? Voters have clearly indicated that they will not be taken for granted. While they continue to repose faith in Prime Minister Narendra Modi as they believe only he can deliver, they are equally concerned with the loss in economic opportunities. Like a pocketbook voter, who is deeply concerned about her earnings and savings, voters have used these assembly elections as an opportunity to send clear signals to the BJP headquarters in Delhi.
Could the results have been any different? May be, if the BJP had not taken its victory for granted, or the Opposition had not gone into the election, thinking that the first slot had already been taken. The Congress’ treatment of its state leaders can be seen as a key factor in the ultimate electoral outcomes. The Congress in Haryana has moved from political oblivion to the centrestage, and this is largely because of former Haryana chief minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda, who had the capacity to mobilise the party troops. In Maharashtra, where it had no one comparable and had not invested in state-level leaders consistently, it has now become the junior partner of the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP). Sharad Pawar, who fought like a lone warrior to save his family bastion, rallied his supporters and has managed to ward off the imminent challenge to his political empire built over decades. Pawar’s party, despite losing a significant chunk of its legislators to the BJP-Sena, has shown resilience in western and northern Maharashtra.
The analysis of the election results suggest that the BJP lost more votes in rural areas in both states, could not hold on to the gains made in north Haryana (with a significant Dalit population) and Vidarbha region (home to a deep agrarian crisis) in the past elections, and failed to keep the dominant castes in its coalition. It was always a tricky affair to manage the coalition of extremes, and the results have confirmed that the carrot-and-stick policy doesn’t work in the electoral arena for too long. The party, compared to the 2014 elections, has not managed to match its performance in the reserved constituencies either.
It has also become clear that Modi has managed to create an independent base for himself, which is independent from the party. These voters assess Modi and other BJP incumbents using a very different set of parameters.
When Modi himself is not the contender, local concerns become a dominant factor in the calculations of voters. As a candidate, he can perhaps convince voters to forgo economic concerns, but formidable state leaders like Hooda and Pawar can effectively put the question of the economy at the centrestage when faced with a Manohar Lal Khattar or Devendra Fadnavis.
The most pertinent question in this election was whether India would move closer to a one-party dominant system, or whether there is space for Opposition parties. Electoral democracies thrive with presence of a vibrant Opposition. These election results have given another lease of life to the Opposition parties. Will they build on it or squander it away? The next round of elections in Delhi and Jharkhand will provide a clearer answer to this question.
Rahul Verma is a Fellow at the Centre for Policy Research
The views expressed are personal