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Tuesday, Nov 12, 2019

Assembly elections 2019 results: BJP wins, Opposition rises

The elections have thrown up a paradox. The BJP has technically won one state (Maharashtra) and remains best-positioned to form the government in the other (Haryana).

assembly-elections Updated: Oct 25, 2019 05:08 IST
Prashant Jha
Prashant Jha
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
Prime Minister Narendra Modi is garlanded as he arrives to addresses his supporters after Haryana and Maharashtra election results were declared at party headquarters in New Delhi on Thursday, October 24.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi is garlanded as he arrives to addresses his supporters after Haryana and Maharashtra election results were declared at party headquarters in New Delhi on Thursday, October 24. (Burhaan Kinu/HT PHOTO)

In the first set of state elections after the Lok Sabha polls, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) won a simple, but not an overwhelming, majority in Maharashtra, paving the way for Devendra Fadnavis, provided the Shiv Sena supports him, to become the first chief minister in 40 years (since Vasantrao Naik) to return to power after a full five-year term.

But defying most expectations, the BJP failed to cross the halfway mark in Haryana, with the state throwing up a hung assembly. This left some uncertainty about who will form the next government and raised questions about the future of incumbent chief minister Manohar Lal Khattar, although analysts said it was likely that the party would eventually form the government with the assistance of independents, the Jannayak Janata Party (JJP), or other smaller parties.

The October 21 elections, while reinforcing the ruling party’s status as the country’s political hegemon, was marked by a surprisingly robust performance by the Opposition — particularly the Congress and the JJP in Haryana, and the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) in Maharashtra. This has meant a dip in the BJP’s seats compared to its previous tally in both states in 2014, though, to be sure, the party contested far fewer seats this time in Maharashtra since it was in an alliance.

The elections have thrown up a paradox. The BJP has technically won one state (Maharashtra) and remains best-positioned to form the government in the other (Haryana). But the Opposition has politically scored in both by improving its performance and defying the widely held perception that it would be a clean sweep for the BJP, based on its recent Lok Sabha performance. The polls have also brought into focus the intersection of national and state elections, national and state issues, national and local leaders, and the salience of both identity politics and economic concerns.

In Maharashtra, out of 288 seats, the BJP won 105 and the Sena 56 — which gives the NDA a comfortable 161 seats to form government . The nature of the power-sharing arrangement between the two is, however, uncertain. At a press conference after the results came in on Thursday afternoon, Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray called it a mandate in their favour, but insisted that the “50-50” deal, as agreed to between the two parties, which may entail chief ministership (if only for two-and-half years) for the Sena, must be respected. The NCP, led by the veteran Sharad Pawar, won 54 seats and the Congress came fourth with 44 seats.

The big shock for the BJP came in Haryana. Out of 90 assembly seats, the party won 40, down from 47 in 2014. The Congress, led by former chief minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda, came in a close second with 31 seats, up from the 15 seats it held in the previous assembly. And the JJP, led by Dushyant Chautala, a splinter of the Om Prakash Chautala-led Indian National Lok Dal (INLD), won 10 seats, emerging as the swing force. Seven independents also won, and they may play a key role in government formation. While Hooda appealed to all non-BJP players to come together, BJP declared that it would form the next government in the state.

Both the BJP and the Opposition claimed victory after the results.

“When governments often lose power after five years, it is remarkable that BJP dispensations in Maharashtra and Haryana have been given a fresh mandate for five years,” the Prime Minister said, pointing out in a victory celebration at the party headquarters that regaining power in both states was “unprecedented”.

Describing the Haryana outcome as a verdict against the BJP, Congress leader Anand Sharma said all parties opposing the BJP must come together on the appeal by Hooda to unite.

“We accept the verdict of the people with humility. This verdict is a moral defeat for the BJP and what they stand for,” he said at a press conference.

Both states witnessed a battle at three levels.

The first was on issues. Through a vigorous campaign led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, party president Amit Shah, and CM Fadnavis and CM Khattar, the BJP positioned itself as the nationalist party which had taken on terror, shown the courage to revoke Article 370 that conferred special status on Jammu & Kashmir, given India its rightful place in the world, and will now take on illegal immigrants through a nationwide National Register of Citizens (NRC).

It also focused on the delivery of welfare benefits, both through central and state government schemes. The Opposition, led primarily by Pawar in Maharashtra and Hooda in Haryana, whose efforts were supplemented only marginally by Congress leader Rahul Gandhi through a total of seven rallies, focused on economic concerns, slowing growth, closure of industries, rising unemployment, floods and droughts, farmer suicides, and agrarian distress. The verdict indicates that while nationalism and the delivery of the state government did have resonance, so did concerns about the economy, especially in states which are both key agrarian and industrial hubs.

The second layer of the election was between national and state leaders. While Modi was the BJP’s primary face in both campaigns, and Fadnavis and Khattar were projected as the local leaders, the Opposition campaign relied entirely on regional leaders. In Maharashtra, the Opposition did not have a CM face, but Pawar — an experienced hand, with a solid social base of Marathas, vigorous campaigning skills, and resources — put up a strong resistance.

In Haryana, Hooda — another experienced hand and considered a member of the Congress’s “old guard”, with a formidable social base among Jats, and resources — led the battle. The state also saw a young leader in Dushyant Chautala emerge as the inheritor of the Devi Lal legacy. The outcome also reflects that local candidates in constituencies also mattered to voters, who picked representatives rather than rely only on the PM’s image and popularity.

The third layer was of caste. In Haryana, the BJP was banking on a consolidation of non-Jat communities, and winning over a segment of Jats, while hoping the rest of the Jats would fragment between the Congress, the INLD and the JJP. But results indicate that, instead, some Jats consolidated behind the Congress and, in seats where it could win, the JJP — and it was the Opposition which succeeded in making inroads into the non-Jat communities with shrewd ticket distribution.

In Maharashtra, the BJP’s hopes of retaining its non-Maratha base, while making inroads into the Maratha vote, appears to have faced a jolt. In western Maharashtra, the NCP’s strong performance indicates that Marathas stayed with the party, and the loss of seats in even BJP strongholds like Vidarbha — home of Fadnavis — suggests that its old vote base diminished.

The outcome is also seen as a maturing of the Indian democratic polity, where voters are increasingly making a distinction between Lok Sabha and state polls. In both Haryana and Maharashtra, the BJP and its allies swept the national polls just five months ago. But the party saw a dip in its vote share (compared to the national elections) this time around, and the corresponding leads in assembly segments from the Lok Sabha did not materialise. This is in line with what was witnessed last year, when the Congress won Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, but lost in all three states in the Lok Sabha elections; in 2014-15, when the BJP won all seven seats in the Lok Sabha in Delhi, the Aam Aadmi Party won 67 of the 70 assembly seats in the city polls just eight months later; or in Bihar when the BJP scored big in the Lok Sabha polls in 2014 but was defeated the very next year in the assembly polls.

Political theorist and commentator Pratap Bhanu Mehta of the Ashoka University said there are four implications that have emerged. “The first is psychological. The fear often with one-party dominance is that the structures of patronage are so strong and victory so inevitable that others do not have a choice but to fall in line. This shows that it need not be the case, and should give pause to many in the political system, including defectors who jumped ship.”

The second, Mehta said, was what it meant for the BJP’s anti-corruption narrative. Leaders such as Ajit Pawar, for instance, won with a resounding majority and the NCP emerged as a strong opposition despite facing allegations of corruption. “It shows that if you target leaders who are popular, and the charges are not seen as credible or driven by vendetta, then it energises their base. BJP should pause and think about its anti-corruption narrative and the fact that it is perceived as targeting opposition leaders.”

The third implication, Mehta said, was what it meant for Opposition space in the polity. “If you look at the arithmetic, it does appear that if the disparate opposition forces had come together or coordinated, then there would have been a multiplier effect.” And finally, the elections, Mehta believed, had lessons for the national leadership of both parties. “It is interesting to ask what the nationalisation of state elections does. In Congress’s case, this was an election which was quite bereft of Sonia or Rahul Gandhi’s presence. In the BJP’s case, it was driven largely by the national leadership and narrative. But that may have ended up hurting the local units.”

The fact, however, remains that BJP continues to be India’s dominant political force, likely to retain power in both states after five years, despite the dip. Observers said that the high bar BJP sets for itself, and the low bar that the Opposition has set for itself, cannot be discounted in how the results are being interpreted.

Commenting on the results, Milan Vaishnav of the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace said: “Such is the lowly state of the Opposition that even the absence of clear victories is taken as a sign of triumph. The Haryana and Maharashtra results demonstrate that there is ample fodder for opposition mobilisation—if only the Opposition knew how to avoid being its own worst enemy time and time again.”