What Maharashtra and Haryana reveal about Indian politics
This set of elections will once again show the robustness of India’s electoral democracy. This is good news. But it will also expose the challenges that come with becoming an almost unipolar polity, where power is concentrated within a partyUpdated: Oct 12, 2019 21:07 IST
In a week from now, Maharashtra and Haryana will go to polls. Elections always throw up surprises. And it is best to wait for the outcome. But all the reports emerging from both states point to one common trend.
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), in power at the Centre and in both the states since 2014, is most likely to return to office. This could be in a coalition with the Shiv Sena (SS) in Maharashtra, and on its own in Haryana. The big question appears to be about the margin of victory. The elections may also, consequently, see the defeat of the Congress.
If this happens, what does it tell us about the underlying patterns of Indian politics?
The first conclusion is obvious. As Milan Vaishnav and Jamie Hintston of the Carnegie Endowment have argued, India is now witnessing the birth of the fourth party system. The first system was defined by Congress dominance (1952-67); the second was marked by growing opposition at the state level (1967-89); and the third saw the birth of coalition politics (1989-2014). And the fourth, since 2014, has been marked by the arrival of the BJP, under Narendra Modi, as the India’s most politically powerful, organisationally dominant, and ideologically hegemonic force. The 2019 victory showed 2014 was no mere aberration; the expansion of the party across states, social groups, and regions is now an established fact. Retaining power in Maharashtra and Haryana will once again reinforce the BJP’s dominance.
Two, it will show the power of the nationalism narrative, as projected by the BJP. As Rahul Verma of the Centre for Policy Research has argued, nationalism has been a theme in Indian politics, but its nature has changed. If the Congress of Jawaharlal Nehru focused on both the anti-colonial and the secular, civic form of nationalism, the Congress of Indira Gandhi began to make a slow shift towards a more muscular form of nationalism, with a dash of Hindu symbolism thrown in during her later years. The BJP has promoted a more Hindu-centric form of religious nationalism. This has both elements of anti-Pakistan and anti-minority rhetoric. The post-Uri surgical strike, the Balakot air strike, and now the moves on Kashmir fit into the former; the exclusion of Muslims from the political power structure fits into the latter. Irrespective of one’s view on the desirability of this form of nationalism, it appears to have popular resonance. The Opposition has not been able to counter this. As HT reported from Haryana last week, a voter in Panipat mentioned how he wished to vote for the Congress candidate — but would not do so because the party was “anti-national”. The image, fair or not, is getting entrenched and the party will have to be creative in breaking it.
The third element is the steady expansion of the BJP among different caste groups that constitute the Hindu fold. In Haryana, the BJP, in 2014, focused on creating a coalition of non-Jat castes, resentful of Jat domination in politics. In Maharashtra, it created a substantial non-Maratha coalition, resentful of Maratha domination in politics. But in the upcoming 2019 election, while retaining its old caste groups, the BJP is aggressively wooing both Jats and Marathas too. It is also seeking to expand its presence among the Dalits, who constitute a substantial population segment in both states. If the BJP does succeed, it will once again show that the party is turning into an inclusive Hindu outfit — and that perhaps is a key reason for its success.
The fourth big message of this election is the evidence of dividends a party can reap in having both significant national and state leaders. The BJP made two unusual choices in the two states — Devendra Fadnavis and Manohar Lal Khattar as chief ministers. Their rise was attributed to their close association with the Sangh and Modi’s patronage. But Khattar, despite stumbling on law and order, has carved out an image of being honest in a political culture known for cronyism and corruption. Fadnavis has developed an image of an effective administrator and a shrewd politician who can take along different social groups and political actors. The BJP is perceived as a centralised party apparatus under Modi and Shah. This is undoubtedly true. But what is missed in this is that the central leadership has allowed local leaders to grow. The emergence of state leaders who now have developed capabilities of their own is a highlight of this election.
The fifth strand in this election is the state of the opposition, particularly the Congress. As Salman Khurshid admitted last week, the party has failed to introspect on the reasons for its loss in the 2019 polls. In a democratic polity, wins and losses are a part of the game. This is followed by a review, necessary corrections, and revival. But Congress has not even got to the first step of understanding the root causes of its electoral debacle and steady erosion of strength. This has now trapped the party in a vicious cycle. It is out of power; it is ideologically incoherent; it has a weak national leadership; there is internal factionalism; its state leaders and workers are demotivated; and it has limited resources. All of this leads to election losses. And once the loss happens, the party gets further entrenched in the web of having even lower resources, further divisions, lower morale, a sense of fatalism about its fortunes, more confusion about the political line to pursue, and a greater exodus of leaders. Till this cycle is broken — either through a string of electoral successes or by getting the party machine back in order — it will remain stuck.
This set of elections will once again show the robustness of India’s electoral democracy. This is good news. But it will also expose the challenges that come with becoming an almost unipolar polity, where power is concentrated within a party. Irrespective of where you stand on the political spectrum, this is worrying news for democracy.