The return of federalism
The outcome of the assembly elections is a setback to both national parties and will result in more assertive states. It is also now time for all the new governments to focus on Covid-19. Swear in the new chief ministers immediately, don’t fight over cabinet berths, and work on beating back the second wave.
With the Trinamool Congress (TMC) winning West Bengal for a third time, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) returning to power in Tamil Nadu after a decade, the Left Democratic Front (LDF) breaking a four-decade-old electoral pattern to retain power in Kerala, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) retaining Assam, and the National Democratic Alliance coming to power in Puducherry for the first time, there is a mandate both for continuity and change in the different regions that went to polls. But the results will also have an impact on national politics in five different ways.
One, there will be a restoration of a degree of balance in Indian federalism — which is good — and greater tension between the Centre and states, which needs careful management. In recent years, espec-ially after the BJP’s 2019 win, there has been a perception of the Centre undermining the powers of the states. The fact that three important states, Bengal, Tamil Nadu and Kerala, will be governed by parties which are politically and ideologically opposed to the BJP means that there will be a greater assertion of federal rights. The Centre has a choice — it can either double down or continue with its curr-ent approach where the BJP’s political aims often supersede the principle of cooperative federalism or it can be more collaborative. The states have a choice too — they can either become more confrontational for the sake of it or adopt a strong but constructive approach. Harmony would be a wiser course of action for both.
Second, the BJP has undoubtedly faced a setback, at a time when its political capital is diminishing due to the Centre’s handling of the Covid-19 crisis. The BJP may want to satisfy itself with the definitely credible improvement in its performance in Bengal — but it fought to win, and that did not happen. It may satisfy itself with the fact that it had limited stakes in Tamil Nadu — but it did invest in its alliance with the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), and this did not work. It will have to reconcile to the fact that the party is not in power in any of India’s big metros — Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, Kolkata — which may have implications for its future electoral strength, though it must be underlined that national and state elections have shown different patterns.
Three, the balance of power in the Opposition has decisively shifted from the Congress to regional parties. The Congress lost Assam despite the fact that the BJP was on the defensive on its citizenship agenda; it lost Kerala despite the fact that Rahul Gandhi is a parliamentarian from the state and it was the party’s turn to win; it is but a minor partner of the DMK in Tamil Nadu; it is almost decimated in Bengal; and it even managed to lose Puducherry. On the other hand, strong regional forces such as the TMC, the DMK and the Left (which is clearly a regional force now, not national) have done well. This will have implications for any understanding within the Opposition for the 2024 polls.
Four, the election has shown both the possibilities and limits of religious polarisation. In Bengal, the BJP fought on the agenda of “appeasement” — a code to suggest that the TMC was partial to Muslims and that Hindus should, therefore, consolidate to defeat the incumbent. It was believed that the Citizenship (Amendment) Act was introduced by the BJP-led government to win over Hindu votes in Bengal. But the results show that its attempt at polarisation not only failed but may have boomeranged — the fear that the BJP would come to power resulted in Muslim consolidation behind the TMC, but the fear of TMC’s return was clearly not deeply felt among Hindus for them to consolidate behind the BJP. In Assam, however, the party succeeded with its explicitly polarising agenda — where the traditional insider-versus-outsider ethnic debate was converted to a Hindu-versus-Muslim religious debate. The politics of religion will persist but these results hold lessons. And finally, the elections have shown the importance of the politics of governance and welfare. Ms Banerjee’s women-centric schemes, the BJP’s strong welfare push in Assam, and the Left’s handling of both public health and natural disasters helped. This is indeed a continuation of the lesson from Narendra Modi’s own win in 2019, where welfare played an important role.
It is now time for all the new governments to focus on Covid-19. Swear in the new chief ministers immediately, don’t fight over cabinet berths, and work on beating back the second wave.