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Thursday, Nov 14, 2019

The message from the Assembly polls | HT Editorial

Indian democracy is robust. The BJP is dominant, but there is enough space for the Opposition.

opinion Updated: Oct 24, 2019 23:40 IST

Hindustan Times
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Home minister Amit Shah and BJP working president JP Nadda arrives to address their supporters after Haryana and Maharashtra election results were declared, at party headquarters, in New Delhi.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Home minister Amit Shah and BJP working president JP Nadda arrives to address their supporters after Haryana and Maharashtra election results were declared, at party headquarters, in New Delhi.(Burhaan Kinu/HT PHOTO)

Election results have a way of throwing up surprises, but no one really expected any in the assembly elections in Maharashtra and Haryana. The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was expected to win both comfortably.

The BJP, in alliance with the Shiv Sena, did win Maharashtra (they got 161 seats in a 288-member assembly compared to 185 in 2014, when they had contested separately), but thanks to a fightback from the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), the Congress-NCP alliance won 98 seats. These two parties, again, contested the 2014 elections separately, and, between them, won 83 seats. In Haryana, where the BJP won 47 seats in the 90-member assembly in 2014, the party emerged the single largest force, but won 40 seats, six short of a simple majority. Here, it was the Congress, which surprised everyone, winning 31 seats, more than double of the 15 it did in 2014. And the Jannayak Janata Party (JJP), a splinter group of the Indian National Lok Dal, won 10 seats. The BJP is still best placed to form a government in Haryana. At one level, an incumbent returning to power in a state is creditable. If the BJP forms the government in Haryana, it would have returned to power in both states. Still, the results are not quite what many expected.

There are several takeaways. One, Indian democracy is alive and kicking. After the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the key question was to do with the nature and identity of opposition to the BJP. Thursday’s results show that there is still political space for a party or combine opposed to the BJP. Voters have shown, yet again, that they are, collectively, smarter than politicians, analysts, pollsters, and journalists. As a corollary, the results should bury the entirely unfounded perception that the BJP wins by manipulating electronic voting machines.

Two, the BJP and Prime Minister Narendra Modi are invincible at the national level, but at the local level, neither the party, nor its local leaders are. The party can be beaten — as proved by by-elections, and assembly elections, ahead of the national elections. And the party can be beaten — as the NCP, the Congress (in Haryana) and the JJP have proved — even at a time when the Opposition’s morale is at its lowest, and even, ironically, in their defeat. The BJP also lost one of the two Lok Sabha seats for which bypolls were held (the NCP won the Satara seat), and, across the country, it lost 19 of the 38 seats it contested in assembly bypolls (overall, by-elections were held in 51 assembly seats). Coming after the parliamentary elections in which they were decimated, the results should energise the Opposition. As it should, in Maharashtra, the BJP’s ally, the Shiv Sena, which, with 57 seats, is in a position to exert considerable influence over the contours of the alliance government.

Three, local leaders matter. The Congress had none in Maharashtra and it now faces the ignominy of being the fourth party in the state (in terms of seats won). The NCP was led by Sharad Pawar, 79, who, despite his indifferent health, campaigned tirelessly and led from the front. And in Haryana, Bhupinder Singh Hooda, 72, who was finally given a free hand by the Congress only as recently as a few weeks ago, helped the party expand considerably. Yet again, the Congress has been served a lesson on the importance of strong local leaders, although it isn’t certain that it will learn from this. The BJP will be worried by these developments because they indicate that the party is hugely dependent on Mr Modi.

Four, local issues matter. The BJP, while it did emphasise the development record of its state governments, also focused on national issues, especially the abrogation of Article 370. The Opposition largely focused on local issues — both Mr Pawar and Mr Hooda played up anti-incumbency issues even as they leveraged their significant caste-based electoral bases (the Marathas for one and the Jats for the other).

The Haryana and Maharashtra elections are the first after the summer’s national elections and mark the beginning of the next round of assembly elections. As Opposition parties have discovered to their disadvantage, the BJP is a party which is perennially in election mode. It doesn’t give up even when it doesn’t have the numbers, and as evident from what happened in Karnataka, keeps chipping away over days, weeks, months, even years, when it is in opposition. In both states, the Opposition parties would do well to remember this, rather than rest on their laurels.