National, state elections: Do voters differentiate? - Hindustan Times
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National, state elections: Do voters differentiate?

ByRahul Verma
Jan 01, 2022 08:03 PM IST

The verdict in assembly polls may not indicate the possible results of the Lok Sabha polls or the vice-versa, but the state results can reveal both the scope and limits of the BJP’s dominance as well as Indian democracy

Among the seven states that will vote in 2022 to elect their assemblies, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is an incumbent in all but one. And the party will be contesting these elections under the weight of an emerging electoral trend that is not favourable to it.

People showing their voting ID cards, Panchkula , December 27, 2020 (Keshav Singh/HT Photo) PREMIUM
People showing their voting ID cards, Panchkula , December 27, 2020 (Keshav Singh/HT Photo)

Despite the BJP’s victory in the 2019 Lok Sabha (LS) elections, state assemblies have remained elusive for the party. The BJP is having a tough time retaining (or winning) states where it is the incumbent. The party lost in the 2019 Jharkhand elections, failed to come back to power in Maharashtra, and returned in Haryana under a coalition arrangement. The BJP emerged as the single-largest part in the 2020 Bihar polls, but only managed to retain power with allies, and with a narrow margin. Perhaps Assam is the only state in the recent past where the BJP held on to its past performance.

Furthermore, recent state elections have shown a significant drop in the party’s vote share in comparison to national elections. While the extent of difference in vote share may vary, the pattern was consistent where national and state elections were held concurrently (Odisha, Arunachal Pradesh), shortly before (Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Telangana), or shortly after (Haryana, Maharashtra, Jharkhand and Delhi).

It is no surprise then that many observers find the inability of the BJP to replicate its LS performance in state elections puzzling. After all, the party enjoys similar organisational and resource advantages over its competitors in both kinds of elections. The difference, then, for such observers between two sets of elections, is leadership. And the analytical weight to explain this pattern gets limited to the centralising tendencies of Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi — the sheer centralisation of the welfare delivery system, and the advertising built around it.

While there is some truth to the claim that the BJP’s over-reliance on Modi has created a significant cost for the party at the state level, setting up the national-state election results divergence as a unique puzzle to the BJP underplays the role of several other explanations that are doing the heavy lifting. This is not to argue against the fact that the final vote share differs for the BJP, but to put the emerging trend in a historical context and set the scope of this analytical question right.

First, the divergence in the performance of a party in national and state elections is neither a new phenomenon in Indian politics, nor are there enough data points to claim that a large portion of voters is engaging in split-ticket voting, i.e., choosing different parties in national and state elections. Perhaps barring the first decade after Independence, there has always been a distinction in how Indians vote in state and national elections. In the 1960s and 1970s, the Congress’s dominance at the national level was met with significant opposition at the state level. Similarly, the fragmented party system and severe instability in ruling coalitions — both at the Centre and in the states since 1989 — created a conducive atmosphere that encouraged swing voters to place a premium on different parties in different elections. The proportion of such voters (who split their tickets or frequently change parties) have rarely crossed the segment that displays moderate to strong party attachment.

Second, since Modi’s anointment as the chief campaigner of the BJP in 2013, the party has witnessed its social and geographical expansion, especially in states where the BJP was either a marginal force or in opposition. By the end of 2017, the party, along with allies was ruling in 21 states, roughly 70% of the population. The electoral victories then meant that now the BJP is contesting as an incumbent party in most states. In these elections, voters are evaluating and scrutinising the BJP state governments based on their performances, and Modi’s popularity has a limited value.

Third, it is only when measured against the hype that the BJP creates of its expected performance that in many states its final tally looks dismal, but in reality, the party does manage to change the equilibrium in its favour. Think of Haryana. Despite a 20 percentage point drop in its assembly elections vote share, the party is in power for a second consecutive time in a state wherein pre-2014 its vote share was in single digits.

Or take the case of Bengal. Though it lost badly, the BJP has emerged as the principal Opposition, decimating both the Congress and the Left in the state. And notwithstanding these electoral reversals, the BJP’s ideological project remains at its peak, and even the opposition to its politics mirrors the party’s ideas and tactics (for example, the recent debate on Hindu Vs Hindutva).

Fourth, the arrival of Modi on India’s political centre-stage marked a shift in the voting matrix. The outcome of the national elections was no longer a sum total of state-level verdicts. Modi’s campaign style brought a plebiscitary character to the LS elections in which the party’s ideological platforms were coated with a hyper-nationalistic pitch and a strong focus on welfare delivery. There is a national mood during the LS elections that dissolves state specificities. This created conditions for assembly elections becoming a site of deeper contestation and bringing state specificities back with greater vigour. Political parties are learning entities and many of them have adapted to the new realities of emerging politics. They seem to have developed a template to challenge the BJP juggernaut in their respective strongholds which involves three things: Highlight local issues and if needed play on sub-regionalist sentiments; as far as possible, stay clear of direct attacks on Modi and challenge the National Democratic Alliance’s state-level leadership; and avoid walking into the trap on national issues, particularly religion and national security.

Fifth, the BJP’s success in many of its non-traditional states (such as Haryana, Maharashtra, and Jharkhand, among others) was based on the consolidation of non-dominant social groups. However, there is a limit to this strategy as a large section among the dominant castes felt excluded from the ruling coalition and asserted themselves in state elections. These antagonised voters may still vote for the BJP in the Lok Sabha elections, but not in the same numbers in state elections. After all, the dominance of these groups is built on controlling various levers of State power.

Given these realities of Indian’s federal polity, the Opposition may appear electorally decimated at the national level, but it will make its presence felt in assemblies. What should we expect from the upcoming assembly elections in 2022 to inform us about national politics? It is also no-brainer that among the seven, retaining Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat are crucial for the BJP in the run-up to 2024. Not merely because of the number of MPs they send to the Lok Sabha. The two states are important because they form the core of BJP’s narrative — the BJP flaunted the Gujarat model in its campaigns and the party won all 26 LS seats in the last two elections; Modi represents UP in the LS, and the size of the BJP contingent in the House has been heavily dependent on its performance in the state.

Despite the plebiscitary character of Lok Sabha campaigns, elections are still won and lost in the states. Although the verdict in the assembly may not inform the possible results of the LS or the vice-versa, the interplay of political competition at the state level will continue to determine the nature of the national party system. Once we focus on the state level, we can understand both the scope and limits of the BJP’s dominance as well as Indian democracy.

Rahul Verma is with the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi

The views expressed are personal

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