Two Indian state elections with lessons for all

Published : 25 Oct 2019 06:52 PM | Updated : 07 Sep 2020 06:25 PM

The results of Maharashtra and Haryana state assembly elections have ensured that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party retains power in both the states. In Maharashtra, the party, in alliance with Nationalist Congress Party, has succeeded in getting majority in the 288-member legislature. But in Haryana, the BJP emerged as the single largest party but failed to secure majority on its own and will have to depend on successful independent and rebel candidates to form government.

However, there is no mistaking that the winner does not take all and there is some cheerful news for the BJP’s political rivals the Congress and the NCP from the latest round of state polls which were the first major battle since the BJP returned to rule India winning national polls just five months ago with a tally of seats bigger than that five years ago. The signals emanating from Maharashtra and Haryana may have important lessons for both sides as they brace for the next round of contest in state elections in Jharkhand, Delhi, West Bengal and Bihar in the next two years.   

Calling the results in Maharashtra and Haryana an "unprecedented victory", Modi said the BJP intended to "work with the same zeal and dedication for the progress of the two states. The reason why Modi termed the win “unprecedented” is, according to him, these days only a few governments return to power after five years. “In such times, to be elected again is a big deal," he told party workers soon after the results were out on Thursday night. He also attributed the results to the hard work of Chief Ministers Devendra Fadnavis in Maharashtra and M L Khattar in Haryana. By making the remarks, Modi made two things clear: one, the BJP’s steely resolve to continue to rule Haryana even though the party did not get majority besides of course Maharashtra and two, both he reiterated his wholehearted backing to Fadnavis and Khattar who were handpicked by him as the top leaders to steer the party to power in the two states in 2014.

But Maharashtra and Haryana poll results also brought some worrying signs for the BJP. Losing majority on its own in Haryana and faring well below expectation in Maharashtra  should give the party a wake-up call about its governance track record. In Haryana, eight of the BJP’s ten ministers lost the elections this time and in Maharashtra its tally of seats came down to 105 this time from  122 in 2014.

The most important message for the BJP from Maharashtra and Haryana should be the limitations of its high-octane Hindutva campaign framed in the nationalistic narrative of withdrawal of Article 370 of the Constitution which gave special status to Jammu and Kashmir and the move to extend the controversial National Register of Citizens across India.

In meeting after meeting in the two states, the BJP had projected Article 370 in a big way as reflective of its political will-power. Just before the election, the Indian army had conducted an artillery strike on terror launch pads in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. In the last few months, the BJP had frequently flagged the NRC issue and its, including Khattar, demanded that the NRC exercise be conducted in every state to weed out illegal immigrants. The party also talked about the Citizen Amendment Bill which would grant citizenship to Hindus, Sikhs, Parsis, Christians, Jains and Buddhists from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan and will not be asked to leave. The deportation and identification of illegal immigrants has been a component of the BJP’s Hindutva agenda.

On the other hand, the Congress and the NCP focused their entire campaign in Haryana and Maharashtra on bread-and-butter issues of the common masses arising out of the economic slowdown and unemployment. Powered by this campaign narrative, the Congress and its ally NCP, despite their disarray post-parliamentary election defeat in May, put up a creditable performance. In Maharashtra, the Congress-NCP alliance increased its tally of seats this time compared to five years ago largely due to an improved show by the NCP. In Haryana, a faction-ridden Congress has nearly doubled its haul of seats from 16 five years ago to 31 this time. This is despite the leadership void and intense factional feud that engulfed the Congress following the resignation of Rahul Gandhi as its President in the wake of dismal performance in national elections. Clearly, the BJP’s Hindutva agenda did not stream-roll bread-and-butter issues raised by the opposition in the recent poll either in Haryana or in Maharashtra and the BJP needed introspection whether it should seriously address the issue of economic revival and address mounting concerns over joblessness caused by shrinking industrial production across a range of sectors.

For the Congress, the Haryana and Maharashtra poll outcome demonstrated the need for timely preparation for poll contest and putting its own house in order. Analysts feel the party’s readiness was delayed by a last-minute leadership change in Haryana unit with former chief minister B S Hooda coming in as its chief ministerial face and Kumari Selja being inducted as the party’s state unit chief in place of Ashok Tankha. While Hooda and Selja are considered Sonia Gandhi loyalists, Tankha is regarded close to Rahul Gandhi. The leadership change took place after Sonia became the party’s interim chief in August, three months after her son’s resignation.

The Congress’ national leadership must start give autonomy to function. For instance, Hooda in Haryana was so fed up with the top leadership of the Congress that at one point he had contemplated to quit the party and float his own regional outfit. Sonia Gandhi ultimately made him the leader of the party’s campaign committee with an assurance that his writ would run in the election. Many in the Congress felt that had the top organizational leadership rejig in Haryana come at least earlier, the Congress could have done better in Haryana.

In Maharashtra, the stand-out performance was dished out by its 79-year-old cancer survivor President Sharad Pawar. He single-handedly led his party which improved its tally of seats from 41 in 2014 assembly polls to 54 this time, a performance that saw Pawar’s party race ahead of its traditional bigger partner the Congress’ kitty of 45 seats. Pawar campaigned relentlessly even in blinding rains and earned the sobriquet of “comeback king.” By contrast, the Congress in Maharashtra election was without a charismatic leader this time since the death of Vilasrao Deshmukh. 

Pallab Bhattacharya is a journalist based in India.