The recent election results of two states signal a weakening of the Modi regime in the Centre and the re-emergence of its political opponents that will likely slow down its expansion plans.
On the face of it, nothing had changed for India’s ruling party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), when results to the provincial elections in Maharashtra and Haryana were declared on October 24. It was set to return to power in both states.
But the fact that the party — just five months after winning an absolute majority in the Indian general election that returned Prime Minister Narendra Modi to power — had scored below its previous tallies in both states and is still negotiating with allies, old and prospective, is the most significant political development spurred by these elections.
That there is no threat to Modi’s government at the Centre is a given, but the results of the dual elections signal a weakening of the BJP’s hold in the states and the re-emergence of its political opponents that will likely force it to slow down its expansion plans. The modest wins in both states leave the BJP at the mercy of its allies and puncture the immodest myth of its political invincibility that its top leadership, chiefly Modi and party president Amit Shah, had begun to peddle after its win in May.
In times of economic downturn and agrarian distress, the party will have to rethink its strategy of drumming up hypernationalism over the troubled, majority-Muslim state of Jammu and Kashmir, the results show.
In the smaller, 90-seat, state assembly in Haryana, the BJP had won 47 seats in the October 2014 assembly election -- riding high on the Modi wave that helped the party win an absolute majority in the lower house of the Indian parliament in May that year. That was the first time the BJP had come to power in the small but politically and economically significant state without the help of an ally.
This time around, the BJP has finished well below the half-way mark with 40 seats and the Congress -- the principal opposition party, also at the Centre -- is close behind with 31. The ruling party had set itself a target of crossing the 75-seat mark with the slogan, “Abki baar, 75 paar (This time, we’ll cross 75)”. So finishing below the majority mark and woefully short of its professed target is a double whammy for the BJP, which does not have a natural base in the state. It cannot hope to build a support base organically but will have to rely on the combination of money, power and arm-twisting political adversaries to bring them into its fold.
The Congress party could have fared a lot better if the party leadership had snuffed out the factionalism in the state election rather than look the other way, experts believe.
The somewhat narrow gap between the Congress and the BJP will change the balance of power in the state assembly and likely impact the ruling party’s ties with its ally in neighbouring Punjab, the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) that has long positioned itself as a Sikh party. The SAD fought the Haryana election as an independent force this time and not as the BJP’s ally. This development could snowball into both parties parting ways in the future, impacting the future success of Modi’s public rallies abroad. The Punjabi diaspora is an influential part of the Indian diaspora and often allies with either the Congress or the SAD.
Ally trouble doesn’t end with Punjab for the BJP. Its subdued numbers in Maharashtra - the BJP is down from 122 to 105 in the 288-member assembly - means the party may well return to power but will need the help of its long-standing ally, the Shiv Sena. “A depleted BJP tally in Maharashtra also means that they have to deal with a very aggressive Sena,” said Dhaval Kulkarni, journalist and biographer of Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray. The SS has already demanded in writing a promise from the BJP that it will have an equal share in power in the state.
The decline of the BJP has resulted in the rise of the regional force and Congress ally, the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), led by the man who left the Congress over two decades ago after challenging party president Sonia Gandhi over her foreign origins. The party’s numbers rose from 41, five years ago, to 54. The chiefs of both regional parties have also managed to boost their next generation in state politics with this election. Pawar’s grandson Rohit Pawar and Thackeray’s son Aditya have both won their elections.
“The Congress on the other hand, has all but melted in Maharashtra,” Kulkarni said. Party leader Rahul Gandhi, who was forced to quit as party president after the general election defeat, campaigned in the state but seemed to be out of touch with the real issues affecting the election. “He spoke of the Rafale deal in a local election instead of the bread and butter issues here. He should have spoken on agrarian distress,” Kulkarni added. The Rafale is a fighter jet that the Modi government has purchased from French manufacturer Dassault amid charges of corruption in the deal. The Congress had failed to rally support around the issue in the April-May general election.
Both Maharashtra and Haryana are severely affected by the economic slowdown and agrarian distress. Results in Haryana show that the BJP’s losses have been the greatest in the rural areas. The party’s new ally, the Jannayak Janata Party, is only 10 months old. Party leader Dushyant Chautala is part of a political dynasty and great grandson of former Indian deputy prime minister and farmer’s leader Devi Lal. Chautala broke away from his grandfather’s Indian National Lok Dal (INLD) and seemed to have usurped a significant part of the party’s support base of farmers. The JJP finishing with 10 seats in the election and allying with the BJP comes at a cost: likely tensions between the allies. The farmers of the state predominantly belong to the domineering caste groups, the Jats. The community sees the BJP as a political adversary and not an ally since it held a series of violent protests in February 2016 against the state government.
The comfortable wins of the next generation in political dynasties, such as Chautala, Pawar and Thackeray, have a strong message for Rahul Gandhi and his party: the electorate has not rejected political dynasties that are willing to challenge the BJP.
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