Even as India is just recovering from the marathon seven-phase Lok Sabha elections, which threw up a spectacular victory for Narendra Modi, the political calendar has moved on to the next set of assembly polls – in Maharashtra, Jharkhand and Haryana later this year.
These state elections are important for five reasons.
One, they will show if Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s appeal in the national polls has persisted or whether there has been any dip in popularity. All three states have BJP as the incumbent. A second victory will reinforce the party’s hegemonic position in the polity and mark its consolidation.
Two, this interregnum has been used by the government to push a set of major changes and policy decisions, most significantly in Jammu and Kashmir. The issue is bound to resonate in the campaign across the three states, and will be a test of popular support for the move.
Three, opposition parties were decimated in the Lok Sabha polls. Their morale is low. And the state polls will provide a sense of whether they have got their moorings back, or are still struggling. This is particularly true in the case of the Congress.
Four, the past few months have witnessed a steady dip in economic indicators, and the slowdown in growth is now palpable, with implications for employment across sectors. The political impact, if any, of this will be seen in the state polls.
And finally, each state going to polls has its own importance in the larger scheme of India’s federal polity. As power has devolved to states, who runs the state government often matters more to citizens in that particular local geography than who runs the central government.
A breakdown of the specific actors, issues, and state of play in each of the three states is revealing.
In Maharashtra, the BJP-Shiv Sena alliance, which won over 50 per cent of the vote in the Lok Sabha election and bagged 41 of the 48 seats in the state, has had a somewhat uneasy partnership at the local level. The BJP managed to install, in its capacity as the single largest party, a chief minister for the first time in 2014. Devendra Fadnavis, a young leader, and a Brahmin in a state where Brahmins are demographically not significant has, since then, consolidated and expanded his power. The Shiv Sena, long used to being the senior partner in the alliance, has had to reconcile to a junior status. But it has now staked claim for leadership in the alliance, and Aditya Thackeray – the young scion of the party’s ruling dynasty – will become the first member of his family to contest elections. But the BJP is highly unlikely to cede space on the issue of leadership. The alliance, however, is expected to stay.
While the ruling alliance will face difficulties because of drought and agrarian distress, it is bolstered by the fact that it has pushed through reservations for the Marathas – a long standing demand. This will expand its social coalition. On the other side is the Congress-Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) alliance. There has been an exodus of leaders from the opposition in recent weeks; it is way behind the curve on campaigning even as Fadnavis is completing a yatra across the state on Sunday; its social coalition is relatively limited compared to that of the BJP and Shiv Sena; and a third force, of Prakash Ambedkar and Asaduddin Owaisi, could well take away a segment of Dalit and Muslim votes the Congress-NCP is banking on. Add it all up, and it is advantage Fadnavis. Move on to Haryana, where a similar story is playing out.
The BJP won in 2014, riding on a consolidation of non-Jat communities in the state. It installed the relatively unknown Manohar Lal Khattar as CM. Khattar had a rough beginning, with severe law and order issues flaring up. But over the past few years, he has come to be perceived as a clean leader, providing a semblance of governance, and may well have succeeded in making inroads even among Jats. Like his Maharashtra counterpart, Khattar too is already in campaign mode.
What has truly helped the BJP is the fact that the Congress is in complete disarray, with an internal factional feud between state leaders – Ashok Tanwar and Bhupinder Singh Hooda – percolating down to the grassroots. The third force in Haryana’s politics, Om Prakash Chautala’s Indian National Lok Dal, has split because of a fight within the family and the battle there is now for the third spot. The fragmentation of Jat votes between the Congress and two factions of Chautala’s family is also expected to help the BJP. It is, therefore, advantage Khattar.
In Jharkhand, the BJP’s victory in 2014 was based on a broad social coalition of non-tribal communities. It also appointed the state’s first non-tribal CM in Raghubar Das. The BJP believes its welfare schemes in the state will help it retain power.
But what is as significant is the churn in the opposition. A broad alliance of Congress, Jharkhand Mukti Morcha, the Rashtriya Janata Dal, and Babulal Marandi’s party had hoped to stall the BJP in the Lok Sabha polls. They also hoped to tap into tribal dissatisfaction. But riding on the Modi wave, the BJP, with a smaller ally, won 12 of the 14 seats from the state. This has now changed the political mood. The opposition alliance was based on the understanding that while Congress would fight more seats in Parliament, JMM’s Hemant Soren would be the CM face in the assembly. Whether the understanding holds is not clear. The Congress, here too, is mired in factionalism, with its state president, Ajay Kumar, quitting a few weeks ago and blaming party leaders and their vested interests. Put together, it is advantage Das at the moment.
Politics can evolve quickly. But Modi’s continued appeal, the party’s organisational might, its ability to expand its social coalition in all three states, its proactive campaign, and a weak and fractured Opposition give the BJP an edge in all three upcoming battles. If that happens, the unipolar moment in Indian politics will get further reinforced.