States of the Union: The Anomalous performance of the BJP in State Elections

Digvijay Chakrabarti

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The State assembly elections in 2019 have exposed the chink in BJP’s armour. How did the largest Party in the world, riding on one of the largest Lok Sabha mandates in history, fare so poorly despite capturing the national mood so effectively?


Introduction

In the post-Independence era, politics in India was simple. With a vice-like grip on power, the Indian National Congress enjoyed breezy election victories and were deeply entrenched in both the State and National Legislatures. Hence all the initial policies of the Government, be it the Planning Commission, or the establishment of steel plants or the setting up of IITs were smoothly carried out. Then, the post-Nehru elections of 1967 saw the rise of regional parties. This intensified in the post Emergency era with the rise of Mulayam Singh Yadav and Lalu Prasad under the tutelage of Jayaprakash Narayan. The major boost to regional parties came with a disintegrating Congress Party frivolously using Article 356 to impose President’s Rule, only to give rise to regionalism, aided by strong regional leaders. This effect has now culminated in regional parties having a strong say in forming coalitions at the Centre. Despite the obvious rise of regional parties, until 2013 almost 53% of the state legislatures were dominated by the BJP or the INC. How, then, did the largest Party in the world (in terms of primary membership) fare so poorly in the recent State elections despite capturing the national mood so effectively?


In the heady summer of 2014, one man delivered a mammoth largest mandate to his Party, and went on to trump himself by delivering the larget mandate of Independent India and winning 56% of the seats in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections . Promptly after this, the BJP were outwitted in Maharashtra, trounced in Jharkhand and narrowly managed a victory by relying on an ally in their bastion of Haryana. With the strategically important West Bengal, Delhi and Assam elections coming up, it is time for everyone to introspect why the lethal combination of Modi’s charisma and Amit Shah’s election engineering have failed to woo the same voters in state elections.

When one analyses the recent currents in elections, one thing is very clear. As Dorab Sopariwalla and Prannoy Roy argue in their latest book on trends in Indian elections- the modern Indian voter seeks resonance while casting his or her vote. This resonance differs from the kind that was prevalent in the post-Independence era. In the elections that followed Independence, the cult of the swadeshi freedom fighter, and the image of a Gandhian legacy was enough to secure the faith of voters. The electoral arena has changed drastically since then.  During the national elections of this age, certain keywords resonate with the voters. Be it the larger than life image of the Prime Minister incumbent- Narendra Modi as peddled by the sophisticated IT cell of the ruling Party or the issues of unemployment, corruption and nationalism, the voter will try to connect each keyword or image with a political party or a politician. These responses are neither logical nor natural at all points of time. Often, they are Pavlovian. Hence, the Party with the deepest pockets can use their advertisements to make certain issues, the issues that make the headlines of newspapers and primetime debates.

However, the anomaly rests in the fact that the same electorate that responded to the themes of national security, Hindutva and the economic reforms of Demonetisation and G.S.T, failed to respond in a similar manner in State elections. A large number of voters who favoured the BJP in the Lok Sabha Elections of 2019 such as Muslims, OBCs and Adivasis seemed to have lost their faith in the BJP when it came to State elections in Chhatisgarh, Madhya Pradesh or Rajasthan. This change in attitude could be attributed to the ground issues of unemployment, agrarian distress, lynchings and vigilantism are more prominent when seen more minutely. In State elections, since there are fewer Constituencies, it is easier to reach out to more people individually. This results in the issues that the BJP has traditionally evaded using the rhetoric of jingoism, garnering more attention than issues that are pan-Indian in nature. Since the prominent issues are those that the BJP does not have a strong grasp over, they have been unable to mobilise their resources effectively during campaigning.

Linked to this issue is the role of regional Parties in state elections. Any regional Party is deeply entrenched in the culture and regional nuances of the region where they operate. Be it the appeal of Marxism in Kerala, the Dalit movement in Uttar Pradesh, tribal suffrage in Jharkhand or linguistic provincialism in Bengal and Telangana, Parties that have been formed in a certain region shall always have a more primal connection with the electorate. Moreover, most regional Parties in India either operate under leaders that have achieved cult status in their State (such as the late Jayalalithaa, or Odisha’s Naveen Pattanaik) or under entrenched dynasties such as the Yadavs of the Samajwadi Party in Uttar Pradesh. In such cases, the structure and network of these Parties, deep down to the cadre level cannot be matched even by a national Party with war chests such as the BJP. The leaders of these Parties have identified themselves with certain socio-political issues and their near copyright over these issues make them almost invincible in State elections. Be it Mamata Banerjee’s attempt of Bengali nationalism, or Arvind Kejriwal’s ‘anti-corruption crusader image’, these images stick with the people of their States, making these leaders household names. Now, when the same leaders try to sway voters during national elections, they fail to realize that the issues have changed. As a result the voters don’t associate them with the political message that they try to preach during Lok Sabha polls. This, in turn enables national Parties like the BJP to sell their issues.

The third reason for such an anomalous trend is the manner in which the BJP appeals for votes. In their blind attempts to create an aura around the Prime Minister, they have forgotten to groom strong State satraps who will carry the message of the Central Government during state elections. As a result, the only face that is prominent is that of Narendra Modi. While the BJP has succeeded in fusing the Prime Minister’s image with that of a strong, nationalistic, Hindutva aligned, morally anti-corrupt messiah of a country ridden with corrupt dynasts, hateful liberals, and a pro-minority lobby of elitists (according to the BJP), they have been unable to link his image with issues that are regional in nature. For example, although the BJP won all 7 of Delhi’s Lok Sabha seats, they were swept aside by Arvind Kejriwal’s Aam Admi Party in the elections for Delhi’s Legislature. While the residents of Delhi voted in favour of Narendra Modi’s agenda in Lok Sabha polls, Kejriwal’s ideas of top notch Government schools and subsidized water and electricity enabled him to win 67 out of 70 seats in Delhi’s Legislature. Moreover, the outreach of the BJP had largely focused on discrediting the Nehruvian legacy and thwarting the ambitions of Rahul Gandhi. This backfired on them since the overzealous attempt to malign the Congress resulted in a lack of focus on other important regional Parties. This combined with an image of the BJP as a ‘cow belt’ Party that is isolated from other cultures has hampered their electoral ambitions, and other regional Parties have capitalized on this opportunity.

Another reason why the BJP has not managed to use Amit Shah’s Machiavellian post electoral tricks to win elections in Sates is due to the resurgence of strong, yet flexible alliances, both before and after elections. The larger fear of having their political careers ended by a pan India presence of the saffron camp has led a large number of state leaders to forget their own differences and join hands to defeat the BJP. In the state of Maharashtra, arch-rivals Shiv Sena and the NCP collaborated to thwart the BJP in what seemed to be a script straight of out the movie industry. In a state like Jharkhand, where the coalition formed by the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha-RJD and the Congress defeated the BJP, it is apparent that regional Parties have formed smart alliances to outwit the BJP. One can only imagine what awaits the state of Uttar Pradesh if a charismatic young and persuasive Chandrasekhar Azad begins to actively consolidate Dalit votes for an anti-BJP Alliance. The raison d’etre that an All India Grand Alliance failed the Opposition is dually due to the BJP’s success in fighting the Lok Sabha polls in a Presidential manner, and the confusion that resulted among the electorate due to a hastily chalked out campaign by the Opposition. The role of the Congress has been that of an umbrella organization, something that paid them handsomely in the post-Independence era.


Conclusion

It can thus be concluded that a variety of factors, both orchestrated and forced have prevented the BJP from being able to win State elections with the same mechanical efficiency that have made them a national phenomenon. In a nutshell, despite projecting an astounding 56 inch chest in national politics, the State elections in India continue to expose the steroids in the BJP’s diet.

 

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