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For the BJP, 2015 was bleak in electoral terms so its upbeat mood is understandable. However, a closer scrutiny would suggest that the foundations of this “victory” of the BJP go back to 2014.
What’s happened now is that the BJP has been able to marginally replicate its performance in 2014 in the four states that went to polls recently. Only in Kerala, has there been an improvement in the BJP’s vote share from 2014 (see table, page 2). This, by itself, is no mean achievement for the BJP but the euphoria needs to be placed in perspective.
Four states (and one Union Territory) have produced distinctly different electoral verdicts reflecting the specificities of their politics.
Two states where the Congress was in power witnessed an upset reversal for the ruling party. Two other states where a state party was in power, returned the incumbent. This has very important implications at the all-India level. While one does talk of the national picture, recognizing the distinctiveness of each state and its verdict permits a better appreciation of the common trends that one can read through them.
Eastern success for BJP
An easy explanation for the Assam verdict would be “anti-incumbency,” against the 15-year Congress government led by Tarun Gogoi. Given Congress’s lackluster record of governance, this explanation is not altogether wrong. However, in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, the BJP had already made a splash in the state by winning half the seats in the state. Building on that, the party made the right moves in terms of alliances and projection of a Chief Ministerial candidate.
But BJP’s first ever success in Assam has come with a specific social configuration. In a state rich with its overlapping diversities of identity and ethnicity, one over-towering social cleavage seems to have emerged: Hindu vs. Muslim.
As the piece on Assam explains in greater detail, in contrast to the political division among “Muslims” of Assam, there has been an unprecedented Hindu consolidation facilitating the victory of the BJP and its allies.
The BJP did not have similar luck in West Bengal. Not that it aimed at winning the state; but it could not make much of an impact there. What distinguishes West Bengal is the fact that the ruling party improved on its 2011 and 2014 performance by winning more seats and polling more votes! Neither the “jote,” (alliance) of Left and Congress nor the strident efforts of BJP to dent state’s politics hurt the Trinamool.
In a sense, the state’s characteristic of ‘dominant party system’ has continued.
But the West Bengal outcome is a poser in one more sense. The Trinamool victory defies media criticisms, allegations of corruption and charges of political high-handedness. This calls for greater analytical focus on public psyche and the “‘next-door- person-turned fighter” image of the leader of the Trinamool Congress. Not to forget, the various welfare schemes ushered in by the Trinamppl government seem to be having a favourable impact. Thus, hidden under shrill political rhetoric, there might as well be a logic of delivery that helped the incumbent government retain power.
The Southern Front
In Kerala, given the history of turnover of state governments, the LDF victory is not really the big story; the BJP’s entry into state-level competition deserves greater attention.
In a state where the two coalitions have most often defeated each other only by slender margins, the rise of BJP as a third player with almost 15 per cent votes suggests an imminent challenge to the bipolarity of Kerala.
The huge gap between the two coalitions in terms of votes (and seats) unmistakably points to the weakening of the Kerala model of bipolar competition. The possibilities are that the non-Left coalition would get redefined, forcing the Christian community to make a choice between BJP-led coalition and Left-led coalition (already, at least one in every three Christian voters seems to have voted for LDF) or bipolarity itself would be jeopardized.
Our survey suggests that the BJP has managed to attract sizable sections among Nairs, Ezhavas and SCs in the state. While this leaves the Congress with practically only the “minority,” votes, the implications for the intercommunity balance are also enormous. Like Assam, here too, the possibility of religious identity becoming the most salient one, looms large.
The real cliff hanger of 2016 has been the Tamil Nadu verdict. Analyses of AIADMK’s victory would now follow. But an equally important story of Tamil Nadu is about the strong comeback made by DMK — an improvement of eight percent in vote share and 89 seats from the paltry 23 it had won last time. If mere coalition logic impacted the outcome anywhere, it is in Tamil Nadu. The fragmentation of the polity into multipolar competition, though not new, became much too complex allowing the ruling party to scrape through.
Tamil Nadu now remains one of the few states that has more or less completely insulated from the ‘Modi-factor’ both in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls and subsequently. At the same time, Jayalalithaa’s relatively difficult victory would persuade her to eventually buy peace with the BJP and thus yet again, create possibilities for the entry of BJP into the state.
What are the larger patterns emerging from these differently produced state-level outcomes?
First, we need to note the nebulous nature of “satisfaction” with a government and its complex relationship with the outcome. Our surveys show that both in Kerala and in Assam, people had negative assessments of the state governments whereas in Tamil Nadu and West Bengal, voters’ assessment of the state governments was somewhat positive. But the outcomes and results of BJP’s efforts in these states become intelligible if we take into account also the factor of satisfaction with the Modi government.
Only in Assam, did people have a somewhat positive assessment of the Modi government. In the other three states, it was negative (Table Two).
So, it is reasonable to surmise that both the state government and the national government are on test when an election takes place for the state Assembly (and vice versa, as our previous studies of national elections indicate).
Two, the outcomes firmly indicate the inevitability and yet the unavoidable clumsiness of coalition politics — a normal in Indian politics. Given this reality, the skills of coalition-making continue to be crucial in the shaping of electoral successes.
Congress has lost both the skills and the necessary coalitionability.
In Assam, BJP was fortunate in having two disgruntled parties with limited ability to win on their own but in Tamil Nadu it could neither win smaller allies nor convince itself to accept the terms set by AIADMK-and paid the price.
Three, and to us, most crucially, these election outcomes yet again underscore the importance of state-level political configurations.
Not just the fact that in almost each of these four states, state level players made all the difference, but also the nature of competition, its impact on various players, filtering of the national appeals and images, and the social bases that allowed victories and produces losses, are all state-specific. This is what the BJP ignored in case of Bihar and made amends this time around. As we move away from the Modi magic of 2014, this crucial reality would be a major factor in shaping the electoral arena.
More importantly, this means that challenge to the BJP can arise mainly from state-based parties — something that ties up with the inevitability of coalitions.
Four, in spite of its limited success in West Bengal and Tamil Nadu, this round of Assembly elections further underscores the rise of BJP as the only truly all-India party. Already in 2014, it had nearly achieved that status, but a robust performance in East and South further strengthens this feature. It took a long time for any party to finally emerge as an all-India party in the wake of the decline of Congress that began in 1989.
The BJP strived hard for this status during the 1991 elections, then had to suspend that ambition for purposes of coalition politics and then was thrown out of gear when it lost 2004. Now that it reaches this position, two challenges will keep company with the BJP.
On the one hand, having emerged as the only all-India party, BJP would be faced with the challenge of adjusting to the coalition compulsions and the self-consciousness of a national party-something that troubled the Congress always. On the other hand, the challenge would be to adapt its Hindutva ideology to different regions and different social sections.
Finally, this outcome will be remembered for probably the last leg in the downhill journey of the Congress party. In 2014, it was felt that that was the lowest that the party can stumble. But past two years have shown the depths of its downfall. Both in Assam and in Kerala, it is not extra-ordinary that it lost; but the scale of loss and, more than that, the style in which it lost — bickering, aimless and isolated — makes this outcome another important milestone in the irresistible decline of the Congress party.