The recently concluded state elections were deeply paradoxical. On the one hand, the stakes were high for national parties. A victory for the BJP in Assam and a political presence in other states would solidify its character as the tallest national party; losses for the Congress would deepen its crisis. This is exactly what has happened.
But there was, with the exception of Assam, also a tired intensity about these elections. The intensity was reflected in the turnout, mobilisation energies, and financial stakes. But the faultlines of politics, even faces, had an odour of staleness to them. In West Bengal, the only contest was Mamata Banerjee with herself: Between her personal popularity, her administration which energised delivery of goods like roads to her core constituents (a matter on which she has been underestimated) on the one hand, and the use of a sui generis machinery of violence and intimidation on the other. Rather than these attributes working against each other, they worked in tandem. The Left and Congress have no credible faces, ideas or energy. Tamil Nadu remains a contest between two fronts that are a heady combination of deification, corruption and incredible social delivery. Kerala was again a contest between two old formations. You have to wonder whether the comforting familiarity of these contests is disguising a deep disconnect between politics and social forces bubbling from below.
Assam is a significant result for many reasons. The BJP should get credit for the decisiveness of the verdict. We can quibble about the shift in vote share compared to the 2014 election. And Tarun Gogoi went in with two disadvantages: A long incumbency, and the fact that in typical Congress fashion, he managed to lose a significant tier of second line leadership. But the victory is unprecedented in its broad geographical and social base. It is not insignificant that the BJP is in power in two of India’s most sensitive states, Kashmir and Assam. This is a real test of the BJP’s nation-building capacity. It learnt some key lessons from Bihar. It settled the leadership issue. It went for a broad coalition. But most importantly, though it stuck to its policy message on immigration, the campaign was subtle and sophisticated, and less polarising than many had feared. It piggybacked on the local leadership rather than subverting it. It injected newness by holding out the possibility of a new combination of elements: Sonowal and Sarma and Prafulla Mahanta together. Managing this combination will be a challenge; but it opens up a new vista of possibilities as well. It shows the BJP’s extraordinary capacity to think politically rather than merely ideologically, when it sets its mind to it. This is something the BJP’s opponents have been underestimating at every stage.
Beyond Assam, what does the election signify? First, the results do continue the trend of decisive verdicts in terms of seats at the state levels; a trend always gets exacerbated towards the end. The fear that small parties and factions would play a disproportionate role in many states has not come to pass. It suggests that, at the end of the day, there is a yearning for stable governance that is, to some degree, mitigating elections based on prior and fixed conceptions of identity. There is probably more voting that is politically footloose, as it were, so that even the BJP, against social odds, can pull off an impressive coalition in states like Assam. Sections of all communities, from the Muslims in Assam to the Ezhavas in Kerala, are willing to contemplate different political alternatives.
But these mandates are also hard to interpret. It is easy, from an abstract level, to posit an opposition between populism and good administration. But in reality, this distinction is not clear: The ability to deliver “populist” goods might be seen as a sign of the capacity to deliver; we still don’t understand enough about what signals are important. For West Bengal, we have probably been underestimating the degree to which there is a certain kind of energy in the administration on things like road and infrastructure. There is the projection of “lawlessness” and intimidation in Bengal. But politics is always a claim of comparative credibility. Do voters experience it more than they did during CPM rule? Third, the Left can take some solace from its victory in Kerala, but it is clear that it is probably in serious decline in Bengal. “Not Red” was as effective a slogan in Bengal as any. There will be an opposition vacuum in Bengal. Finally, again with the exception of Assam, there is this question to be asked: Why are entry barriers to creating new leaders in the states so high that we are still in the same universe of leaders for years on end?
The results are disastrous for Congress. It weakens its bargaining power in alliances; it weakens the legitimacy of any obstructionist tactics it may employ in parliament. And it still has not turned the corner on attrition of support for the party; it looks like a lumbering dinosaur out of its time. But then, the Congress is a party whose stupor and sense of entitlement will not be shaken unless it faces extinction. The silver lining for the Congress is that anything short of disaster would have made it complacent. In terms of vote share, it still has a base to build on. But it has a challenge. Its vote base is more dispersed and makes its decline look even more catastrophic. But its leadership, organisation and messaging is unable to capitalise on even what it has. With the Congress poised to struggle in its remaining large state, Karnataka, this is as bad as it gets. One of the things these results demonstrate is that a leadership’s rapport with the population matters in every state. And the Congress has few assets to deploy. If, after this, there is no revolt or serious questioning of the party leadership, it is curtains.
So the BJP is now the dominant national party; with the only serious resistance coming from regional parties. The fate of India turns on two questions. Will the BJP have the confidence to bank on the development card, or will its ideological instincts again reassert itself? In the short run, the results reconsolidate the hold of Amit Shah on the party and make ideological ascendancy more likely. And if the BJP now claims the mantle of development and “nationalism”, will the only forces to oppose it be regional and caste-based parties? Will Mandal 2 be the last gambit to ensure that though the BJP has wiped out the Congress, it does not acquire overwhelming power?