In hindsight, all election results seem over determined, paradoxically even more so when they go against projected trends. The close result in Haryana, and the BJP’s inability to put in a command performance in Maharashtra has, to borrow Leonard Cohen’s phrase, “opened up a crack” through which some light can come in.
Far from the hangover effect of the Lok Sabha election, the BJP’s drop in vote-share in Haryana is more than 20 per cent, quite spectacular by any means. It will be too quick to draw large conclusions, but these elections have brought back some home truths about politics.
There is nothing inevitable about the BJP juggernaut, even with all its resources, leadership, organisational acumen, and the use (and abuse) of state power behind it. There is an undercurrent of dissatisfaction that is sidelined by high-decibel nationalism issues. The intriguing question is that the scale of the upset might have been even greater had this undercurrent been tapped into with greater resources and organisational acumen by the Opposition.
The dent in Haryana has occurred despite a lack of deep presence and intensity in the opposition. Even with Narendra Modi’s popularity, there is a sense of unease about India’s economy; rural India seems to be a little riper for revolt. By playing the nationalism and the Article 370 card in local elections, the BJP may itself have expressed contempt for local voters. Both Haryana and Maharashtra, like many Indian states, have a strong sense of their identity.
The support for nationalism and abrogation of 370 is very high. But voters can also see the sense in which this achievement can be used as a shield to mask other important issues. It is an interesting question whether in this instance, the BJP’s attempt to nationalise the election actually hurt it, and it might be a case of the central leadership needing to be blamed more than local strategists. As Haryana demonstrates, messaging requires responsiveness to context, not just the wielding of a mantra, which is what nationalism might have become.
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Voter preferences are not too deeply congealed into ideological formations just yet. One of the interesting things in this election is that the turnover of seats is fairly high. There is a thesis that has been propounded of late, that politics has become detached from social cleavages. We sometimes veer between placing too much emphasis on social cleavages, or we write them off prematurely.
In most elections, social identities split votes across all parties, though the distribution varies. The real question is when do they matter and how. It will be simplistic to see this election as a Maratha revolt against a non-Maratha CM in Maharashtra or a non-Jat CM in Haryana. The seemingly greater salience of social identity can be as much as an effect, not a cause of politics.
In contexts where there is a credible ideological identity, social cleavages can be overcome. If caste seems to reassert itself a little more in some elections, it is probably because there is no other narrative or organisational formation around which to congeal.
Contrary to popular perception, there is nothing inevitable about the hankering for stability and strong leadership at the state level. The voters have expressed their protest, or in some cases reasserted their identity, in the best available form they could. Both states have returned a fractured verdict, with voters, rightly not unduly worried about the implications for stability.
Not only will there be more effective opposition in Maharashtra, but even the BJP Shiv-Sena bargaining game is not as lopsided in the BJP’s favour as it might have hoped. It does seem to matter if a party can project who its own leader is. The Congress did that much better in Haryana than Maharashtra.
There is an interesting lesson here in the politics of anti-corruption/anti-dynasty at two levels. There is the simple fact that lots of candidates who have been in the swirl of corruption allegations have actually done quite well in the elections; and the anti-dynastic card seems a generic national trope rather than an effective strategy at the local level. But more importantly, the Indian voters can spot the difference between the intent to clean up the system, and a vendetta to target political opponents.
We might want the system cleaned up, but we do not want leaders who represented it persecuted in political terms. Leaders, even sometimes corrupt ones, are our own alienated selves, and there are limits to persecution. Sharad Pawar’s biggest achievement was to respond to the government’s attempts to tighten the noose around him by mounting a political response, responding with new energy. This is a cautionary tale for the BJP using state power to only appear to target opponents and protect its own, and a lesson for the Opposition in how to fight such a targeting — mobilise.
The most significant consequence of this election might be this. One of the mechanisms by which dominant party systems reinforce themselves is by their power to distribute patronage. For anyone wanting a share in power, aligning with the ruling dispensation becomes a winning strategy. At one level, this is manifest in defectors who join the ruling dispensation. Many of those defectors have been punished. The opposition also is demoralised since the possibility of gaining access to power remote. The biggest significance of this election is that it breaks that self-fulfilling cycle of single-party dominance.
The fragmentation of protest through state patronage may have its limits; and it still makes sense for some political groups to hedge their bets rather than join the winning bandwagon. This election demonstrates the rationality of doing so. It is a break on the logic of state patronage creating its own power.
Where does India head after this? The election gives a small, but important reprieve against the BJP’s arrogance and their consolidation of power. What the BJP will do next is an open question. Will its economics turn more leftward and politics more right? The opposition can take some heart from the fact that there is political space for them to exploit. But this political space can only grow and have a multiplier if there is more smart and credible coordination amongst all opposition groups that converts a protest vote into an alternative economic and ideological narrative.
It will be a pity if this moment is squandered on the shoals of personal ambition, or short-term thinking. There is also going to be another interesting question: Does the Congress do better in the relative absence of its central leadership? Nothing is a foregone conclusion in Indian politics, provided we can give up on complacency or resignation.
The writer is contributing editor, The Indian Express
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