Typical of situations of single-party dominance, the first reactions to the outcomes of two state assembly elections are justifiably marked by some relief and considerable expectancy. The outcomes hold significance in the light of three crucial assembly elections scheduled for next year, and beyond. They also would be read as a major handle to understand how political competition is likely to take shape.
The new normal of Indian politics characterised by the ever-growing clout of the BJP had us believe that a national-level leader would be in a position to sway the electorate even when state elections were happening. This new normal also cautioned us against relying too much on ordinary electoral calculations producing a complex set of outcomes. After all, wasn’t it the prime minister himself, who in his victory speech in May, exhorted analysts to give up outdated ways of analysis? He had then said, “Hindustan ke political panditon ko apni peechli sadi ki soch ko chhodana hoga” (India’s political analysts need to cast away their thinking from the past century).
Indeed, the rise of the Narendra Modi phenomenon and its continuation over the next round of parliamentary elections as also the following his ideas and actions received, made political scientists wonder how this can be reconciled with democracy and India’s claims to being an inclusive nation.
In fact, since 2014, the single most important factor in explaining election outcomes over and above everything else has been the leadership skill, personality and image of PM Modi. Modi undoubtedly played a critical role in winning elections for the BJP not just at the Centre, but in Maharashtra, Jharkhand and UP (2014-2017). Thus, a new framework for electoral analysis was about to settle in. The only question was the longevity of this personalised route to crafting electoral successes.
Indira Gandhi could single handedly sway the electorate until she stumbled with the Bihar and Gujarat agitations. She repeated electoral success in the early Eighties once again, but the swiftness and the populist appeal were both absent. In Modi’s case, till last week, it appeared as if he was going to defy the electoral logic of democracy and survive the second electoral cycle at state level in view of his extraordinary victory of 2019.
The latest outcomes have a sobering effect on the Modi model, or the Modi magic, if you wish to call it so. This model hinged on certain specific elements: An exclusive focus on one person and on the leadership factor as the driver not only of campaigns but of governance; shift of popular attention to national or abstract all-India issues; a rhetoric of nationalism; resort to the combined polemic of anxiety and hope; complete rejection of the entire democratic past and superimposition of perception over performance — these are core factors of the Modi model.
The Haryana and Maharashtra assembly outcomes have shown that this model may be just about reaching its plateau. Of course, obituaries to the Modi model may yet be premature. Both verdicts draw attention to a possible voter fatigue with the model. But it is necessary to also note that the verdicts are quite indecisive. It would surely be said now that voters have expressed their dissatisfaction with two state governments, probably in proportion to their respective governance records. However, if victories were credited to the supreme leader over the past six years, in defeat also, the limits of the leadership factor need to be recognised. Voters have not only warned the BJP of its governance record in these states, they have equally warned the BJP of their exasperation with the Modi model.
At the same time, a careful reading of the electoral outcomes would caution us against exaggerating the strength of the anti-BJP sentiment. Besides the fact that the BJP has not quite been defeated in either of the two states, it remains a sobering reminder to opponents of the BJP that its core base is intact. In electoral democracy, losing power or losing seats does have significance. But a better reading of the electoral outcome requires that we take note of the overall social base of the parties. In Haryana, despite losing seats, the BJP has improved its vote share and in Maharashtra, despite contesting less number of seats, it has shed only a small share of its vote from 2014. The reason why these two outcomes are making headlines, apart from the fact that in these states the BJP would now be holding on to power only by a whisker, if at all, is that they have brought politics back into the realm of realistic contestations rather than exaggerated benefits to one party.
Both Haryana and Maharashtra were not traditional bastions of the BJP. It annexed these states during the first round of the Modi assault. These latest results have probably reminded the BJP of that. Furthermore, the parliamentary elections of 2019 added to the vote inflation of the BJP beyond a realistic limit. That created a false sense of security and success within the BJP. These elections have taken it back to where it was in 2014. They have also ensured that the unrealistic ratio of conversion of votes into seats has now receded. This has suddenly opened up the political competition and allowed ordinary electoral dynamics both at the constituency level and at the level of vote-seat conversion more generally to steer a more competitive outcome.
It would be an overstatement if we read into the latest electoral outcome a rejection of the BJP or the Modi model. We would need much more evidence to claim that the Modi model is on the backfoot. First, its fate will depend on whether the BJP can actually acquire new territory — Delhi, Bihar, and later, West Bengal. Second, it can be safely said that the popularity of Modi and the acceptability of his government at the Centre, is probably adequately high even now. Three, the popular acceptance of its key initiatives, such as the move on Article 370, suggests that the purchase of a certain variant of nationalism and placing that idea of nation above democracy, continue to be attractive propositions.
This complication — the possible voter fatigue with the Modi model and, at the same time, a possible continuation of voter endorsement of Modi — allows multiple readings of the outcome. The BJP can and does still claim that the people are with it and at the same time the outcome allows the Opposition to say that people have refused to uphold the BJP governments wholeheartedly.
For the BJP, this round of assembly elections has brought a first signal that electoral victories can be crafted on surreal bases but long-term politics requires more than rhetoric. For non-BJP parties, the outcomes may seem to bring hope, but they should be understood as lessons: That governance matters, that people matter, that politics is about engaging with the people and that in the time of Modi, it requires more astute, out-of-the-box thinking if one does not want to stop at contingent and indecisive verdicts.
This article first appeared in the print edition on October 26, 2019 under the title ‘If you listen to the states’. The writer taught political science at Savitribai Phule Pune University, Pune, and is chief editor of ‘Studies in Indian Politics’.
- Explained: How Jharkhand Assembly elections result fits into a pattern
In keeping with recent trends across the country, this Assembly poll saw a focus on local issues and a limited influence of the central leaders…
- Despite losing assembly elections, BJP has been successful in setting the agenda
BJP loses another state, but continues to make its opponents become more like BJP to fight it..
- Response to politics and policy: Kejriwal remains popular among Delhi voters, survey shows
Kejriwal remains popular among Delhi voters, most of whom appear satisfied with his govt’s performance in the last five years, a Lokniti-CSDS survey shows...