The just-concluded Lok Sabha elections were won by Narendra Modi, not the BJP. This is evident from the exit poll conducted by Lokniti-CSDS, which shows that one-third of the BJP voters would have chosen a different party had Modi not been the PM candidate. This state of affairs — typical of the populist scenario spreading across the world — has major implications for the country’s institutions. It is resulting, for instance, in a presidentialisation of sorts of the political system at the expense of parliamentarianism.
For the BJP, it means that the party depends on one person more than ever before, like the Congress used to depend on Indira Gandhi in the 1970s-80s. Not only are most of the BJP candidates selected by Modi and Amit Shah, but they depend upon the duo after becoming MPs.
This transformation of a party which took pride in its collegial and democratic decision-making process is probably more damaging at the state-level, where the BJP faces a greater challenge from its opponents. The party has not won any significant state election in a year: In 2018, it could not win in Karnataka, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Telangana; in 2019, so far, it has not managed to win in Andhra Pradesh and Odisha. It’s true that in half of these states, the BJP was affected by the anti-incumbency factor but then, it could also not benefit from anti-incumbency in the other states.
Voters have become sophisticated: On the same polling day, they gave 38.4 per cent votes to the BJP’s Lok Sabha candidates but the party’s candidates to the Odisha assembly received only 32.5 per cent votes. This made it possible for Naveen Patnaik to get a fifth term. The Karnataka results are even more remarkable. The BJP swept the general elections, winning 25 out of 28 the Lok Sabha seats with 51.5 per cent of the valid votes. But the Congress won comfortably in most of the municipal corporations in cities where the BJP’s Lok Sabha candidates had registered remarkable victories. The Congress won 90 out of the 217 seats in the municipal councils of seven cities while the BJP managed only 56. The Congress won 322 out of the 714 seats in the 30 town municipal councils, while the BJP could get only 184. The BJP did better in the town panchayat elections, but out of a total of 1,361 declared seats in urban and rural localities, the Congress and JD(S) managed to win 562 and 202 respectively (56.1 per cent of the total seats in all) while the BJP secured 29 per cent of the seats only — 406.
All this shows that the Opposition may not win against Modi at the Centre, but it may do so against the BJP at the local and state levels — so, that is where it needs to close ranks. The forthcoming assembly elections in Maharashtra are a case in point. In Solapur, for example, the combined vote share of the Congress (33.78 per cent) and the Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi or the VBA (15.58 per cent) shows that a united Opposition could have challenged the BJP (48 per cent) in the Lok Sabha elections. The same holds true for Gadchiroli-Chimur and Nanded. The combined votes of the INC/NCP alliance and the VBA would have given the BJP very close competition in Yavatmal-Washim and Madha (with CPM support).
For the BJP, the fact that Modi is more popular than the party means that he will have to canvass for state assembly candidates as he did during his first term. This may be problematic for three reasons. First, this is time consuming given the number of elections India holds every year — hence the idea of holding simultaneous elections to the Lok Sabha and state assemblies is staging a comeback. Second, even then, a favourable result is not guaranteed. In 2017, for example, the BJP won Gujarat with only eight seats more than the majority, in spite of Modi spending many days in the state. Third, and more importantly, the more BJP relies upon its supremo to win state elections, the less it can preserve or even rebuild its state party apparatus behind a regional leader. This spiral of centralisation is transforming the BJP into a one man show, in much the same way it had precipitated the de-institutionalisation of the Congress under Indira Gandhi.
This trend will further erode federalism, a pillar of India’s democracy that has been under attack over the last five years. The centrally-sponsored schemes (CSS) that Narendra Modi used to criticise when he was the Gujarat chief minister have gained momentum under his prime ministership. This trend will continue. For, according to the Lokniti-CSDS survey, the fact that the Swachh Bharat Mission and Ujjwala Yojna are associated with Modi contributed somewhat to his electoral success. The terms of reference of the Finance Commission mention that one of the criteria for the distribution of funds to the states will now be their “achievements in the implementation of flagship schemes of government of India”.
If centralisation of social programmes and personalisation of power go together, states may lose even more autonomy. Already, the GST is monitored by a council where the states have only two-thirds of the voting rights. The Centre, which owns the remaining rights, has presented this reform as a sign of its commitment to federalism. But many states have expressed reservations because a decision in the GST Council requires 75 per cent votes — in effect, this gives a veto power to the Centre, which can prevail by getting the support of only 19 states. Here, it must be also noted that these states could even be the small ones because in the GST Council each state has the same number of voting rights, irrespective of its population.
It seems that, in several ways, the old slogan, “India is Indira and Indira is India,” is acquiring a new meaning, with similar implications for the prime minister’s party — and the country itself.
Jaffrelot is senior research fellow at CERI-Sciences Po/CNRS, Paris, professor of Indian Politics and Sociology at King’s India Institute, London and Rajagopal is a student of International Development and Political Science specialising in South Asia and Latin America