Why India's Upcoming State Elections Matter

 
 

India is holding state elections again, spaced out over several rounds over the next six weeks. It is a sign of lowered expectations for the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) as well as the main opposition Congress that this year’s elections, held in four states and one union territory, have been in the headlines less frequently than last year’s intense elections in the state of Bihar, which the BJP lost to a coalition of parties.

After the BJP came to power nationally in 2014, it was able to build on its victory by winning several state elections, most importantly in the western state of Maharashtra, which contains the important city of Mumbai. It was important for the BJP’s strategy to win as many states as possible for two primary reasons. First, the BJP needs to expand its presence from its traditional political base in north and central India. Hence, winning states in the east and south has been a major goal for the party in recent elections. Two states that vote during this election, West Bengal and Assam, have been on its radar for a while. Second, and more importantly, the BJP needs wins in state assemblies to increase its share of legislators in the Rajya Sabha, the upper house, if it wants to push through economic reforms through the country’s legislature without watering them down for the demands of other parties.

It is for this reason that the pace of reform over the past two years of BJP rule has been slower than initially expected. Narendra Modi’s government opted to wait a few years to gather the strength to make reforms rather than compromise with the Congress Party and other regional groups in parliament. However, unfortunately, the BJP banked on being able to win more than it actually did; as a result, it is now in a position where it may never have the votes nor the goodwill of the opposition to push through changes. In order for its agenda to move forward, the BJP will have to stop waiting for a favorable parliament and start compromising with other parties. Otherwise, the current BJP government will lose its chance to push through meaningful reform and could potentially lose India’s next national elections in 2019, though this does not yet seem likely.

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The BJP’s magic began to falter last year when it failed to come to power in Delhi and Bihar after contentious elections where opponents accused the party–somewhat correctly, but often with exaggeration–of swapping its development agenda for an anti-Muslim, anti-non-Brahmin chauvinistic program. However, at least the BJP remains viable as a contender across most of India’s local elections. The Congress Party, on the other hand, continues to lose out as the main opposition to a variety of local parties. It is not expected to win any of the ongoing four state elections.

The current elections include the states of West Bengal, Assam, Tamil Nadu, and Kerala. Elections in the southern state of Tamil Nadu have featured local parties since the 1960s and neither the BJP nor Congress are major players. Smaller local allies of the BJP in the state are not expected to do well. However, the BJP would still be able to cooperate with whichever government comes to power in Tamil Nadu. In Kerala, where the Congress Party is in power, the state’s main opposition, the Communist Party of India (Marxist), is leading polls. Moreover, the BJP, which previously had no presence there, is expected to win seats for the first time.

The two most important elections for the BJP are in the eastern states of West Bengal and Assam. The BJP has tried very hard to make inroads into West Bengal, which has suffered from misrule under its ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC), though the TMC’s erratic chief minister, Mamata Banerjee, is very popular. The TMC is likely to return to power. West Bengal also has a large Muslim population, which works in her favor and to the BJP’s disadvantage. The Congress Party remains a contender in this largely leftist state, but at the very least the TMC’s victory is better than Congress’ because the former has been able to cooperate with the BJP on several important issues, such as resolving India’s border disputes with Bangladesh.

Assam is the only state where both of India’s national parties are strong contenders. They are running neck and neck, though most polls give the BJP a narrow margin of victory over the incumbent Congress Party. The party will be able to win at least one eastern state, buoyed by the tense ethnic situation in the state and worries among native Assamese and groups such as the Bodo (there were clashes between Bodos and Muslims in 2012). Assam includes many minority groups, tribes, and immigrants from Bangladesh.

India’s domestic politics will continue to remain fragmented and most of India’s political energies for the next year will involve domestic elections rather than a focus on economic reforms or foreign policy. This is the way of things in India, though the BJP should try to forge compromises to push forward legislation, especially the Goods and Services Tax (GST) as early as possible. Narendra Modi recently suggested that all elections be held simultaneously throughout the country, instead of the current staggered fashion, wherein different states hold elections in different years. The implementation of his suggestion would likely save a lot of time and money, and keep India from being in a state of permanent campaigning. While this is a very good idea, it is unlikely to be implemented, since the current system serves too many vested, local interests.

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