The Pulse

How to Interpret the Upcoming State Elections in India

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The Pulse

How to Interpret the Upcoming State Elections in India

India’s upcoming state elections will hint at the outcomes of next year’s national polls.

Dates have been announced and the die cast for the most crucial state elections in India before next year’s general elections. Last week, the Election Commission announced the dates for regional elections in the states of Delhi, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Mizoram. Except for the northeastern state of Mizoram, all of these states play a crucial role in determining the future trajectory of Indian politics.

This is the first time voters will have the option of the right to reject. According to a recent Supreme Court verdict, voters will now have an option, akin to choosing “none of the above,” which gives them the ability to reject candidates. This added provision in the nation’s ballot machines will put great pressure on the political parties to choose only candidates with a squeaky clean image.

Different dates have been fixed for the assembly elections whose results will be announced on December 8. But the significance of the elections goes beyond regional politics. It is widely believed that the final outcome in these polls will decide which way the wind is blowing and indicate which party has the best chance to form a government after the general elections in the first half of next year.

The ruling Congress party is in a direct fight with the Opposition, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), in four out of the five states set to hold elections soon. A good showing by the BJP will give added momentum to Narendra Modi, the prime ministerial candidate of the right-wing Opposition. Ever since he was anointed as the face of the BJP for the next election, the controversial leader from Gujarat has been travelling across India and mobilizing huge crowds of mostly young supporters.

At a time when the ruling alliance in Delhi is facing an image deficit and a severe anti-incumbency factor after being in power for almost ten years, Modi has managed to project himself as a man who can steer the country out of the present economic slowdown. Analysts see the upcoming regional elections as a sort of referendum on the BJP and Modi’s ability to deliver electoral victories outside his own state of Gujarat where he has won three successive assembly elections.

For the Congress, a reasonable showing would be a saving grace. If one goes by the opinion polls and different political analyses, India’s grand old party has an uphill task to wrest the central Indian states of Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh from the BJP. The right-wing party has been ruling these states for the last ten years. Yet, the Congress has not managed to fully exploit the anti-incumbency factor. However, opinion polls predict a loss for the Congress in Rajasthan where it is ruling. The only state where the party is believed to have a chance is in Delhi where it has been ruling for the last fifteen years and its Chief Minister, Sheila Dixit, enjoys popularity.

However, history suggests that the regional elections, held just before general elections, are not a good barometer to measure the popularity of a party at the national level. In 2003 the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) swept a slew of state elections. But general elections just a few months later threw the party out of power in Delhi. Still, the importance of the five assembly elections cannot be undermined as they will impact both of India’s major parties.

One reading of the election is that if the BJP Chief Ministers in central Indian states manage to retain their fiefdoms then the incumbents will match the achievements of Modi who became the face of his party at the national level on the basis of his three successive victories in Gujarat. The CM of Madhya Pradesh, Shivraj Singh Chouhan, who was resistant to the Gujarat leader’s elevation, will not like to share the victory with Modi, who is bound to interpret the win as an endorsement of his leadership. Therefore, political analysts see a rise of simmering tension in the BJP over the leadership issue.

One analysis of the state elections predicts a larger alliance of non-BJP secular parties in the event the right wing group is victorious in the assembly. Already, the Congress leadership and the largest leftist party, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) or CPI(M), have called for the coming together of all secular forces to stop the right wing’s march to Delhi under the divisive politician. If that happens, an alliance of the Congress and the Left, similar to the one that defeated the BJP-led government in Delhi in 2004, will be revived. The purpose then was to defeat the right-wing forces, which they managed to do.

But it is easier said than done. India’s Left parties today are not the formidable forces they were in 2004.The Congress suffers from an image crisis mostly due to the perception of corruption plaguing the government. The popular mood in the country, particularly among youth from the ages of 15 to 25 – or 17 percent of the total electorate according to one estimate – opposes the current government.

However, it is also true that there is a popular opposition and anger in liberal and secular India directed at Modi. For them, Modi is a rabid right-wing Hindu politician who is responsible for presiding over the death of more than 1,000 Muslims in Gujarat in 2002 and creating a deep psychological wedge between the Hindu majority and Muslim minority communities in the state. He is also accused of radicalizing the state on religious lines.

While it is too early to tell what the most likely outcome will be, it is safe to say that the state elections in November-December will be an important landmark on the road leading to the 2014 elections.