Less than six months after the general elections of 2019, the assembly election results of Haryana and Maharashtra present a startling truth for the Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Not only has the party’s seat tally been reduced in these states since 2014, its government in Maharashtra will be heavily dependent on the whims and fancies of the regional partner, Shiv Sena. In Haryana, the BJP has cobbled up a coalition government with the help of the newly formed Jannayak Janta Party led by Dushyant Chautala. The BJP’s underwhelming performance is even more surprising amidst a near absence of the opposition, especially the Congress party.
A dominant political narrative based on majoritarian nationalism and the titular brand of Narendra Modi lent the BJP a consistent winning formula. In the aftermath of the Balakot airstrikes following the Pulwama attack in February, the 2019 Lok Sabha elections yielded a resounding majority for Modi and the BJP. The new government’s abrogation of Article 370, ensuring the long-desired integration of Jammu and Kashmir with the Indian Union, was representative of its fixation with national security issues. The abrogation became a crucial poll issue for the BJP in Haryana and Maharashtra, with local issues concerning the respective states taking a back seat. With the opposition’s dismal state of affairs, the BJP’s victory in these two states was a foregone conclusion. However, as the results suggest, forces of anti-incumbency and regional discontent have begun to affect the BJP’s winning formula in successive elections.
Herein lies the BJP’s vulnerability. The results raise two crucial issues that face the BJP and require a course correction that may otherwise harm Modi’s political empire. First, while it may be exceedingly difficult to challenge Modi at the national level, his party’s regional satraps, whether experienced chief ministers or first-time appointees of the Modi-Shah era like Devendra Fadnavis and Manohar Lal Khattar, cannot expect to sail through on Modi’s political popularity. Second, the results also highlight that the Indian voter is differentiating across elections at the national and state level with due regard to their interests. The BJP and especially Modi can ill afford to continue rallying around overarching themes of nationalism and internal security while ignoring questions of economic slowdown and joblessness. These issues will hurt the BJP’s prospects, especially at the state level as seen in Haryana.
Since 2014, the BJP has decisively won election after election across states barring a few exceptions in Bihar and Delhi. However, since the Gujarat elections of December 2017, the party’s state governments have faced tough electoral contests. In Gujarat, the discontent among the Patel community and the coming together of young leaders like Hardik Patel, OBC leader Alpesh Thakor, and Dalit icon Jignesh Mevani almost led to the defeat of the BJP in the prime minister’s home state. Six months prior to the general elections of 2019, the BJP lost three crucial heartland states — Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh — to the Congress party. Widespread rural discontent with weak farm prices among other issues led to the overthrowing of BJP’s established chief ministers like Raman Singh in Chhattisgarh and Shivraj Singh Chouhan in Madhya Pradesh. The Congress party’s poll promise of farm loan waivers yielded positive results for then-Congress President Rahul Gandhi. Similarly, in states like Haryana and Maharashtra, the local leadership of Devendra Fadnavis and Manohar Lal Khattar was put to test. While several key ministers of the Khattar government lost the elections, in Maharashtra, the party has only achieved a simple majority, far short of its target of winning 220 plus seats in the assembly. It is becoming increasingly clear that the BJP cannot blindly rely on Modi’s charisma over successive elections.
One of the biggest takeaways of the election is the failure of the BJP to capitalize on national issues such as the abrogation of Article 370 and National Register of Citizens in states like Haryana and Maharashtra. While they have been able to win significant number of seats in these states, the BJP’s intentions of undermining the effects of the economic slowdown, unemployment, and rural discontent have not been successful. In an article titled “The maturing voter?” Pratap Bhanu Mehta argued, “The Indian voter remains what she always has been: a complex creature, thinking through her anxieties and needs, making strategic choices and sometimes making mistakes, trying to be rational in what are often irrational circumstances.” States like Haryana have been reeling under unemployment with the rate of joblessness reaching 28.7 percent in August 2019, three times the national average. The effects of demonetization, the hasty implementation of the Goods and Services Tax, and the decline in consumption among others have begun wearing down people’s belief in the government. The continuous denial of an economic crisis, lagging measures to tackle it, and the shifting of blame to previous governments has dented the BJP’s credibility while hurting its poll prospects in Haryana and Maharashtra. Modi was once seen as the development man of India with deep understanding of issues of the states owing to his long tenure as the chief minister of Gujarat. Now Modi and his party’s strategy of conflating the national and the regional with limited emphasis on the economy may be backfiring.
The election results of Haryana and Maharashtra present warning signs for the BJP. The effects of the prime minister’s personal charisma and electoral mobilization along overarching themes of nationalism and internal security are limited. An unprecedented dependence of the BJP’s state units on the central leadership in the contemporary era may end up being counterproductive for the party. And most importantly, if the BJP fails to uniformly cater to national and regional demands, a stronger opposition with an ability to mobilize voters around local issues may end the BJP’s dominance in different states.
Avishek Jha is a Research Associate with the Trivedi Center for Political Data, Ashoka University. The views expressed here are personal.