The COVID-19 pandemic has altered the political dynamics in India. The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has had to temporarily shelve its overt Hindutva agenda, which it had been pursuing aggressively since coming to power for a second term in May 2019. With the side-stepping of the majoritarian narrative, the opposition parties have suddenly found themselves being handed a substantially leveled ground to compete on. The newly opened-up issues and opportunities are going to impact the electoral chances of all parties in the upcoming state polls. Specifically, how is the BJP going to fare in these elections?
Bihar, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, and Gujarat are the major states going to the polls between 2020 and 2022. Most of these either already have the BJP or its allies in power, or are places where the BJP has such little seat share — as in Kerala — that it is a far stretch for the party to hope for a win. West Bengal is an outlier: It is ruled by the Mamata Banerjee-led All India Trinamool Congress (TMC), and is a state where the BJP significantly upped its seat share during the 2019 general elections, even snagging some seats from the TMC. Emboldened by that fact, the BJP is aware that a win in West Bengal, a bastion of secularists and left parties, will possibly lead to an inevitable win for the party in the 2024 general elections.
In these elections, the government will be evaluated on its response to the pandemic, the wider public health infrastructure, and the state of the Indian economy. While there are obvious challenges to handling a public health emergency of this scale, it is also an opportunity that the BJP seems to have grabbed with both hands. It allowed the government to put a legitimate end to protests, often violent, against religion-based amendments to India’s citizenship law. Further, an Islamic congregation in Delhi that emerged as a cluster of COVID-19 cases inadvertently served the party’s majoritarian agenda by generating anti-Muslim sentiment, even among non-BJP sections. The knee-jerk reaction to COVID-19, evident in a nationwide lockdown way before the number of cases in the country reached significant numbers, has engendered popular support for Prime Minister Narendra Modi, particularly as India’s response has been contrasted with purportedly delayed action on part of several Western countries.
The fact that the highly centralized response to the crisis has come at the cost of a complete by-passing of the states when it mattered has hardly received any popular attention. After multiple extensions of the countrywide lockdown, the central government seems to be spreading the political fallout of its COVID-19 strategy — like rising social unrest and a deteriorating economy — among the states. For instance, while the central government allowed special trains to run for transporting stranded migrant workers, it left the details up to the states. State administrations, on their part, found it hard to streamline their testing and quarantine protocols for migrants, and the politicization of the issue has seen BJP-ruled and non-BJP states sparring at the cost of migrant caught in transit. Giving the states such agency belatedly is likely to shift the responsibility of the inevitably worsening COVID-19 situation and continuing migrant crisis onto the states in public perception.
The central government, however, will emerge largely unscathed. This is also because throughout the COVID-19 period so far, the opposition, led by the Congress at the national level, has lacked any constructive agenda and concrete accountability-seeking from the government. Attempts by political parties to gain visibility over issues related to migrant workers, measures to bolster the economy, and response to the pandemic are likely to continue in the immediate term. The beginnings of this trend are evident in West Bengal where the BJP-led central government has alleged irregularities in the state administration’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis. Mamata Banerjee, in turn, has resisted most central interventions in the state, seemingly in a bid to project the image of a strong, capable state administration.
Going forward, the BJP is likely to retain the states where it is currently in power, largely due to the absence of any viable alternatives from national as well as regional parties. Even though COVID-19 will give voters something new to evaluate the parties on, it is a short-term factor and will not destabilize the BJP’s support base, which identifies with the party mostly because of ideological reasons. Moreover, COVID-19 will change the way elections are conducted in the country. It is likely that digital campaigns will replace large rallies as the absence of a vaccine or confirmed treatment for coronavirus will necessitate a long period of physical distancing and sanitary measures. If past trends are any indication, the BJP has a distinct advantage in digital political campaigns due to the vast financial resources at its disposal. During the 2019 general elections, the party spent 500 percent more than its closest rival, the Congress, in online political advertisements.
However, it would be incorrect to write off the Congress and regional parties just yet. The recent experience of Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Odisha, and Delhi has shown that when it comes to state polls, local issues of welfare and development weigh heavier than identity politics. The BJP does not have a shining record of economic growth to boast of and lacks a development model of governance — the kind espoused by the Aam Aadmi Party in Delhi. Moreover, the BJP’s allies in some states have shied away from openly aligning with the party’s majoritarianism. The party seriously lacks strong regional leaders, and relies mainly on the Modi-Amit Shah duo even in regional elections. The prevailing COVID-19 emergency has provided the perfect opportunity for political parties to compete on development issues that truly matter. A lot will depend on how India’s response to the crisis unfolds in the coming weeks and months, and whether the opposition manages to contribute meaningfully during the emergency.
Aditi Dayal is a public policy professional from Mumbai, India with a keen interest in geopolitical issues of South Asia.