Haryana, Maharashtra election results show that in spite of Modi's halo, local factors, jobs and economy also matter
The Maharashtra and Haryana Assembly results have shown that BJP's cultural ideology or strongman leadership or things such as highway projects and ease-of-doing-business rankings matter less compared with here-and-now issues such as the price of onions or jobs for the youths
The focus on factors including Article 370 and the long-departed Hindutva icon Veer Damodar Savarkar was such that the BJP seemed to believe that cultural ideology or strongman leadership mattered for state-level voters
The Maharashtra and Haryana results show that confidence and energy are not everything when it comes to the quiet business of the ballot box
It is difficult to pinpoint one factor, but it is clear that the economy mattered more than the BJP would care to admit
Every attempt was made by the Shiv Sena to wear its unique Marathi/Mumbaikar identity on its sleeves to live down the saffronista tag
In Haryana, by breaking away from the family's rural Jat-caste-centric INLD, Dushyant Chautala showed a measure of confidence and a new wave in an increasingly urbanised Haryana
One is experienced enough to know that the exit polls can not be trusted. One should question their methodology and sampling, especially where they fall short of credibility whether on account of biases in the media outlets airing them, or indeed, the shrewd mindset of the Indian voter who can hide his cards to a surveyor.
Yet, there was something in the air this week — when most exit polls predicted a thumping win for the BJP and its allies in both Maharashtra and Haryana assembly elections — that one thought that follow-through victories after the 2019 general elections were only to be expected.
We now know from the results that there has been no walkover for the BJP. In fact, the figures are far from it. Therefore, one needs to ask what was in the air that made some (certainly this writer) believe that the exit polls could be right. The answers, perhaps, lie in the decisive re-election of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's BJP-led National Democratic Alliance earlier this year, the sheer confidence with which his government moved ahead since then, and the infectious energy with which he and Home Minister Amit Shah went about with implementing government decisions, including the abolition of Article 370 of the Constitution that granted special status to Jammu and Kashmir and the tooth-combing of people in Assam to push out illegal immigrants.
It turns out that confidence and energy are not everything when it comes to the quiet business of the ballot box. One may read the outcomes of the two state Assembly elections with a hand lens to measure factors including caste equations, opposition alliances, victory margins and such. But what really looms above them all are factors that tell us that the coalition era of politics is far from over in India. The leadership vacuum at the top in Congress following the exit of Rahul Gandhi as the party president seems to have had no bearing on BJP's assumed path to glory. The intra-party divisions in the Congress in Haryana also didn't significantly aid the BJP, whose juggernaut has a punctured tyre somewhere.
In calm contemplation, one may recall that both Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh had slipped out of the BJP's hold to the Congress less than a year ago, months ahead of the 2019 General Elections to the Lok Sabha. The Karnataka Assembly election in May 2018 had returned a hung Assembly. State elections have their own character and outcomes in India, and it shows that local factors do matter, never mind the awe-inspiring oratory of a re-elected prime minister.
Last year, BJP scored higher in vote share in Madhya Pradesh but lost on seat share. Such contradictions are representative of the vulnerability of political parties, howsoever strong or weak they appear in prime-time television debates. No victory or defeat seems long-lasting in such a context.
But the BJP's Maharashtra and Haryana Assembly campaign was such that it seemed the polling was taking place in Assam or Kashmir. The focus on factors including Article 370 and the long-departed Hindutva icon Veer Damodar Savarkar was such that the BJP seemed to believe that cultural ideology or strongman leadership mattered for state-level voters.
On the contrary, everything in the latest verdict points to the fact that local factors mattered a lot. One may quibble on the details but the Haryana verdict shows a three-way contest was simmering below the seemingly bipolar fight between the BJP and the Congress. The Jannayak Janata Party (JJP) has emerged confident in the northern state while the BJP's ally Shiv Sena, which was thought to be in a take-it-or-lump-it equation with the BJP, is now unquestionably an equal partner. Every attempt was made by the Shiv Sena to wear its unique Marathi/Mumbaikar identity on its sleeves to live down the saffron tag. A long tail of minor parties (some of whom have held their own) completes the picture in Maharashtra, showing that there is a political minefield out there.
Two fresh faces, Aditya Thackeray of the Shiv Sena, only 29 years old, and Dushyant Chautala of the JJP, just 31, showed that younger voters may have conferred on them a lets-give-them-a-chance vote, on the lines of the one that Modi himself got from the national electorate in 2014.
It is also pertinent that Thackeray deftly positioned himself as a combination of youthful commitment and as the inheritor of the rooted party his grandfather founded. Reports that he emphasised on education, health and environment makes the Shiv Sena appear less in the Hindutva mould and more like a Mumbai/Maharashtra version of Arvind Kejriwal's Aam Aadmi Party. In a similar way, Dushyant is the great-grandson of the rugged farm leader and former deputy prime minister, the late Devi Lal, but has been educated in California and the trendy Lawrence School in Himachal Pradesh. The fact that he broke away with the family's rural Jat-caste-centric Indian National Lok Dal shows a measure of confidence and a new wave in an increasingly urbanised Haryana. The reinvention factor in both the Sena and the JJP shows that the BJP and the Congress cannot assume they are the alternatives to each other and routinely expect rebounds. Dushyant is now a kingmaker trying to sound like a king. Such a position at a young age is ominous.
These two youth leaders would not have done better than expected without local factors and their own leadership styles or freshness in play. Modi's halo may have been dented somewhat in the process. In hindsight, BJP's roaring emphasis on Kashmir and Assam rings out hollow. It is time to recall a famous American saying: "All politics is local."
Haryana's Manohar Lal Khattar proved to be someone leaning so much on Modi's charisma that he forgot he was in a politically fractious state where votes have to be earned. Maharashtra chief minister Devendra Fadnavis, on the other hand, positioned himself excellently as someone walking the tightrope between a strong Centre and a difficult ally. But anyone with a modicum of understanding of Maharashtra's oligarchic political landscape would understand that everyone from sugar farmers to militant Dalits is such that charisma is of limited utility. The presence of the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) led by the never-say-die Sharad Pawar completes the picture. Sample the fact that the BJP-Shiv Sena alliance has a combined vote share of only 25 percent that undermines the significance of Modi's thunderous speeches.
So, what were the elections really fought on? It is difficult to pinpoint one factor, but it is clear that the economy mattered more than the BJP would care to admit. Both Haryana and Maharashtra have strong farm lobbies. The BJP promised interest-free crop loans in Haryana but the JJP offered Rs 11,000 a month to unemployed youth. In Maharashtra, the BJP promised one crore jobs but spent more time talking about Bharat Ratna for Savarkar.
Considering that the economy is in a severe slowdown, and the agrarian crisis has just about begun to be addressed with income support schemes for farmers, it would seem the BJP's foot was on the wrong accelerator. One can never tell from state poll outcomes, but if one considers that Haryana is home to Maruti, the country's largest car maker, and Maharashtra houses Pune, the leading auto zone clubbing the Tata Motors and Mahindra and Mahindra, it is difficult not to co-relate an automobile slump with voter disenchantment.
Most certainly, things such as highway projects and ease-of-doing-business rankings matter less compared with here-and-now issues such as the price of onions or jobs for the youths. Complex political calculations cannot be reduced to GDP blues, but there is little doubt that the underlying promise of vikas (development) is mostly about economic benefits for a large section of the populace. It is not all about national security or pride.
The writer is a senior journalist and commentator. He tweets as @madversity
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