The results of the Assembly elections in Haryana and Maharashtra declared on Thursday threw up some pretty dramatic surprises. 'Dramatic' for a number of reasons. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its allies were supposed to canter to big wins. Conversely, the Congress and its allies were supposed to be batted out of the match. That’s not how events transpired, however.
We'll stay with Haryana. Most exit polls had suggested that the BJP would cross 70 seats in the 90-strong Assembly; the Congress would just about get into double figures; and the Indian National Lok Dal (INLD) and its breakaway Jannayak Janata Party (JJP) would get the crumbs. What happened, however, was that the BJP lost the slender majority it had with 47 seats out of 90 in the outgoing House and ended up with 40 seats. The Congress, widely expected to come a cropper, increased its tally from 16 to 31 seats. The debutant JJP, led by INLD boss Om Prakash Chautala’s grandson Dushyant Chautala, quite incredibly picked up 10 seats, leaving one for the INLD, one for Gopal Kanda’s Haryana Lokhit Party and seven for Independents, mostly BJP rebels.
It is quite possible — perhaps probable — that the BJP will end up forming the government again with the help of Kanda and all or some of the Independents. There's an outside chance that the Congress and JJP could join hands and do something, but that looks unlikely. In any case, sometime over the weekend the picture will get clearer.
The point is that whether or not the BJP does form the government, its performance has belied its own expectations and those of its supporters. First, of course, is the lack of correspondence between what was generally expected by the public, given the BJP’s current dominance and the Congress' contretemps. The expectation that the BJP would do inordinately well and the Congress would fare really badly was fanned by the exit polls, as mentioned. Only one predicted a close contest.
Second, since the Assembly elections were held just months after the Lok Sabha election in which the BJP was utterly dominant in Haryana as it was in the rest of north India as well, it was expected that the party would just pick up from there and proceed to record an emphatic victory. In the parliamentary elections, the ruling party had won all the 10 seats in the state, with a vote share of 58 percent.
In the 2014 Assembly elections, the BJP had won 47 seats with a vote share of around 33 percent, followed by the INLD, which won 19 seats with a voting percentage of around 24 percent, while the Congress had pulled in at third place with 15 seats on the back of around 21 percent of the vote.
This time around, the BJP polled 36.5 percent of the vote, down over 20 percent from a few months ago, but up by around three percent compared to 2014. It still lost seven seats because the Congress' vote share rose by almost eight percent to 28-odd percent. The INLD's losses was largely snapped up by the JJP, squeezing the ruling party, which saw seven ministers and its state party chief lose.
The question, of course, is what could have changed so drastically in the past five months or so to produce this outcome.
Let’s first look at it from the BJP's perspective. As with the 2014 Lok Sabha election, the 2019 election was a triumph for Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Wherever people voted for the BJP, they were mostly voting for the prime minister. Local personalities and issues did not matter in any substantial way. A plebiscite-style of voting was accentuated by the Balakot airstrikes, leading large numbers of people to vote for a 'strong' leader who could guarantee the country's security and teach its recalcitrant neighbour the lessons it needed to learn.
That played well earlier this year. Two-odd months into power, the new government abrogated Article 370 and junked Jammu and Kashmir's autonomy. This became the main issue raised by the BJP in its election campaigns in Haryana and Maharashtra. Modi expatiated on this issue whenever he was on the campaign trail in these two elections. But this tactic seems not to have worked in Haryana.
The reason for its failure to enthuse voters probably has more to do with context than fatigue. In other words, it's probably not true that citizens/voters have tired of the security issue. They still care as much as they care about the Kashmir question, with a large number of people supporting the government’s move. The problem is context. It is obvious that Haryana voters did not see a link between security/Kashmir and who should be in power in their state. This most likely caused the drop in voting percentage from 58 to 36.5.
This reluctance to link the security issue with the Assembly vote was most likely intensified by immediate concerns connected to the economy — which isn’t exactly purring; consequently unemployment — which is affecting the industrial belt of the state; farmer distress — which seems to be becoming ubiquitous; and other bread-and-butter governance issues like law and order.
In addition, the BJP's gamble of continuing to back Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar didn’t play out too well either, leading to a Jat consolidation that cost it several seats. Any consolidation of the non-Jat vote that may have taken place evidently did not compensate. The BJP may count itself lucky that the Jat vote was divided between the Congress and the JJP. A pre-poll understanding could have had it on the ropes.
Finally, there was the Opposition. Not many people gave either the Congress or the JJP’s credentials a second thought. The first was reeling from a leadership crisis that had paralysed it; the second was an unknown quantity led by a young inexperienced man who had just broken away from his powerful political forebears. If the BJP leadership did not take them seriously enough, as it trained its sights on Target 75, it was at its own expense.
Congress veteran Bhupinder Singh Hooda, not exactly one of former party chief Rahul Gandhi’s favourites and shut out by him, was given charge of electioneering at the eleventh hour by current party chief Sonia Gandhi. Despite paucity of time and resources and pushed to the wall by corruption charges, Hooda managed to activate the caste networks that led to a consolidation in his party’s favour. It is not yet clear how the younger Chautala managed to pull off what has been quite a spectacular debut, but he did. Perhaps it was again a question of caste- and clan-backing allied precisely with his inexperience.
With a slew of Assembly elections lined up over the next year and more, the BJP will probably find itself going back to the drawing board, while the Opposition will now surely have gained in confidence. However strong the ruling dispensation may be, the Opposition should be thinking, there is no reason to keel over even before the battle has begun.
Updated Date: Oct 25, 2019 11:35:27 IST