Nationalising state elections: How PM Modi fine-tuned an old Congress ploy

Narendra Modi has successfully used his currently high popularity rating to nationalize state elections. The outcome of the Maharshtra and Haryana elections signify this phenomenon.

The elections were fought entirely in Modi’s name and there was no established regional leader projected in either Maharshtra or Haryana which the BJP is normally known to do.

 Nationalising state elections: How PM Modi fine-tuned an old Congress ploy

Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Reuters image.

It was always the Congress party which traditionally fought state assembly elections largely in the name of their national leaders like Indira Gandhi, or in later years Rajiv Gandhi and more recently Sonia Gandhi.

As a rule, the Congress never named its CM candidate. It was always decided after a state election was won. But now the BJP, under Modi’s strong leadership, is doing what Congress used to do – decide the CM candidate after an election which is fought in the name of the supreme leader! So in this narrow sense, the BJP may be getting Congressised!

And the Congress is under the threat of getting regionalized if one goes by the party’s rapidly shrinking footprint.
Congress needs to think very hard on how to reinvent itself in the next two to three years. It cannot simply count on Modi’s popularity coming down with passing years, as does happen with all leaders around the world. That will be a lazy political strategy.

The way the BJP has dramatically increased its vote share by two to three times in Maharashtra and Haryana, both traditionally Congress strongholds, does not augur well for the oldest national party.

Is something changing in India’s political landscape? After the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, an empirical study by the well known research organisation Centre for the Study of Developing Societies(CSDS) concluded that India’s Lok Sabha elections were the least "national in character" anywhere in the world.

The study said Indian politics had increasingly got regionalized. Even in Lok Sabha elections, votes were cast on regional rather than national considerations as local issues often dominated. This seemed evident because individually both Congress and BJP got no more than about 160 to 170 seats, on average, ever since coalition politics got truly entrenched post 1996. Parties like AIDMK/DMK, BSP,SP,TMC, JD(U), Akali Dal, Shiv Sena and TDP won Lok Sabha elections on largely regional considerations.

However, Modi is clearly attempting to reverse this entrenched tendency in Indian politics. Modi is not only trying to reverse the process of regionalization of national politics—which he has partially achieved with BJP getting 282 seats in Lok Sabha —he is now going one big step further by trying to nationalize local state politics by presenting his own over-arching vision of India as a new rising power based on inclusive economic development.

Though there is nothing original in this strategy but then Modi is currently making many old ideas seem original by creative repackaging. Therefore he chose to show his Madison Square speech in the Maharshtra election campaign! It would have been unthinkable for the Congress party to project Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s successful US visit in a state assembly election!

Of course, Indira Gandhi and Nehru sometimes did expound on their foreign policy vision in local elections. Modi perhaps is trying to emulate the older Congress leaders in this respect. So Modi is clearly bringing a lot of national, and perhaps nationalist, elements into the state elections.

The question is will Modi succeed in pulling this off in the longer run? One will have to wait atleast two to three years to know whether his political strategy will leave a lasting flavour. The assembly elections in Jharkhand, Kashmir, Delhi and Bihar in 2015 will demonstrate whether Modi will able to pull off the same act as he did in Maharashtra and Haryana.

Of course the biggest test of this strategy will be in Uttar Pradesh where the BJP has no popular state leader of any reckoning. In a way, it is really in UP and Bihar, where politics became truly fragmented and regionalized in the post Mandal period, will the Modi strategy be truly tested. Both states don’t have strong regional leaders from the BJP and this will make it imperative for Modi to run a personalized campaign, like in Maharashtra and Haryana.

If Modi manages to successfully nationalize the state assembly election in Bihar next year, like he did in Haryana and Maharashtra, it would be a huge boost for the BJP. The risk, of course, is whether Modi will retain his current popularity rating all along, especially among younger voters cutting across castes and communities.

As time goes by, he will be judged on the development related promises which are tall by any standard. It is only by fulfilling some of the key promises will he be able to retain his appeal across caste and creed. That is the only strategy which will possibly help him nationalize the state assembly election in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. In a way Modi has set himself a very tough task which also makes him vulnerable to that extent.

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Updated Date: Oct 24, 2014 11:17:24 IST