The fact that the BJP and its allies won the Assembly election in Maharashtra with a reduced majority and the BJP emerged only as the single largest party in Haryana has raised questions about whether a section of the voters favoured the Opposition due to the performance of the ruling government on the economic front. In a conversation moderated by Srinivasan Ramani , Professor Suhas Palshikar, editor of journal Studies in Indian Politics , and Irfan Nooruddin, professor of Indian politics at the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, Washington D.C., discuss how the BJP’s hyper-nationalist campaign on cultural and national security issues did not yield it the same dividends as it did in the 2019 Lok Sabha election. Excerpts:
The BJP and Shiv Sena won 161 of the 288 seats in Maharashtra and the BJP won 40 of the 90 seats in Haryana. This performance is being termed as ‘below expectations’. On the one hand, if you look at the BJP alone, it won 63% of the seats it contested with a 44% vote share in those seats in Maharashtra. On the other, its vote share dropped significantly compared to the Lok Sabha election (by 22 percentage points in Haryana). What caused such a dramatic shift in voter preferences so soon?
Suhas Palshikar: Let us first put the ‘dramatic’ part in perspective. The BJP contested fewer seats this time. In comparison to 2014, its wins-to-seats-contested ratio has increased quite satisfactorily for it. The BJP’s vote share in the seats it contested is not bad at all. So, there are two parts to the story. One, the expectations created by the party of a sweep in both States. Two, if you make a comparison with the Lok Sabha polls, most major parties would get a reduced vote share at the Assembly level as there are many other players who are not as important during the Lok Sabha polls.
Substantively, yes, the BJP has shed a lot of votes compared to the Lok Sabha polls. The BJP will look at the outcome and say it is satisfied with its performance, but in public perception these results will be seen as a setback to the party.
Irfan, the BJP suffered defeats in three States late last year, but managed a much higher vote share in the Lok Sabha election. Its vote share reduced again in these Assembly polls. Is there a difference in how voters see State and national elections? Do they associate the state of the economy more with the performance of the State government while choosing who they support at the Central level based on national security and cultural issues?
Irfan Nooruddin: Yes, there might be something to that. But we are also at a point in Indian politics with the presence of maybe one of the most successful vote aggregators in Narendra Modi. The Lok Sabha elections of 2014 and 2019 associated the success of the BJP with Mr. Modi’s personality, charisma, popularity. The contrast with his presumed alternative, Rahul Gandhi, is quite dramatic in that at the State level, the contrasts between the BJP and its competitors are not such polar opposites. The difference between a Sharad Pawar or Devendra Fadnavis provides Maharashtra a much more plausible set of alternatives; so does the choice between Manohar Lal Khattar and Bhupinder Hooda in Haryana. This is unlike what was perceived as differences between Mr. Modi and Mr. Gandhi.
So, on the one hand, it is fair to say that national elections emphasise issues of national security and maybe the cultural Hindutva messaging of Mr. Modi, besides an effective contrast being drawn with Mr. Gandhi. But with the economy slowing down, there might be a bit of saturation of the ‘nationalist wave’ that followed the Balakot attacks in February this year. Now it’s October and that’s a long time to sustain that narrative in the face of bad economic news. There are a number of things going on, but I would say that the biggest explanation for the difference at the State and national levels is still the Modi factor.
Suhas, you recently wrote that there has been some voter fatigue with the charisma factor of Mr. Modi’s leadership. At the same time, the Opposition was also somewhat weaker in the run-up to the elections due to various reasons. If not for the BJP’s organisational advantage, would the elections have been closer in Maharashtra?
SP: In Maharashtra, yes, but not in Haryana. Haryana is a smaller State and the Congress was controlled by Mr. Hooda. Even the Jannayak Janta Party of Dushyant Chautala was quite organised. They were not as disorganised as the Congress in Maharashtra. Besides the lack of sufficient organisation, non-intervention of the Central leadership and its abdication of responsibilities for the State... a new Congress chief was appointed much later after the Lok Sabha polls. This also contributed to what happened in Maharashtra.
IN: Just to go back to Suhasji’s first point, Mr. Fadnavis and his supporters have emphasised that we must focus on the BJP’s strike rate in Maharashtra rather than its seat tally. On the one hand, it is true that there is no party as capable as the BJP in winning a majority of votes in a given seat. But it is also worth asking what the calculus was in terms of the pre-electoral alliance with the Shiv Sena. Why did the BJP feel the need to give up so many seats to its alliance partner? Having a good strike rate is good, but to use a cricket analogy, if the goal is to score a 150 runs and you only score 75, no one would really care about your strike rate as you didn’t get up to the goal! Right now the Shiv Sena really feels like it has the upper hand.
SP: Irfan is right. Why did the BJP feel it was necessary to have an alliance with the Shiv Sena in the first place? Especially in the case of the Assembly election and not just the Lok Sabha election. It must have realised that it had many organisational weak spots. With respect to social bases, the strategy of the BJP has always been to bring together the ‘upper’ castes and ‘lower’ OBCs. In Maharashtra, Lokniti surveys have shown that ‘lower’ OBCs tend to vote more for the Sena, which means the BJP realised that it doesn’t have enough of a constituency if it had to win only on the basis of this social strategy if it contested alone. So, besides the political background and the social base factors, it realised that its performance in the State was not adequate to reach 150 on its own.
Irfan, some say that it is because the economy is in poor shape that there is a reduced margin of victory for the BJP compared to its performance in the Lok Sabha election. Is this right or did the alignment of social and political forces matter in the drop in vote share for the BJP and its allies?
IN: One of the frustrations in studying Indian electoral politics is that votes are overdetermined. We have powerful social bases of voting logic that operate in the States. But we also know from lots of election surveys that Indian voters have a sophisticated understanding of the economy and of their pocketbook considerations of who they see as credible people to vote for. There was indeed a caste and community logic at play, but we also see an emerging split between the urban and rural vote in terms of the BJP being able to generate votes at the State level. That hints at the fact that the economy and rural distress do loom large in the mind of voters. They particularly resonate among some groups who feel that their views and concerns are not represented in Cabinets and Ministries where there is no one from their community as part of the winning coalition. Optimism over the economy that voters had five years ago has vanished. There are increasing questions about where jobs will come from, can agriculture be sustainable, etc. The BJP has, in a way, done much better than it deserved to, in these elections. The Opposition has not been able to mount an effective challenge, while the BJP has in Mr. Modi and in Mr. Fadnavis once-in-a-generation popular leaders at the national and State levels. The BJP has retained power but it is a lot more compromised, especially in Haryana, where the alliance with the JJP seems short-term and tactical.
SP: I think the economy and social bases get intertwined when it comes to voter choice. If you look at agrarian distress, there was disappointment in the Maratha community, which were exploited by the NCP in western Maharashtra. But to say that only Maratha votes were responsible for the BJP’s reduced majority is inaccurate. In the Marathwada region, which has a higher number of Marathas, the BJP did not face as much of a setback as in western Maharashtra. I agree that agrarian distress and the economic question mattered, but this election showed that smart leadership and good organisation may not be just enough to sweep elections.
The RBI’s regular consumer survey shows an increasingly pessimistic outlook towards not just the current state of the economy but also future expectations in urban areas. At the same time, it is in the urban areas that the BJP has done better compared to rural areas. How does the organisational advantage play itself out – more footsoldiers, better social media and television presence? And despite a more pessimistic outlook, how does the BJP fare better among urban voters?
SP: In urban areas, the NCP and the Congress have been particularly absent for a long time and they have not been able to do much to gain acceptance among the electorate. Historically, opposition to the Congress has emerged in the urban areas and the BJP and the Shiv Sena have managed to appropriate this legacy since the 1990s. They have a better base and organisational structure in urban areas and not just social media and advertisements. Another important reason is that among urban youth, there still continues to be greater expectations from the BJP than objective conditions would actually allow them to have. That might have helped the BJP there.
Irfan, the BJP used the dilution of Article 370 and what it calls ‘the integration of Jammu and Kashmir into the mainstream’ as a major poll issue. Even if it received parliamentary sanction, the BJP’s decision involved a certain degree of skulduggery — it kept mainstream politicians in the Valley under house arrest indefinitely, used President’s Rule to get the dilution of Article 370 done ,and so on. Yet, it seems to have got popular support outside J&K. Is there a precedent like this in other democracies?
IN: The sad truth is that it is quite common because there are a couple of different factors that intersect to make it possible for the BJP to do what it has done in Kashmir, the way it has done it, and to get away with it with popular support. The single main factor is that J&K is a Muslim-majority State that has, for the last 30-plus years, really occupied an outsider status within the broader Indian Union. The general narrative is that the situation in J&K is not tenable and not working and that militarisation has reached a new level has resonated with a broader Hindu majority population across the country.
I don’t think the BJP would have attempted to do this in the Northeast. Even if it had, it would have got similar kinds of support because the Northeast as part of the Indian Union is not understood in the same way too. It could not have done this in Kerala or Goa. We can’t simply think of this matter as whether there was skulduggery, as you put it, or not. But we can’t understand the fact that the suspension of norms of democratic practice in the form of indefinite preventive detention of legitimate political leaders is now acceptable without being upfront about the fact that anti-Muslim prejudice is now much more common and widespread in Indian society today. The BJP has masterfully managed to play on this. It can point to the fact that it was passed as an Act in Parliament and voted on, following democratic constitutional principles. But the truth is that the media coverage has not focussed enough on what are the grounds on which Farooq Abdullah, Mehbooba Mufti and Omar Abdullah have been indefinitely detained for the last two and a half months.
When we have had secessionist movements in democratic societies, the majority population often tolerates practices in the would-be secessionist area that it would never imagine allowing in other parts. For example, even in Western Europe and in the heart of NATO, the majority Spanish population supports the government’s practices against the Catalan minorities (which voted for independence) which it wouldn’t in other provinces in Spain. The fact that minority populations can be stigmatised in democratic societies is what has happened in J&K as well.
What lessons can the Opposition take from these elections?
SP: They need to have a better organisation and effectively function as a true Opposition to be seen as alternatives to the BJP. There is a slight opening that has been provided by these elections in terms of political competitiveness. But there is a larger problem — while competition has opened up, it is still limited. The Opposition parties don’t seem to have the ability to convince the public on any alternative strategy on handling questions of the majority versus the minority. The larger point still remains: the BJP has been able to draw out a majoritarian tendency among the public and it doesn’t seem like the Opposition will contest this in the near future.
IN: Where the BJP is most vulnerable is that the centralisation of power within the party means that State-level leadership is not going to be a great strength for it any longer. While it has managed to leverage Mr. Modi’s unique stature and charisma to get votes, it is vulnerable in States where the Opposition has a credible leader and party organisation — Mr. Pawar in Maharashtra, Kamal Nath in Madhya Pradesh, Mr. Hooda in Haryana , etc. If the Opposition has to dent the strengths of the BJP, it has to be able to do it State by State. Nationally, as long as Mr. Modi is as popular as he is, if the Opposition can’t come up with a prime-ministerial alternative, there will remain a divergence between the State and national outcomes for sometime to come.
Suhas Palshikar is a political scientist and the editor of the journal, Studies in Indian Politics ; Irfan Nooruddin is Professor of Indian politics at the School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University, Washington, D.C.