In the recently concluded Delhi elections AAP’s (Aam Aadmi party) significant victory with a repeat performance in two consecutive elections both in terms of seats and votes has raised many questions especially in the context of the volatile situation currently existing in the country.For instance, answers to questions like whether this election indicates the unacceptability by the Delhi electorate of a divisive and disastrously low quality campaign or whether slight increase in BJP’s vote share and seat share indicates that their campaign was on the right track and more of what they did or said will bring them more votes and seats in the days to come will be expected from analysts.
Meanwhile, certain issues pertaining to the larger context need to be brought into focus as well. Delhi results follow more or less similar results, that resulted in Telengana, Odissa, Haryana, Maharashtra and Jharkhand assembly elections held either during or post 2019 general elections.These were preceded by elections in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhatisgarh and Punjab. In all of these elections the BJP either lost power or emerged with its strength compromised heavily. Thus the party which unilaterally controls the centre is fast losing control in the periphery. Is this just a coincidence or does it signify anything for India’s democratic polity?
In 1967 elections, the INC lost eight of the 16 states but held the centre, though much more weakly than before. But states, even if ruled by a split Congress party, came to be seen as a drag on Mrs. Gandhi’s back which was why she separated parliamentary elections from state elections. This gave her freedom to manipulate state governments which she fully utilized either by placing her satraps in power in the states (where Congress could win or was in power) or by putting them under president’s rule. This was her strategy both in 1972 and in 1980.
In the Indian federal system it is important for the party in power at the centre to have control over as many states as possible for several reasons: it promotes the party’s representation in Rajya Sabha; it ensures the election of its presidential candidate; above all, it facilitates—if not makes possible, the implementation of central policies by the states. If there is a single party rule with comfortable majority at the centre with a strong or nearly authoritarian leader the inevitable tendency of the central government will beto eliminate diversity of parties ruling the states. Today, out of thirty states and UTs, the BJP is ruling only in eleven. This is a big downslide from March 2018 when the party alone, or in alliance with other regional parties, was ruling 21 states including India’s expanded heartland. This cannot be an agreeable situation for the BJP, especially when CAA, NRC, NPR and even Census and certain important national economic surveys are pending, and without coordination with states it would be nearly impossible to implement any of these. What can it do to get out of this dilemma?
Since SarkariaCommision Report and Supreme Court judgment in S. R. Bommaivs. Union of India have made it difficult—if not impossible, to impose President’s rule, this easy route has very much narrowed down for the BJP. Besides, they would not want to look like following Mrs. Gandhi’s path. The other alternative is to wait for the next four years, and in the meantime take steps to bring parliamentary and state elections together, the reverse of what Mrs. Gandhi found expedient. Many anchors are pointing out that Modi has a huge additional pull of votes independent of what the party machinery can deliver. If this is so, then they can hope many state leaders can get elected as coat-tails of Modi in a combinedLok Sabha-state assembly election. Such calculation is behind the idea of a merged election that BJP has been floating off and on. But there are a couple of imponderables here. First, four years hence Modi’s popularity may decline. Hence he may not be able to pull state level candidates to victory. Secondly, even in 2019, in the two states which went for elections along with Lok Sabha elections, Odissa and Telengana, Modi magic did not work to make material difference. Hence, there would be no guarantee that even if Modi remains as popular he would be able to produce BJP victories in states.
A few dacades back, W. H. Morris-Jones described Indian politics as in a regular state of churning. That churning process is very much visible in today’s India. Unlike in the US, the federal discourse in India has never featured the issue of state rights; yet, states here are indeed endowed with certain rights and power. Given the multi-dimensional plurality and regional identities coupled with the need for national unity our founding fathers took care to create a delicate federal system in which there is a constant see-saw game between the centre and the states. This has been very elegantly expressed by the eminent political scientist, Paul Brass: ‘the process of consolidating power in India is inherently tenuous and that power begins to disintegrate immediately at the maximal point of concentration. At that point, regional political forces and decentralizing tendencies inevitably reassert.’ (Ethnicity and Nationalism: Theory and Comparison
, 1991, 117). Respecting rather than confronting such regional reassertion by the central government, if that happens, will go a long way in consolidating federal democracy in India. But would BJP be willing to do that?
Recent state elections draw our attention to another issue as well. The voters who voted for the BJP in Lok Sabha elections are the same people, whatever their religion or language, who are defeating the BJP in state after state. Is it simply to be understood in the context of national issues versus local issues? Is it also not a case that in these states the voters are finding a credible alternative to the BJP and hence they are directing their support to that alternative instead of supporting the BJP? If that is the case, it would suggest, on the one hand, that the Hindu mobilization by the party has hit a ceiling and on the other, that the BJP rules at the centre by default and anytime a credible alternative is in place they would likely be replaced.
Incumbency has its own burden. Other than Pandit Nehru no prime minister could enjoy more than two consecutive terms in office. Only the future will tell what awaits the present incumbent.
The views expressed above belong to the author(s). ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.