Millennium Post

Bittersweet victory

Irrespective of the final outcome, voter sentiment in the recent Assembly elections highlight BJP’s compounding plight due to a pervasive slowdown

What is the most significant message from the Haryana and Maharashtra Assembly elections for BJP? It is how the ongoing economic slowdown is finally starting to show up as a non-trivial electoral determination. BJP's Haryana performance can be explained by a re-consolidation of Jat votes against the party. Indeed, BJP's 2019 assembly poll votes share has gone up in Haryana compared to 2014 (36.2 per cent versus 33.2 per cent). That the party could not get a simple majority is surely because Jats decided to try and vote out the non-Jat incumbent chief minister Manohar Lal Khattar.

In Maharashtra, the BJP's strike rate has actually improved since it contested fewer seats this time—164 in 2019, 260 in 2014—than in 2014 state polls when BJP and Shiv Sena fought separately. And, even while contesting far fewer seats in 2019, BJP's vote share has dropped moderately to 25.3 per cent, compared to 27.8 per cent in 2014 state polls. BJP's pre-poll ally Shiv Sena's vote share has also dropped moderately to 17 per cent from 19.4 per cent in 2014. This is difficult to read as a big swing in Maharashtra against the ruling combine. And, after all, BJP and Sena, whatever their internal wrangling now, are comfortably placed to retain power. And, in Haryana BJP is still the single largest party.

State and national verdicts have started going different ways repeatedly, and so to read a national message from the state polls is a fallacy. Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh voted BJP out of power in 2018 and Gujarat gave BJP a fright in 2017 state polls, but

all states voted overwhelmingly for the party in 2019 national polls.

Odisha gave BJP a handsome proportion of Lok Sabha seats but resoundingly elected BJD in the state assembly, when polls were held simultaneously earlier this year. Karnataka didn't give BJP a clear mandate in the state polls—the subsequent fall of the Congress-JD(S) government was a different story—but BJP swept in Lok Sabha. Give all this, won't this be un-judicious to read Haryana and Maharashtra results as anything more than mostly a sum of local factors? For example, BJP managed restive Marathas in Maharashtra better that it did discontented Jats in Haryana. Or, the fact that seven of Khattar's ministers lost in Haryana, thereby clearly underlining the importance of local factors that played a big role.

The poll results in Haryana and Maharashtra are warning signs for BJP. Neither Prime Minister Modi nor Amit Shah, in their campaigns, mentioned economy and related issues. The themes were nationalism and welfare schemes. This theme won the general election for the party when the economy was already in slowdown mood. The formula was buttressed post general election. First by extending the PM-Kisan schemes to more income groups. Second, via Jammu and Kashmir decision on Article 370 and 35A. Third, by aggressive rhetoric on illegal migrants and National Register for Citizens. And, fourth via Bharat Ratna for Veer Savarkar pitch. This seemed a potential combination to many, including all pollsters barring Axis. But something else was at play against this, and surely is at least one explanation for BJP's less-than-rousing performance in both states.

It is not at all illogical to suggest that something else was the sharpening of economic slowdown post general elections. Maharashtra is India's largest state economy and Haryana although a small state is the 13th largest state economy and fifth in terms of per capita income. Both have good industrial bases and large rural population. The sharpening slowdown has, all data sets suggest, hit the urban and rural population. Rural demand distress is in fact now acute. In both Haryana and Maharashtra, BJP's electoral performance in many rural areas shows a distinct dip. It will be heroic to argue that a slowing economy is not playing a role at all.

Indeed, an interesting hypothesis to explore will be whether local factors against BJP assumed sharper overtones because the economic slowdown is so pronounced. That is, had the economy been doing better, maybe Jat votes in Haryana and local issues that pulled BJP/Sena down in some Maharashtra regions would have had less impact.

So, there is likely a message from the economy to BJP from Haryana and Maharashtra. The party should listen.

Exit polls have become some sort of a joke. It is like shooting an arrow in the dark. If the arrow hits the target, the exit polls take credit for correct prediction. In the event of arrow missing the target, it was a miscalculation. In the recent election in Haryana and Maharashtra, the exit polls predicted an easy win for the BJP but when results were declared – except for one indicating a close fight – all exit polls went wide off the mark. People have stopped taking exit polls seriously. Does one wonder if the exit polls are manipulated at the behest of ruling dispensation?

(Views expressed are strictly personal)

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