The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has been making new inroads in local government. It won 10 out of 12 mayoral elections in Uttar Pradesh (UP) in 2012, and another one in 2014. It doubled its panchayat seats, more than quintupled its corporation seats, tripled its municipality seats in Kerala, and gained the chairpersonship of the Palakkad municipality in the 2015 election.
The party expanded its zilla parishad seats in Odisha by nearly an order of magnitude (36 to 306 between 2012-17) last week, seizing them from the ruling Biju Janata Dal (BJD) as well as the Congress. It has just now won eight of 10 municipal corporations in Maharashtra, tripling its seat share. It is the second largest party in the Mumbai corporation, coming in just a few seats behind the Shiv Sena. It also did well in that state’s rural elections, winning a quarter of the zilla parishad and more than a third of the panchayat samiti seats up for grabs. The BJP has reportedly been investing heavily in Tamil Nadu for the last few months in anticipation of local body elections this spring.
These results are being read and projected as a kind of super-signal of the BJP’s prospects for future, more “important” elections. An India Today headline called the Odisha panchayat gains “warning bells” for the ruling Biju Janata Dal, reporting that state cadres see it as a “harbinger” of likely results in the 2019 assembly and Lok Sabha elections.
“The BJP is replacing Congress as the ‘national’ pole of regional politics,” wrote Mihir Sharma in a piece for NDTV. Swapan Dasgupta noted that “local polls show that BJP is the No.1 national party,” in The Times Of India. The Prime Minister thanked people for “using their third eye” to ensure a BJP victory “wherever there were elections, whether the BJP had any presence or not”.
The actual strength of the signal will only become clear over time. Will the wave last? We have yet to see whether the Tamil Nadu voters’ third eye will also be open in the next few months (many signs suggest yes). Do the visible wins signal durable foundations for victory next time when bigger prizes are at stake?
As Girish Kuber noted in The Indian Express (24 February), the strategy for winning in Maharashtra involved importing a mixed crew of people from other parties and other sides of the good governance divide. The BJP’s inroads in the 2015 local elections in Kerala did not translate to an expansion of vote share in the assembly elections in 2016, in spite of serious attention from senior national leaders. We will see what happens in UP. And in this era of media churn and rapid dissemination of increasingly sophisticated messaging, are voters’ views this year correlated with their inclinations next year?
Beyond the signal, however, there are some changing facts. The electoral wins mean that the largest national party is now a growing presence in elected local government, within and beyond the states it and its allies lead. This growth is still not firm or reliable—the BJP did seem to miss its targets for Himachal Pradesh in 2016, and the 2015 rural local body elections in UP were a disappointment. Nor is the new BJP presence uniform across states. The BJD still holds all eight municipal corporations in Odisha, for example, having won nearly 80% of the seats in 2015. But it is an interesting sign of a shift with several implications for the larger federal picture.
First, local elected officials may look relatively powerless by the traditional metrics of control over agendas, strategy and budgets, but they are important assets at the far end of the state. They often make the last level of allocation decisions in the case of scarce but excludable services. They choose the contractors, who may or may not be the ones to actually get the job done. They advocate for access to scarce but more centrally controlled services such as treated water, electricity, members of Parliament local area development scheme funds, or the benefits of national programmes.
They are important eyes and ears on the ground regarding voters’ priorities, aspirations, and expectations, at least until Big Data and polling à la Cambridge Analytica make it to India. They are potential collaborators for big initiatives addressing obviously national concerns—employment, environmental degradation, growth, and so on.
Second, they may change the calculations on decentralization. The mismatch between state and local party control is likely to exacerbate the state-local tensions that have blocked devolution thus far. The first thing that the Congress-led Himachal Pradesh government did when the Communist Party (Marxist) won the mayor and deputy mayor races in Shimla in 2012, for example, was get the ball rolling to move back to indirect elections that would close the door to such upstarts. The amendment Bill was passed by the assembly in 2014.
The Samajwadi Party-led UP, faced with 10 BJP mayors among the 14 slots available, passed a Nagar Nigam (Amendment) Bill allowing the state to remove mayors and otherwise curtailing their powers, in 2015. There are countless less visible ways to hamstring non-aligned local governments.
But connections between union and local leadership also raise the national government’s short-run gains from following up on the decentralization that has been promised (and pleaded for) since the 73rd and 74th Constitutional Amendments in the 1990s. To the extent that the BJP increasingly has the two ends of India’s famously “flailing” state (to quote Lant Pritchett) in hand, other entities in the middle risk being on the wrong side of a simple and virtuous narrative. Power to the people.
Jessica Seddon is managing director of Okapi Research and Advisory and writes fortnightly on patterns in public affairs.