Assembly elections to four states and one Union territory have concluded with exit polls confirming the predictions of shoe-leather journalists. The good news for the Narendra Modi government at the centre is that his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) may win in the north-eastern state of Assam. It will be a first for the party in this important state that is beset with problems of illegal immigration, if the pollsters are right.
The bad news is that, in general, things don’t look too rosy for the Modi administration in the run-up to the 2019 general election. In all likelihood, this particular series of elections will see a resurgence of anti-Modi opposition groups in the states, the emergence of an energized but loose anti-BJP alliance.
When the votes are counted on 19 May, no matter who ends up winning the four other elections in the states of West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and the Union territory of Puducherry, the party in power in all four will be ranged against the BJP, with ramifications for Modi and for the way Indian federalism is evolving.
In Assam, the BJP is on course to toppling the Congress government—and a historic win because it gives the party a toehold in the north-east of India. In West Bengal, the ruling Trinamool Congress is headed for a second term, but parties of the Left will substantially increase their tally. In Kerala, the Left Democratic Front (LDF), allied to the Congress in West Bengal, is headed for a win. In Tamil Nadu, all but one pollster predicted a win for the opposition Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK). In Puducherry, too, the Congress-DMK alliance is expected to win.
Some of this expected conflict is in the peculiar nature of Indian federalism. Unlike the federated unions of the US, Canada, Switzerland and Australia, the relationship between the centre and states in India is often one of conflict, marked by a tussle over resources, invariably so when the party ruling a state is not in alliance with the party ruling the centre.
With the government headed by Modi, a massively centralizing political force, the relationship has soured quickly, with the states often playing the victim, sometimes with reason. These polls, for instance, come soon after a failed attempt by the BJP to topple a Congress government in the hill state of Uttarakhand following defections by some Congress legislators. The attempt failed because of the intervention of the state high court and the Supreme Court.
Many commentators are speaking of the end of the so-called Modi wave that saw the BJP sweep to a majority in Parliament in May 2014, reducing the Congress to a mere 44 seats in the 545-member lower House. In the wake of that victory, the BJP won a series of state assembly elections, most notably in Haryana, Maharashtra (in coalition), Jharkhand and Jammu and Kashmir (in coalition again).
But the BJP juggernaut was brought to a screeching halt just before the first anniversary of the Modi government, when the virulently anti-BJP Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) pulled off a stunning landslide victory in Delhi, a small but important state that punches well above its weight. This was followed by an unexpected win in Bihar by a powerful regional coalition led by Janata Dal (United), or JDU, chief Nitish Kumar, who is now chief minister of India’s second largest state.
The heavy loss in Bihar dealt the first serious setback to the Modi government, and came as a shot in the arm for not only Kumar, who has been spoken of as a potential prime minister of India, but also other secular political parties that oppose the Hindutva policies of the BJP and its ideological parent, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, or RSS.
That an anti-BJP storm may be gathering became clear after a meeting of the JDU national council in Bihar on 23 April where Kumar appears to have issued a call to arms to other state leaders.
Pavan Verma, a former diplomat who is now a Rajya Sabha member from the JDU, clearly spelt out Kumar’s plans in The Asian Age newspaper, “The truth is that he has made one essential and central point: All forces opposed to the BJP-RSS combine need to begin the process of coming together on the basis of a cohesive, sustainable and effective common programme.
“At this point, this coming together need not necessarily imply a merger or an alliance. What he is talking about is a realignment of political forces based on a strategic exploration of political possibilities that can, in future, lead to a politically and ideologically efficacious critical mass capable of defeating the BJP.”
There is an array of heavyweight political leaders in the states, representing regions, religions and castes who will be hoping to topple Modi in the 2019 general election and emulate a similar success in 1989 when regional anti-Congress political leaders briefly united to defeat the government headed by Rajiv Gandhi. The current stars include Kumar in Bihar, J. Jayalalithaa in Tamil Nadu, Naveen Patnaik in Odisha, Dalit leader Mayawati in Uttar Pradesh and Mamata Banerjee in West Bengal.
In West Bengal, the three main political groupings—the ruling Trinamool Congress led by Banerjee and the opposition Left Front and Congress—are all strongly anti-BJP.
In Tamil Nadu, both the ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) and the opposition DMK take a dim view of some of the more strident Hindutva policies of the BJP. Even if the AIADMK wins, the alliance between the DMK and the Congress in Tamil Nadu is expected to strengthen. In Kerala, again, the two alliances that are voted in by turn are strongly anti-BJP, even though the state itself is home to the largest number of RSS branches in the country.
At the moment, the two main centrally focused political groupings in India—the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance and the grouping of the Congress and parties loosely allied to it—rule in around a dozen states each. On 19 May, the balance may tilt slightly in favour of the BJP. The question is, for how long: in 2017, five more states are headed for elections—Goa, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Manipur.
By then, the Modi government will have completed three years of its term. Without substantial progress in agriculture, employment and manufacturing, the rapidly growing economy alone may not be enough to swing the vote. Modi will know his regional political rivals will be jostling for the top job. Modi will hope they will fall out with each other in that pursuit, as they have tended to do.
Dipankar’s Twitter handle is @Ddesarkar1