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The certitude and proximity of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) under the exclusive electoral leadership of Narendra Modi, coming to power in Haryana and emerging as the single largest party in Maharashtra, represent a tectonic shift in state politics in India—especially as these have been understood in their plurality after the 1990s. Since this time, and in the wake of the policies of opening up and liberalization pursued by the centre, we have seen assertive state leaders and regional parties ensconcing themselves in this arena. A lowering of “command politics" dictated from the top, and chief ministers such as N. Chandrababu Naidu, Nitish Kumar, Shivraj Singh Chauhan, Naveen Patnaik and Raman Singh have been the face of this style of assertive state politics, with their rule characterized by a focus on the agenda of development and good governance. The corollaries drawn from this type of understanding of state politics are (or were?) that a regional agenda and strong regional leader as a face were both required to script victories in state elections. One more inference, not so robust though, was that in many states of the Hindi heartland, scripting majorities on its own was difficult and that alliances were there to stay.

So, what characterizes this new moment? How is it that a party that has never been anywhere near the portals of power in these two states, where it neither has a strong leader nor organization to boast of, is ready to receive the governor’s invite to form the government in both? And finally, critical to understanding this new moment is the question of whether there is a dramatic change in the state-level voter. Are they leaving behind their ascriptive identities of the past, and voting on rational issues of growth and development?

In understanding this turning point, what works best is the political markets analogy—the voter is akin to a rational actor of the market, defining his or her decision parameters, and making a choice. Each time they press the buttons on the voting machine, it is a choice made de novo, even as their deliberations may be embedded in history, or in anticipation of future horizons. Their aggregate mood and the overall sentiment have an important role to play on what begins to prevail in the making of a “majority". The two key elements of this mood are: a strong anti-Congress sentiment, and a disappointment with a number of regional parties—what with the likes of the Chautalas, Lalu Prasad and J. Jayalalithaa facing severe charges and jail terms. This perception lies at the root of Modi’s pursuit of the “go it alone" policy. There were additional direct promises to the electorate—the promise of jobs and development—to be delivered in a corruption-free manner. These promises relied heavily on the personality of Modi, and his performance as Gujarat chief minister. But they had a direct appeal to households that are squeezed severely under the burden of inflation, and see a bleak future in the poor capacity of the economy to churn out jobs.

In Haryana, the political opportunity for these elections was opened up essentially by the massive anti-incumbency against the Congress and chief minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda’s proximity to all the charges of corruption laid at the doors of the erstwhile Union government led by the United Progressive Alliance. In the face of such opportunity, the Congress’s traditional opponent, the Indian National Lok Dal, was weakened in its ability to pose an alternative as its top leadership—Chautala father and son—were in jail.

The BJP saw its opportunity in the Lok Sabha election 2014, when it was fighting in an alliance with the Haryana Janhit Congress (HJC), and established leads in 52 of the 72 assembly segments it was contesting, had a vote-share of over 34% and did specially well in urban constituencies. At the time of the assembly elections therefore, the party took the direct plunge, breaking its alliance with the HJC and going solo with the blitzkrieg of a Modi campaign. In a highly urbanized state such as Haryana, the appeal of Modinomics—jobs, development, and attack on corruption—has had a direct appeal with the electorate. Casting off the old pillars of Haryana politics—paternalistic control of the family, distributing jobs for the boys, and development based solely on the acquisition and commercialization of land—the state has voted on a new set of issues. For a state that was carved out in 1966 as a Hindi-speaking area from the erstwhile Punjab, these elections are also in a sense a moment of its coming back to the fold of Hindi heartland politics under the leadership of the BJP.

In Maharashtra, the opportunity structure has been slightly different—the BJP lost its top leader Gopinath Munde on the eve of these elections. It was left with a patchy and weak presence on the ground, with its strength mainly in the Vidarbha and Khandesh region, and a quarter-century-old alliance with the Shiv Sena. Neither gave the party the confidence to script a victory across the six noted subregions in the state. Once again, the Modi style was one of going solo, breaking ranks with the Shiv Sena, and addressing nearly 40 rallies in the brief campaign period of less than a month. The specificity of promises worked best in Vidarbha—a promise of better irrigation in conditions of agrarian distress, and of jobs in the Mumbai-Thane region. So, even as the party had nearly 60 new ticket-holders fighting on its symbol, in both states, the Modi campaign style has been one that addressed public problems straight, and nuanced specifically, and gave the electorate the trust to translate it into the political agenda.

Manisha Priyam is a New Delhi-based political analyst and also the India coordinator of the London School of Economics’ EECURI (Explaining Electoral Change in Urban and Rural India) project.

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