Given the landslide victory of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the general elections held this summer, few could have been faulted for expecting big wins for India’s ruling party in the just-concluded state elections in Maharashtra and Haryana. The party’s popularity, many assumed, had only risen in the months since it vaulted past the 300-seat mark in the Lok Sabha. But the results of the latest polls have been anything but by the BJP script. Until last count, the party, together with ally Shiv Sena, was leading in only 161 of Maharashtra’s 288 assembly seats; this may be enough to retain power in Mumbai, but the alliance’s tally has dropped from 185 in 2014. The real setback it has received, however, is in Haryana, where it was leading in just 40 of the 90 seats, down from 47 in 2014; although it is short of the halfway mark, it could still manage to form a government in the state with the support of other parties or independent winners. But that would not hide its disappointment with the outcome. While its principal rival, the Congress party, has made only modest gains, it remains the chief political beneficiary of the public disillusionment with the BJP. This discontent may not be either widespread or strong, but there are enough signs to suggest it does exist.
Rural stress, in particular, is a weak spot for the ruling dispensation. Various numbers have emerged in recent months that point to stagnant or declining incomes and consumption levels among farmers and low-paid workers. Consumer goods companies have reported either sluggish or falling rural demand for their products, even for such cheap food items as biscuits that people rarely scrimp on. While a scheme has been instituted to transfer cash to agriculturalists, more and more of them complain that farming is not remunerative enough and they have few viable avenues for supplementary earnings. Lack of employment availability is a significant part of the distress, and this is visible in the number of people opting for the fallback option of the national job guarantee programme. Economic conditions in urban areas also look grim, with a swathe of indicators in the red. Sectors such as real estate are in deep crisis, credit disbursals have turned sclerotic, and a revival of the financial sector looks elusive. Spirits have flagged, it seems, and some of this has been expressed via electronic voting machines.
It is not as if the BJP has not faced voter disaffection before. To the extent it shows up in electoral performance, the party has a record of being responsive to such trends. The question, however, is one of the quality of its response. While issues that relate to nationalism and its core ideological agenda—a uniform civil code, Kashmir’s status and a Ram temple in Ayodhya—do resonate with a section of the electorate, the only way it can shore up support under the current circumstances is to focus on the economy. It is increasingly a matter of concern across various social strata, and voter patience on it seems to be waning. The broad lesson from the Maharashtra and Haryana results, then, is that the livelihood of people needs to be top priority. A major promise of the party had been the forging of a new path to prosperity. It would serve the party well to pay greater attention to that.