Polling dates for assembly elections in Maharashtra, Haryana and Jharkhand will be announced soon with some conjecture that Jharkhand may go for polls at a later date. In Jharkhand, considerations for left-wing extremist violence call for multi-stage elections. Although coming soon after the Lok Sabha results, tilted singularly toward the BJP in each of these states, these elections call for a focus on specific state scenarios. Political pundits have long argued that the Indian electorate votes differently for state as compared to national elections; and that local issues matter more for the voter. The one sure conclusion in the run up to the elections is that state and national mandates may turn out to be the same directionally—i.e. advantage the BJP. Second, it may seem that political organisation and propaganda may matter more than issues. The one certain news is the continuing down-slide, lack of a poll plan, or indeed a strong political opposition from the Congress, and its alliance partners. Beyond few announcements for seat sharing, it is imperceptible what the Congress offensive is on the ground.
Maharashtra first—India’s third largest state has a large, 288-seat Vidhan Sabha. Congress dominance has been a story of the past, and either alliance of BJP-Shiv Sena or the Congress-NCP has been in power since 1995. The 2019 Lok Sabha elections were significant—the BJP firmed up its flagging alliance with the Shiv Sena, and fought as NDA. Assisted by the vote splitting capacity of Prakash Ambedkar’s Vanchit Bahujan Agadi (VBA), the NDA won 41 of the 48 Lok Sabha seats. Among the major setbacks to the Congress were the loss of Sushil Kumar Shinde and Ashok Chavan. For the NCP, the loss of Parth Pawar in Mawal signalled a decline in the local hold of Ajit Pawar, and the non-performing nature of the NCP-Peasants and Workers Party alliance. However, the NDA has not rested on its laurels—politics for them is what academic Thomas Hansen calls a matter of “permanent performance”. The desertion of important leaders, especially from the NCP, continues. The defeat of farmer leader Raju Shetti, and BJP victories in Marathwada and Vidarbha signal that the party had done something to allay farmers’ grievances, which had cost the BJP the state elections of Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, and Rajasthan.
Pundits say voters behave differently for state polls as compared to national elections.
If recent actions of chief minister Devendra Fadnavis are to be noted, the government continues to focus on farm issues critical in Vidarbha and Marathwada, six irrigation schemes have been launched, and greater inclusion assured in state-funded housing schemes. Besides, teachers’ salaries have been increased, and seventh pay commission pay scale has been approved for an additional set of educational institutions. The central unit of the BJP has launched a national campaign on its measures with respect to Article 370, roping in important Cabinet ministers and party leaders. On the other side, the Congress headline is still about infighting between its two top leaders—Balasaheb Thorat and Vijay Wadettiwar, both of who were meant to step into the shoes of Radhakrishna Vikhe Patil, the erstwhile assembly Congress Legislature Party leader.
Haryana continues to be an interesting political arena—the strong regional player INLD, with a vote share of 24.11 per cent in the 2014 elections, is a collapsed and fragmented entity. Chaudhary Devi Lal’s legacy is split between Dushyant and Abhay Chautala. A couple of days ago, four INLD leaders joined the Congress. To its advantage, the Congress has also been able to anoint its leader—Bhupinder S. Hooda to be assisted by Kumar Selja. The BJP campaign, however, is already off the ground with the Jan Sampark Yatra of CM Manohar Lal Khattar. The focus has been on popularising the work of the government, and announcing a slew of proposals such as a medical college in Gurgaon, and a mega food park in Rohtak.
In Jharkhand the story repeats itself—there is no strong anti-incumbency narrative, which in theory should have been led by the Congress. Nor does the party any longer command a historical vote bank of forward castes, tribals, and the coal belt trade unions. Its erstwhile ally, the Jharkahnd Mukti Morcha, has a better grip on tribal voters, but is unable to make bigger headway due to fragmentation of tribal votes between the JVM and specific tribal candidates. The BJP has consolidated the non-tribal votes, made inroads into tribal votes, and has a successful alliance with Sudesh Mahto-led AJSU. On the ground, there is no anti-Raghubar Das narrative, and a stronger pitch of the performance and success of the Modi government. The abrogation of Article 370 is being seen as a feather in its cap. It is advantage national politics of the BJP in the states.
(The writer is a senior academic and political analyst)