Haryana and Maharashra election results: Reality check

Print edition : November 22, 2019

Prime Minister Narendra Modi arrives to address BJP supporters after the Haryana and Maharashtra election results were announced, at the BJP headquarters in New Delhi on October 24. Home Minister and BJP president Amit Shah and BJP working president J.P. Nadda are with him. Photo: PTI

Haryana Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar presenting a bouquet to Amit Shah in New Delhi on October 30. Photo: PTI

BJP and Shiv Sena workers celebrate the parties’ victory in the Maharashtra Assembly election at Nerul, in Navi Mumbai October 24. Photo: PTI

The results of the Maharashtra and Haryana Assembly elections halt the march of the Hindutva juggernaut and give the opposition parties space and time to regroup.

“We had little doubt that the Hindu Rashtra juggernaut was well on its way. For two months, starting from the first week of August, almost all the discussions within the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh [RSS]-led Sangh Parivar organisations revolved around the fulfilment of the objective of the Hindu Rashtra in the not-so-distant future. We were convinced that it was going to be a steady march, supplemented by concrete administrative and governance initiatives as well as enormous popular support. But, obviously, the people have other ideas. And we are constrained to re-strategise and rework some of our moves.” This was how a senior Sangh Parivar leader based in Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh, explained the political situation following the electoral verdicts in Maharashtra and Haryana.

Throughout the run-up to the elections, the Sangh Parivar, especially its political arm, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), exuded confidence that it would sweep the election and get a decisive mandate for a second term in power. The Sangh Parivar leader said the question being debated was the magnitude of the victory. The slogans coined by the BJP for both States summed up this perception. The slogan in Haryana was “abki baar 75 paar” (“this time more than 75”, that is, more than 75 seats in a House of 90), and in Maharashtra, the campaign was about getting a three-fourths majority for the BJP-Shiv Sena alliance and a single-party majority for the BJP.

However, the October 24 results absolutely belied these expectations. The BJP failed to get a majority on its own either in Maharashtra or in Haryana. It won 105 of the 286 seats in Maharashtra and 40 of the 90 seats in Haryana. In Haryana, the BJP had to seek the help of the regional party, the Jannayak Janta Party (JJP), despite running it down throughout the election campaign as a political outfit promoted by generations of corrupt leaders. Thus, by seeking the support of the JJP and its 10 MLAs and making moves to win over some independents, the saffron party just about managed to get back to power.

In Maharashtra, the post-election situation became complicated as the Shiv Sena raised what it termed as the “mutually agreed upon 50:50 formula”, which entailed equal stints in the five-year term for the BJP and the Sena in the Chief Minister’s position. The BJP leadership, on its part, claimed there was no such formula and averred that the Chief Minister would be from the BJP and for the full term. The imbroglio over chief ministership resulted in government formation being delayed beyond a week after the verdict was announced. If a Ministry is not formed before November 8, the State will be under President’s Rule. At the time of writing this report (November 2), the face-off between the electoral allies continued, with many BJP insiders, including those close to the incumbent Chief Minister, Devendra Fadnavis, claiming that the party would conduct the swearing-in ceremony on its own on November 5 or 6.

The travails of the BJP in government formation indicated the roadblocks that have come up in the path of the so-called Hindutva-Hindu Rashtra juggernaut, which had been rolling smoothly since early August 2019. In fact, the perceptions of an unhindered march was so strong that between early August and late October excitement in almost all the constituents of the Sangh Parivar was high. Interactions with scores of Sangh Parivar activists underscored this. Both the discussions within these organisations and their articulation outside revolved primarily around the unstoppable march of the Hindu Rashtra after the Narendra Modi-led BJP came back to power at the Centre in May.

Indeed, these projections were founded on solid political and social reasoning. Central to this reasoning was a clutch of administrative and political moves made by the government during this period. On August 5, barely two months into the Modi 2.0 government, Home Minister and BJP president Amit Shah moved in Parliament a Bill seeking to abrogate Article 370 of the Constitution, which accorded special status to Jammu and Kashmir, the only Muslim-majority State in the country. Parallely, the government went ahead with plans to implement a Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB) along with the National Register of Citizens (NRC) on a national scale. Leaders of the Sangh Parivar, including Amit Shah, had repeatedly indicated the anti-Muslim content of the CAB and the NRC, stating that the CAB legislation and the verifications based on it would only benefit refugees belonging to the Hindu, Sikh, Jain, Buddhist, Parsi and Christian religions and not those belonging to the Muslim community. The multidimensional campaigns launched by the Sangh Parivar constituents on the basis of these agendas were evidently aimed at strengthening Hindutva communal sentiments across large parts of the country. The Sangh Parivar’s internal assessment was that these moves were having the desired effect across India, particularly in Maharashtra and Haryana. The very fact that the election campaign of the BJP in both the States focussed on these “vital national issues” rather than on the track record of the Devendra Fadnavis-led BJP-Sena government in Maharashtra and the Manohar Lal Khattar government in Haryana pointed to this assessment.

Parallel to these moves were brazen attempts to suppress civil liberties, especially the voices that sought to question the blatant communal pursuits of the Sangh Parivar and the governments at the Centre and in many States led by its adherents. The moves against intellectuals and artists who wrote a letter to the Prime Minister condemning the serial lynchings in different parts of the country and the legal action against a journalist in Uttar Pradesh who exposed casteist discrimination in a school meal scheme were cases in point. Such acts of suppression were followed in several instances by selective subversion of constitutional bodies, including the judiciary and the Election Commission.

Cumulatively, the reach and impact of these manoeuvres were such that Sangh Parivar outfits constantly pointed to the overarching control they were achieving over all the instruments and systems of governance across the country. Naturally, the expectations were that this would translate into impressive electoral gains in Maharashtra and Haryana.

NCP battle

The fact that the opposition in both these States was in a state of disarray also buttressed this forecast. In Haryana, the organisational machinery of the principal opposition party, the Congress, was in tatters after its rout in the Lok Sabha election and the refusal of Rahul Gandhi, who resigned as Congress president following the defeat, to effect any reorganisation in the party structure. The “interim” Congress president Sonia Gandhi handed over some powers to former Chief Minister Bhupinder Hooda after he threatened to leave the party. This helped Hooda set up an electoral machinery, although evidently feeble.

In Maharashtra, the situation was worse because the State had no Congress leader of the standing that Hooda had. However, veteran Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) leader Sharad Pawar took upon himself the task of leading the battle against the BJP in the State. Even so, the dominant perception among observers and political practitioners was that the organised opposition resistance to the BJP was nominal and that the saffron party would in the end assert its total supremacy as it did in the April/May Lok Sabha election.

But in hindsight, it is clear that what the BJP had not accounted for was the growing resentment of the people to the hubris of the party leadership and the drivers of the incumbent BJP governments in both the States.

In both Maharashtra and Haryana, the BJP’s vote share declined substantially in comparison with its Lok Sabha high. In May, the BJP won 58 per cent of the popular vote and all 10 Lok Sabha seats in Haryana, leading in 79 Assembly segments. But in the October election, the vote share dropped to 36.49 per cent. The BJP won 40 seats. In Maharashtra too, the BJP-Shiv Sena led in more than 220 Assembly segments in the Lok Sabha election, but the combined score of the alliance is 161 now. In terms of vote share, the drop is about 10 percentage points—from approximately 52 per cent in May to approximately 42 per cent.

Voter fatigue

Responses from the ground and a close inspection of the electoral trends indicate that the BJP suffered these reverses on account of a variety of factors. The downslide of the economy, which has brought serious trouble to almost all sectors, and the impact it has had on the lives of the common people, especially in rural areas, constitute an important factor. In several constituencies across the two States, people had started saying that in this climate of economic hardships and rampant job losses, a voter fatigue and apathy towards the Sangh Parivar’s rhetoric on Hindutva and hypernationalism had developed, although relatively they still dominate the political firmament. A telling case in point of this fatigue was the lukewarm response to the excited claims of the Defence Ministry on October 20, one day before polling in both the States, about the crippling air strikes it had made in Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir.

The election results from the two States indicate that the electorate view and evaluate the general election and the Assembly elections with different parameters. This differentiation has greater significance in the context of the October Assembly elections because the BJP had sought to make this too an election based on what it perceives as national issues, particularly those relating to hypernationalism, Hindutva and the powerful, muscular, leadership of Modi and Amit Shah. The results in several constituencies in the drought-hit Marathwada region of Maharashtra and Mahendragarh in Haryana, which was affected also by retrenchments in the automobile industry, reflect starkly the failure of the hypernationalist Hindutva campaign. Pankaja Munde, daughter of the late Union Minister Gopinath Munde, was the BJP candidate in Parli in Marathwada. Amit Shah launched her campaign focussing entirely on hypernationalist issues such as abrogation of Article 370. She lost to the NCP’s Dhananjay Munde. Mahendragarh witnessed the defeat of the BJP at the hands of the Congress.

Several political observers noted that in both the States, the BJP’s hypernationalism campaign sought to overlook the rural, agrarian distress. Maharashtra’s farmer suicides had continued unabated during the five-year term of Fadnavis, with over 12,000 farmers committing suicide between 2015 and 2018, as per government data. However, the BJP did not refer to this aspect or talk about concrete redress plans in its campaign. In contrast, Rahul Gandhi said at an election rally near Mahendragarh that Modi gave lakhs of crores of rupees of the country’s money to a handful of billionaires, while the demand of farmers for loan waivers were ignored.

Other smaller opposition parties in both the States, such as the JJP, the Indian National Lok Dal, the Samajwadi Party and the Communist Party of India (Marxist) highlighted agrarian issues with varying degrees of impact. These disparate campaigns brought attention to issues such as failure of the government to give out the guaranteed minimum support price, counterfeit pesticides, non-implementation of the M.S. Swaminathan Commission report, increasing input costs, and farmers being forced to sell crops at lower prices. Although these issues did not capture media headlines, they certainly had an electoral impact.

Individually, the biggest loser in this election has to be Amit Shah as the hypernationalism campaign was basically driven by him, both politically and organisationally. The aura of invincibility that has been carefully cultivated around his political personality and his swagger got damaged in the aftermath of the Assembly election. A major tactic he had adopted was that of luring leaders from opposition parties and making them contest as BJP candidates. Two prominent candidates, Shivendrasinhraje Bhosale in Maharashtra’s Satara Assembly constituency and Alpesh Thakor in Gujarat’s Radhanpur Assembly constituency, were trounced by the NCP’s Deepak Pawar and the Congress’ Raghu Desai respectively.

The reverses suffered by the use of such tactics have evoked calls from Sangh Parivar old-timers like Vinay Katiyar to abandon them. However, no one in the Sangh Parivar expects these calls to evoke enough traction to pose a challenge to Amit Shah’s multiple positions of authority. However, Sangh Parivar insiders say that both Amit Shah and Modi have indicated that they have learnt the lessons from these verdicts and initiated measures to overcome the reverses.

Lessons for the Congress

Talking of lessons, the verdict has some for the opposition, too, especially for the Congress. The manner in which Pawar rallied his regional outfit in Maharashtra against the superior organisational machinery and money and muscle power of the BJP and the Sangh Parivar holds out the “do-not-give-up” message. The Maharashtra results also assert that the Congress should evaluate each region and State objectively and be ready to play second fiddle to a regional party wherever necessary. The fight put up by Hooda and his team in Haryana, despite being given limited control of the Congress campaign machinery, that too, rather belatedly, underscores how veteran politicians with strong a grass-roots connect can help revive the Congress. This factor has special relevance because the Assembly elections and the byelections in different parts of the country, including Gujarat, have shown that the party has enough popular traction to fight a significant electoral battle despite its huge organisational deficiencies.

The approach of Rahul Gandhi was to mechanically promote younger, inexperienced leaders to top positions. The Haryana results make it clear that this approach needs to be changed and the emphasis has to be on a grass-roots connect. Evidently, the first family of the Congress needs to realise the value each regional satrap brings to the grand old party and make judicious accommodation of these powerful local influencers.

Indications from both the Congress and the BJP are that both of them are making earnest attempts to learn the lessons from this result. The next round of elections, this time in Jharkhand, is to be held in November-December, and indications are that both sides are making a sort of course correction. The Congress, apparently, has already accepted the Jharkhand Mukthi Morcha as the senior partner, and the seat division process has been initiated.

On its part, the BJP has reportedly decided to focus more on local issues, casting aside its obsession with “national issues and the robust leadership of Modi and Amit Shah”. What forms this course correction would take is to be seen. But before that, the BJP and the larger Sangh Parivar need to somehow set things right in Maharashtra, form the government and move on from there. The Sena is persisting on its tough position and has initiated talks with the NCP to form a Sena-NCP government with Congress support.

How these manoeuvres will ultimately turn out is to be seen, but there is little doubt that the Hindutva juggernaut, which seemed to be trampling everything on its way through the months of August and September, has dented wheels, giving the opposition space and time to regroup.

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