THREE BROAD TRENDS HAVE BEEN manifest in the electoral processes in India since the Lok Sabha election of 2014—the period political analysts and observers call the “Narendra Modi era”. A total of 50 State Assembly elections and one general election were held after the 2014 mandate, and these three trends dominated them as a whole.
First, the consolidation of the Hindutva forces driven by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its associates in the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) spread across diverse regions of India.
Second, the spirited resistance put up by a clutch of regional political forces in different parts of the country challenging the dominance of the BJP and its allies.
Third, the free fall and steady decimation of the Congress, the grand old party of the country.
The first two trends alternatively gained prominence in most rounds of Assembly elections held between 2014 and 2021, while the third trend relating to the phenomenal decline of the Congress was consistently present through most of these elections, barring a few exceptions.
The story was no different in the latest round of Assembly elections to Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Uttarakhand, Manipur and Goa.
The BJP registered convincing wins in Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Manipur, and barely scraped through in Goa, making the party dependent on the support of independents and smaller parties to consolidate its hold on power. In Punjab, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) crushed all political opponents, including the incumbent Congress as well as the BJP and the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), which had jointly held power in the past. Such was the force of the AAP’s electoral march that mainstream political stalwarts such as Charanjit Singh Channi, the incumbent Chief Minister, and former Chief Ministers Amarinder Singh and Prakash Singh Badal, State Congress president Navjot Singh Sidhu and senior SAD leader Sukhbir Singh Badal were trounced.
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The election results also signalled the virtual demise of the Congress, which suffered heavy losses in all the five States. Prominent regional parties such as the SAD and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), which once had widespread influence in Punjab and Uttar Pradesh respectively, also met the same fate as that of the Congress and were routed.
S.P.’s spirited fight
However, the Samajwadi Party (S.P.), the principal opposition party in Uttar Pradesh, put up a spirited fight along with its allies—smaller parties such as the Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD), the Suheldev Bharatiya Samaj Party (SBSP) and Mahan Dal—substantially boosting the combine’s seat tally and vote share. In the process, there was also a notable reduction in the ruling BJP’s seat share in the Assembly. However, in the context of the massive attrition of the BSP’s vote share by as much as 10 percentage points, the BJP and allies recorded an increase in vote share of approximately 4 percentage points.
Throughout the election process, political pundits had termed the elections to the five State Assemblies as the semifinal before the final—the 2024 Lok Sabha election. After the results reaffirmed the BJP’s retention of power in four States, several analysts described the verdict as a “booster shot” for the BJP and the NDA led by it.
There is much merit in this contention, especially in the context of the total disarray in which the Congress, the principal opposition party of the country, finds itself after the results. The fact that the BJP was able to consolidate its position in a north-eastern State such as Manipur, after having come to power just five years ago squarely on the strength of horse trading, underscores the party’s political determination and organisational might.
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Over the last decade and a half, the BJP and its associates in the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh-led (RSS) Sangh Parivar have been making systematic efforts to erase the perception that it is a party rooted essentially in northern and western India. This resulted in the party spreading its influence in all regions of the country. As part of this campaign, the Sangh Parivar had earmarked the north-eastern States as a special political target. These efforts gathered greater momentum after the BJP’s ascent to power at the Centre in 2014 with a huge single-party majority under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Two years later, in 2016, the party wrested Assam from the Congress in the Assembly election. In 2018, it added Tripura to its north-eastern kitty, defeating the Communist Party of India (Marxist). Three years later, it returned to power in Assam for the second consecutive term. Between 2016 and 2021, other smaller States in the region, such as Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya and Nagaland, also came under the BJP’s sphere of influence through various means, including horse trading and arrangements with regional parties. The party’s forays into Goa were also of a similar nature in 2017, but this time around it has come within striking distance of a full majority on its own.
However, similar power-grabbing expeditions failed miserably in big States such as West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Odisha, Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Maharashtra, in the Assembly elections held in 2018 and 2019.
Relatively smaller States such as Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and Kerala too have successfully resisted the BJP’s attempts to win the Assembly elections held in the past four years. Barring Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, both ruled by the Congress, the fightback against the BJP has been led by regional parties. They include the Trinamool Congress in West Bengal, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) in Tamil Nadu, the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) in Odisha, the Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) in Telangana, the Shiv Sena and the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) in Maharashtra, the YSR Congress in Andhra Pradesh and the CPI(M) in Kerala. In Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu, the Congress is a minor partner in the alliances led by Shiv Sena and the DMK. On the whole, these regional forces have formed the bulwark of resistance against the Hindutva-driven surge of the BJP. It is in this background that the AAP’s phenomenal victory in Punjab and the S.P.’s spirited performance recording significant gains become significant. Both these parties had fought the elections focussing primarily on issues relating to the economy and development—unemployment, price rise, public health and education. The results in Punjab and Uttar Pradesh show that there is considerable public resonance to the campaigns based on these issues, although it was not sufficient to propel the S.P. to victory in Uttar Pradesh.
Arvind Kejriwal, Delhi Chief Minister and the AAP’s top leader, has already indicated that the party intends to reach out to other northern and western States such as Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat in the forthcoming Assembly elections.
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A major factor that galvanised the party and boosted its appeal among the public in Punjab was the aspirational young voters, who expressed their disenchantment with all traditional parties and rooted for wholesome and wholesale change. Incidentally, the AAP is the first regional party in independent India to come to power in a second State within 10 years of its inception. Barely one and a half years ago, the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) under the leadership of Tejashwi Yadav also fought the Bihar Assembly elections of 2020 on the same plank, raising economy-related issues. The RJD was in alliance with the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) and the Congress in that election. That electoral contest had gone to the wire, with RJD emerging as the single largest party with 75 seats. However, the NDA, with the BJP and the Janata Dal (United) as the major constituents, managed to capture power by winning 122 seats in a 243-seat legislature.
There is a widespread perception among political observers that since Bihar and Uttar Pradesh are contiguous States, the performance of the alliances led by the S.P. and the RJD in the Assembly elections is an indicator of the forceful resistance that regional parties can give to the BJP’s aggressive mission to retain power at the Centre in 2024. Several senior BJP and RSS leaders also concede this argument, even while expressing happiness over the return of the Yogi Adityanath government, that the electoral performances of the S.P. and the RJD do signal the possibility of stiff contests in the future. Several of them said that comparisons between the BJP’s vote percentage in Uttar Pradesh in the 2019 general election and the latest Assembly election were a matter of serious concern.
BJP’s caste consolidation
In 2019, Akhilesh Yadav’s S.P. had forged a grand alliance with the Mayawati-led BSP and the Jayant Chaudhary-led RLD. This coming together of dominant castes such as the landholding community of Jats, the RLD’s core vote base, the powerful Dalit community of Jatavs, the BSP’s core vote base, and the Yadavs, who belong to the Other Backward Classes (OBCs) and form the S.P.’s core vote base, triggered the shift of non-Yadav OBC and non-Jatav Dalit communities to the BJP. This further strengthened the pan-Hindu social and political alliance that the BJP had crafted in Uttar Pradesh over the past three decades. The net result was that the BJP-led NDA garnered a whopping 49.51 percentage of the votes polled.
In comparison to that election, the party and its allies managed to get only 45 per cent of the votes this time, marking a decrease of 4.5 percentage points. The senior Sangh Parivar leaders are also worried by the reported public perception that the BSP actively assisted the BJP by facilitating vote transfers in as many as 60 seats. They also said that the S.P. had consolidated a big chunk of the anti-BJP vote and had found new moorings among minor backward caste communities such as the Rajbhars and the Pasis. All this does provide Akhilesh Yadav with the opportunity to build on the relative gains he has made in the latest elections in India’s most populous State, they added.
In terms of individual leadership, the results from Punjab have certainly catapulted Arvind Kejriwal to the national league. Several political analysts based in Delhi, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar are of the view that the fulcrum of opposition politics in the run-up to the 2024 election will revolve around Akhilesh Yadav, Arvind Kejriwal, Mamata Banerjee, Trinamool Congress leader and West Bengal Chief Minister, and M.K. Stalin, DMK leader and Tamil Nadu Chief Minister.
Discussions around these regional leaders have grown even louder in the context of the latest election.