Centralising politics

Print edition : November 14, 2014

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP president Amit Shah at the party headquarters in New Delhi to attend the Parliamentary Board meeting on October 19. Photo: Manvender Vashist/PTI

The strategy of single-party control that the BJP brought to national politics through the Lok Sabha election has found its nuanced advancement in the October Assembly elections. The idea of centralisation of State politics appears paramount in the saffron party’s current political style.

IT is a kind of norm in Assembly elections that follow close on the heels of the Lok Sabha election that the party or the coalition that has emerged as the winner at the national level dominates the State elections too. This trend had manifested in the 2004 and 2009 Assembly elections in Maharashtra and Haryana, which went to the polls within a year of the Lok Sabha election. Five years later, it has played out again in these two States. The Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) scored a shock victory over the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) in the 2004 Lok Sabha election, and five years later consolidated that triumph with a better majority. The Assembly elections that followed saw Maharashtra and Haryana elect the Congress and its allies to power. However, despite this similarity, a number of political factors that were evident in the October 2014 Assembly elections in Maharashtra and Haryana have imparted path-breaking characteristics to the verdicts.

Central to these characteristics is the manner in which the BJP has emerged as the largest party in the two States, dramatically altering the balance of political forces that had prevailed for decades. In Haryana, the party romped home to a comfortable majority while in Maharashtra it fell short of the target by about two dozen seats. While achieving this unprecedented electoral gain, the party also dramatically altered its equations with its NDA allies, particularly in Maharashtra. This manifested most strikingly in the humbling of the Shiv Sena, its electoral partner for 25 years. Refusing to accept the lower number of seats that the Hindutva-oriented regional party had offered on the grounds that it had always been the senior partner in the Assembly elections, the BJP contested alone and emerged with double the number of seats of its former dominant partner. In Haryana, too, it contested alone without making any effort to rope in any of its former regional allies such as the Haryana Janhit Congress (HJC), and increased its seats tally more than 10 times from four in 2009 to 47.

The qualitative dimensions of this change in electoral arithmetic essentially underscored a new and nuanced advancement of the decisive single-party control that the BJP brought to national politics for the first time in three decades through the 2014 Lok Sabha election. The general consensus among BJP insiders as well as the party’s associates in the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS)-led Sangh Parivar is that this will strengthen the political process to do away with what they call “regionalisation of the Centre”.

A senior RSS activist of Uttar Pradesh told Frontline that through the 1990s and even the early 2000s, when the BJP managed to hold on to power at the Centre for some years, the phenomenon of the regionalisation of the Centre had held sway. “But the strategy to successfully take Haryana and Maharashtra by boldly shrugging off long-standing allies and going it alone in States where it has only been a junior partner for decades, and making it a resounding success, marks an important step towards removing this stain of the past. And in this, there is a sense of the paradigm shift that has manifested at the Centre moving to the level of State-level politics, too,” he pointed out.

This leader as well as other Sangh Parivar insiders pointed out that the new manoeuvres marked the emergence of a new political strategy for the BJP. “We had always sought to consolidate the electoral gains in States and make them reflect at the national level. The 1993 slogan Aaj paanch pradesh, kal saara desh [today five States, tomorrow the whole country] in the context of the Assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Delhi, Rajasthan and Himachal Pradesh had a direct bearing on this strategy. But, two decades later, we have altered that slogan to Pehle saara desh, phir ek ek pradesh [first the country, then each of the States],” the senior RSS activist said. He said there was an overwhelming acceptance within the various units of the Sangh Parivar that this had been made possible basically on account of the leadership and mass appeal of Narendra Modi and the organisational skills of Amit Shah. Modi and Amit Shah, who virtually control the BJP now, were relatively junior players in 1993, but now they have turned the 1993 slogan on its head.

In the process, a redefining of the federal structure is taking place in the BJP and even in the larger Sangh Parivar. In both Haryana and Maharashtra, the BJP did not project its State leadership as part of the campaign. The focus remained firmly on Prime Minister Narendra Modi. So much so that even senior leaders such as Sushma Swaraj were exhorting Haryanvis to give back to Modi since he has given them such a lot. And throughout the campaign, Modi’s main plank was to exhort the people of both the States to be part of his national project at the Centre. According to the political analyst Sheetal Singh, this is a clear attempt to build up a political style which can be termed as centralisation of State politics.

The expectation in the Sangh Parivar is that this drive will consolidate and move steadily across different States, including Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Jammu and Kashmir, where the BJP does not have a strong electoral presence. The State where the new strategy will unravel itself rather dramatically is expected to be Punjab, where too, Sangh Parivar insiders aver, the BJP is planning a repeat of a Maharashtra-type exercise with the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), the party’s steadfast partner for many decades. But the thinking in parties such as the SAD, the Shiv Sena and the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) is that this exercise will not work in the long run. “Look at the unexpected reverses the BJP suffered in the byelections that followed soon after the Lok Sabha elections. The byelection reverses in Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Karnataka, Rajasthan and even Gujarat showed how ephemeral people’s political priorities can be,” pointed out an Akali Dal leader who did not want to be named. Yet, he accepted that this type of politics and its practice are on the ascendant now.

Foreboding signal

A variety of factors have contributed to the rise of the phenomenon of centralisation of State politics. The primary reason is the absolute failure of the Congress to reorient and rediscover itself in the face of political and organisational reverses. This factor is working in favour of the Modi-Amit Shah plan. More specifically, in both Haryana and Maharashtra, States once regarded as the Congress’ bastions, the party has been trounced by the BJP and overtaken by a regional party. This is a foreboding signal for the grand old party in terms of historical analysis. Yogendra Yadav, political analyst-turned-Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) leader, pointed out that recent electoral history suggests that wherever the Congress’ vote share has fallen below 20 per cent, it has not recovered from the reverses. Cases in point are Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh.

However, some of the regional parties have the spunk to take on the Modi-Amit Shah plan. The performance of the Samajwadi Party (S.P.) and the Janata Dal (United) in the recent byelections in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, soon after being drubbed by the BJP in the Lok Sabha election in May, is a pointer. Even in the October 15 elections, the Shiv Sena managed to hold on to a significant vote share despite being defeated by the BJP. But the regional parties’ courage to fight back is not a political trend that can have immediate manifestations. At the moment, the idea of centralisation of State politics holds centre stage and the reputation that Modi has built for himself as a methodical politician who can single-mindedly chase the result that he wants has been further bolstered by the October election results. This will certainly add to the vast armoury that he and Amit Shah may use in future political battles as well as in battles within the party and the Sangh Parivar.