India’s State Elections Change the Political Landscape

The Indian political landscape has changed. The Congress Party is no longer in decline under the leadership of Rahul Gandhi, and the prospect of Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party with its Hindu nationalist agenda being in power for the next few years does not look as inevitable as it seemed just a year ago.

This is the main take-away from the state assembly election results announced yesterday (Dec 11). Congress has won power in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan - three key BJP-governed states in what is known as the Hindi heartland. It lost Mizoram in northeast India to a regional party, and failed to make an impact in Telangana that was separated from Andhra Pradesh in 2014.

In Madhya Pradesh, constituency counting was evenly balanced for much of the day but at 2.30 am, Kamal Nath, the Congress state president, (above) claimed victory with 116 seats, a clear majority in the 230-seat assembly. Nath said it also had support from another party, the Uttar Pradesh-based BSP and five independents. The BJP however made a counterclaim and both parties are meeting the state governor this morning.

The results show that the Congress Party is re-energized after its devastating general election defeat in 2014, and that Gandhi has managed to confirm his role as its leader a year after taking over the president’s post in December 2017 from his mother Sonia Gandhi.

Voting patterns

It does not however mean that the BJP will necessarily do badly in the three heartland states in the general election due by next May. Nor does it mean that Modi’s government will be defeated nationally, though the BJP would lose 44 of the three states’ parliamentary seats in the general election if today’s voting patterns were repeated, according to estimates by the NDTV television channel.

The results, which were broadly in line with exit polls published on Dec. 7, also show that Modi has lost a lot of his personal vote-winning power that has driven BJP successes over the past five years. It remains to be seen whether he can recover that in the general election campaign.

The question now is how Modi will react to what privately he will regard as a serious defeat and a negative verdict on his rule. Specifically, will he try to win the electorate by focusing on economic development, or will he strengthen the BJP’s divisive Hindu nationalist agenda with its anti-Muslim overtones, driven especially by Amit Shah, the party president?

On the economy, Modi will be looking to Shaktikanta Das, who was appointed yesterday as the governor of the Reserve Bank of India, to relax interest rates and drive growth. Das was the secretary for economic affairs in the finance ministry till May last year and oversaw Modi’s economically damaging bank note demonetisation at the end of 2015.

As a career civil servant, Das was accustomed to working for and with government ministers and is therefore different from the past two governors who have been conscious of the need to maintain the RBI’s traditional independence.

Das replaces Urjit Patel (below) who resigned quietly on Dec. 10 after two years in the post. Patel was coming under intense pressure from the government to accept its policies and to allow it to interfere in RBI affairs. Reports suggest he had tired of the battles and pressure involved and decided to retire 10 months early, which is a very rare occurrence for RBI governors – it has only happened once before since 1947.

This is significant because it is yet another example of the Modi government’s persistent attempts to undermine the independence of India’s respected institutions such as the Election Commission and the judiciary including the Supreme Court.

Welcoming the results, Rahul Gandhi said Modi had “refused to listen to the heartbeat of the nation,” whereas he had learned from Congress’s 2014 general election defeat that he had to listen. Congress had led the country in reforms such as the “green revolution” in the 1980s, and the 1991 opening up of the economy, and it was now developing a “vision for the future” that would tackle the lack of jobs and youth disenchantment.

This picks up on the main issues that faced the BJP in the states – distress among farmers despite various government schemes, a failure to generate jobs, and the negative effects of the 2015 demonetization together with later complicated implementation of a new national sales tax (GST).

There is also a debate about how far a “soft Hindutva” stance adopted by Rahul Gandhi influenced votes to support Congress, in preference to the BJP with its harsher nationalist version that includes its slant against Muslims and bans on cow slaughter and beef eating.

Gandhi has been ostentatiously visiting Hindu temples over the past year. Meghnad Desai, a leading political and economy commentator, yesterday suggested on a television program that “Rahul has turned Congress into a Hindu party.” That was the “biggest change ever” to the party’s ideology. Congress politicians sought to refute this, pointing out that Congress accepts and works with all religions, but it is a fact that Gandhi has paraded Hindu credentials on election campaigns.

The detailed results in the states showed a substantial shift towards Congress. In Madhya Pradesh, it added more than 50 assembly seats to its tally in the 2013 election. The BJP has been in power under Shivraj Singh Chauhan, its chief minister, who has a sound reputation for implementing policies, for three terms totaling 15 years. It would have been remarkable if it had won a fourth term.

In the adjacent state of Chhattisgarh, Congress added almost 30 seats, winning the contest with 68 seats against the BJP’s 16 in the 90-seat assembly. In Rajasthan, it added around 80 seats, winning 101 against the BJP’s 73 in the 201-seat assembly.

General election seats

The national importance of the states is indicated by votes in the 2014 general election, when the BJP won 27 of the 29 parliamentary constituencies in Madhya Pradesh, 10 out of 11 in Chhattisgarh and all 25 seats in Rajasthan.

But results in national elections can be very different. In 2003, the BJP won the three states in assembly elections but lost the 2004 general election, and in 2008 the Congress lost Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh in 2008 but its United Progressive Alliance (UPA) coalition won the 2009 general election.

There will now be a tough and probably bitter battle between the BJP and Congress during the next four months till general election voting begins. It is likely to be even more bitter between the two leaders as Narendra Modi tries to counter the growing confidence of Rahul Gandhi.

John Elliott is Asia Sentinel’s South Asia correspondent. He blogs at Riding the Elephant.