The results of the recently concluded state-elections in India have generated euphoria and despair among different groups. However we can see certain trends in these results if we take a sufficiently long-term view. Such a view may encourage us to go beyond the euphoria or despair.
Let me start with a normative view based on the experience of different societies. It is desirable to have rooted competitive politics in a democracy. Such a competitive politics may mean that each of the two competing parties (or coalitions) has a reasonably good chance of coming to power through elections. There should be competition not only at the state level but also in villages. If a citizen does not like the party that she has been voting for in a set of elections, she should feel comfortable to vote for the other party. In order to make this happen, any one party should not have monopoly control over a section of voters and competing parties should be accessible to all citizens.
What is good about competitive politics? In the absence of competition in politics, it is somewhat obvious that the politicians may not have the interest to meet the needs of people at large. This is true even if the party in power is pro-poor in terms of its ideology or class position. One can see this from a comparison between Kerala and West Bengal. West Bengal experienced the ruling by the left front without any break for about 30 years, whereas the same party/coalition in Kerala was not that `fortunate’. People keep the CPM-led coalition (or the Left Democratic Front – LDF) in opposition at the end of its term in government in the latter. This is despite that these LDF governments have implemented schemes which could improve the lives of poor and ordinary people. The competition of two parties/coalitions over the last 60 years in Kerala has improved its human development substantially, whereas the progress in this regard in West Bengal under the uninterrupted rule of the left front may be significant but not remarkable. (I am not underestimating the role of other factors that differentiate between these two states). Competition in politics from 1970s has helped the people of Tamilnadu too. Strong competition encourages parties to meet the needs of even those people who have not voted for them.
Competition is needed not only to enhance the interest of politicians to serve the society at large but also to create appropriate expectations in the minds of people regarding what any government can deliver. How do citizens know the limits of what a government can provide to them? When one party is in power, and when certain demands of people are not met, they are not sure whether the ruling regime is ineffective or encountering genuine difficulties in meeting such demands. People get correct information and lessons in this regard only when they can try out more than one political party to rule them.
In a social context where the majority continue to be poor or financially vulnerable (and they have not become part of the middle class), the competition between the parties would be in the provision of goods and services such as food, water, support for housing, cycles, TVs, employment, subsidies and cash support and so on. (Economists call these private goods). This stage of competition can be called competitive populism. Though such populism may affect the provision of certain other services (like infrastructure or `public goods’ in general), it is helpful in enhancing the living standards of people.
Though such a competitive politics is desirable, there are many contexts where it may not emerge. This is the case when the politics is controlled by elites, and the non-elites serve as vote banks. That was the situation in the first two to three decades after Indian independence in most states. There was no serious opposition to the Congress then. Competitive politics may not evolve when the parties representing the non-elites (in terms of class or social identity like caste) or any other party capture power but for some reason the opposition gets weakened. Competitive politics could be hampered if opposition is divided and cannot come together due to adversarial relationships between them for caste or religious or personal reasons. Or such a competition in politics may not emerge if a section of society is compelled to vote for the party representing their caste/religion or other forms of social identity.
How do we interpret the results of the recently-held state elections in India based on the argument mentioned here?
Though a few states in India (like Kerala and Tamilnadu) have the experience of real competitive politics for a number of decades, others have started witnessing it only recently. However most states have entered into this phase lately. Yet there are a few states which do not see strong competition in politics, probably due to the lack of an effective opposition or other reasons. This seems to be the case of Odisha, Gujarat, and to some extent Madhya Pradesh. Even when the politics at the state level is competitive, there may not be real competition in the villages. This is the case if Dalits in a UP village have to vote for BSP when they cannot connect with SP or other parties, or if Muslims cannot vote for BJP.
One redeeming feature of the outcome of elections held recently is that the competitive politics has played out well in those states where it has been prevailing for some time and also in others where it has not developed well for some reasons. One feature of such competition in politics is that people are likely to throw out a government which has been in power for one or two terms. This is especially so if there are enough signals of its ineffectiveness in meeting what people see as their requirements to be fulfilled by the government. Hence it is to be expected that the ruling party or coalition should lose power after one or two terms. Hence there is no surprise in the election results in Punjab or Uttarakhand. There is also nothing unexplainable in the electoral setback of BJP in Goa or the Congress in Manipur. All these showed that the people in these states were responding to the local situation as expected in a situation of competitive politics.
What are the surprising elements in this election? It is the emergence of BJP as the ruling party in UP and its capture of a number of seats in Manipur. The politics of UP was fragmented since BSP and SP were drawing strength from different social groups. The BJP was not that accessible to the Muslim minorities. Though the Congress could get voters from all castes and religions in the past, other parties have taken away specific groups from its fold. This fragmentation has prevented the emergence of real competitive politics in UP. However, the results of this election have shown that BJP could mobilise the votes of opposition from almost all social groups, and could unseat the ruling regime. Though BJP could not get the majority on its own in Manipur, it could emerge as a main player like the Congress there. Until now, the politics in Manipur was controlled by the Congress or a set of fragmented regional players. This election has led to the emergence of competitive politics in Manipur with a direct contestation between two coalitions –one headed by the BJP and the other by the Congress. The campaign of BJP (led by Narendra Modi) was successful in projecting itself as a viable political regime in these states and hence could push UP and Manipur towards competitive politics. This change is a desirable one for these two states.
People talk about the possible influence of the `pro-reform’ agenda of Narendra Modi or his specific policies. There is no evidence to see such influence. The reform agenda of Narendra Modi does not seem to have encouraged the voters of Goa and Punjab to support BJP (or the coalition supported by it). These states are ahead in terms of human development, and a sizable section of their population is the middle-class – a constituency which can be influenced by a pro-reform agenda. Demonetization policy is also of this kind. There is no reason to think that such a policy could be more attractive to the voters of UP or Uttarakhand compared to those in Goa and Punjab.
Modi’s willingness or eagerness to implement economic reforms has not prevented him from offering the waiver of farmers’ loans in UP, which is a regressive or harmful policy according to economists and bankers. This again shows that even Narendra Modi is responding to the needs of competitive populism – which is the nature of politics of UP currently. It is not that BJP has focussed on long-term political or economic interests. It is influenced by the short-term interest to be in power even if that means stitching (probably unstable) coalitions in Goa and Manipur by giving major concessions to smaller partners. One cannot see much sincerity in pre-election offers made by the BJP to take everybody together, as evident from the events after the elections. These opportunistic behaviours are to be expected from any political party participating in competitive politics, and there is nothing much differentiating BJP in this regard.
 This is discussed in detail in Santhakumar, V. (2014), The Roots of Ill Governance and Corruption, Sage Publishers, New Delhi.
 Though there could be a few dictators who have attempted to improve the welfare of people, there are many other dictatorships in human history which have failed in this regard.