For the media and other commentators, the results of just-concluded state-elections in India indicate the beginning of a possible decline of the hold of BJP and the reemergence of Indian National Congress. However, certain important signals of these elections are not taken seriously. In my view, these results demonstrate a significant positive step in Indian politics. This goes beyond who has won or lost in specific states.
Let us start by looking at the states of Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh. These states had the same ruling party for the last three terms. The re-election of the same party would have been problematic for a number of reasons. Though the outgoing chief minsters in both these states are somewhat decent and popular, that need not be the case of the party machinery at different levels. Even if the governance is `perfect’, there are genuine reasons for sections of voters to be unhappy with a ruling regime. In a democracy, there should be a viable platform for expressing their frustrations. However in both these states, the opposition (mainly the Congress) was not in a position to mobilize these people until recently. I have written earlier that the continuation of the same regime in these states (and also in others such as Odisha) without a strong opposition is an indication of the stagnation of political development there.
It is this political stagnation that could be ended in Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh. Congress leadership has used clever strategies this time to bring together multiple leaders before the elections and they worked at the ground level to signal to the people that it can become a viable opposition. These efforts could channelize the anti-incumbency feelings in favor of the congress. This was not the situation in the previous elections in these two states.
It is to be noted that the BJP continues to be strong in both states. It is much more so in MP but it may not be that difficult for the BJP to get the confidence of people in Chhattisgarh too. This too is needed for the political development of these states. Otherwise, there will not be enough pressure on the incoming congress governments to deliver. Based on that indicator too, there is a significant positive development in the politics of these two states.
However, it is not clear whether all sections of the society (including scheduled castes and tribes) in both these states are politically mobilized. There are some positive indications in the case of scheduled castes as evident from the vote share of Bahujan Samaj Party, but scheduled tribes seem to continue in a stage of patronage politics where mainstream parties use some of their leaders as `tools’ rather than mobilizing them politically. This is one aspect where the political development in these two states has to move forward, but the intensification of the competitive democracy that we have witnessed this time cannot be overlooked.
The same phenomenon has happened in Mizoram too. The two-term Congress government under the same leader has already shown signs of degenerated governance. The Chief Minister has become more important than his party. There are indications of inadequate inclusion in government policies. The minority Hindu tribes (Chakmas) face real or perceived marginalization. There are signals of higher level of corruption. Given this situation, it is good that an opposition party could capture the power in Mizoram. The competition between the Congress (if it can reinvigorate in near future) and Mizo National Front (MNF) would strengthen the competitive democracy there.
When we think along these lines, it becomes clear that what is good for the country need not be the one that is good for a political party. For example, if Congress has won MP, Chhattisgarh, and Mizoram, it would have been celebrated as the success of this party but I would say that it may not be the desirable outcome when progressive political transformation is the criteria for judging electoral outcomes. On the other hand, its success in MP and Chhattisgarh and the failure in Mizoram, show that political transition is moving ahead in a number of Indian states.
Another important state where there is a political stagnation is Odisha. There have to be a change in governance here irrespective of the nature of the current ruling regime if democracy has to strengthen there. If Congress is not in a position to channelize anti-incumbency feelings towards its advantage (and that seems to be the case if we see the results of previous elections), then that role has to be taken up by the BJP. Hence if the BJP can be successful in Odisha in the next election, that should be considered as a progressive development in Indian politics irrespective of our liking or disliking for this party.
Let us consider the other two states which have witnessed elections recently. Telegana has re-elected the ruling regime. This is fairly OK since TRS has been in power for only one term. Is its re-election due to the absence of a viable opposition or due to its populist policies (which can be reckoned as the actions of a government which fears stiff competition in politics)? This is not clear at this stage. However if TRS is re-elected after five years mainly due to the absence of a viable and strong opposition, there could be a stagnation in politics and that can have negative implications for the state.
What about Rajasthan? It has a certain degree of competitive politics for some time. It is good that both BJP and Congress could continue as viable opposition there even when they are out of power. However there has to be a deepening of democratic mobilization in this state. Sections of elites still control politics in Rajasthan. It is good that there are some indications of the political mobilization of the under-class and lower-castes. Let us hope that the BJP and Congress are forced to listen to the voices of these people there.
Let us take up the situation in national politics. The results of these state elections indicate an intensification of competition at the national level too. The parliament elections in 2014 have thrown up the BJP as a strong contender (if not the dominant political force) at the national level. Its powerful emergence and pursuit of the slogan of a `Congress Mukth’ India give an impression that the country is going to have the domination of this political party for some time. However these election results demonstrate that Indian democracy is mature enough to disallow such a one-party dominance again. There are clear indications of a higher level of competition at the national politics even if NDA and Narendra Modi are re-elected in 2019.
It is also important for the Congress and the liberal forces supporting it to understand that they cannot keep the BJP out of power forever. BJP is likely to strengthen in a number of states. Even if SP, BSP and Congress come together in UP, BJP would become the core opposition party there. It may become the main opposition force (or ruling regime) in West Bengal and Odisha in due course. For all these reasons, BJP’s hold is not going to decline and people may see it as a viable ruling/opposition party to counter the Congress and its allies.
Hence Indian liberal polity should evolve in a way to accept the BJP as a party that would come to power now and then. It may represent the socially conservative and economically liberal (or pro-market) aspirations of Indian society, and that could be a major political force in India. However it may not be able to decimate the economically centrist (or slightly left-of-center), and socially liberal aspirations of India represented by the Congress and its allies.
I do not underestimate the genuine concerns about the BJP and its potential impacts on the democratic institutions of the country. In order to mitigate this situation, BJP has to become a `normal’ political party. My impression is that it is not able to communicate that signal currently. The same party would have communicated a different signal if it were led by Advani, Jaitley, or Sushma Swaraj. However the `background’ of Narendra Modi is different. It may not be unusual to see such leaders emerging in other parties too (at the state level), which may give discomforting signals regarding the functioning of democratic institutions in the country. India may have to face twin challenges in this regard: First, it may have to live with or facilitate the emergence of such leaders who are not that committed to a liberal polity since such a liberalism may be seen as elitist within the country. Secondly, the country should have ways to see that these leaders cannot unsettle the democratic institutions of the country. The results of these elections indicate that the electoral choices of ordinary people in the country deepen the democracy on the one hand, and protect and nurture liberal principles and institutions on the other hand.