BJP's Performance In State Elections, Mostly Downhill?

BJP's Performance In State Elections, Mostly Downhill?
In recently concluded elections in Bihar, the BJP has emerged as the biggest winner. It not only defeated the surging opposition but also tamed its own partner Janata Dal (United), which has been given a terminal blow. Nitish Kumar might become the chief minister but he will be totally dependent on the BJP. As political commentators praise BJP's strategy and success in Bihar, there are some analysts who are claiming that the BJP is going to soon become as dominant in states as it is in the center. Is BJP’s supremacy in states going to be the new normal?

India has 28 states and nine union territories. As far as Pakistan is concerned, elections in these states and territories are not as important as those of the Indian union but they do give us an idea of which way the electoral winds are blowing. The state legislative assemblies in India are called Vidhan Sabha and their members as 'Member Legislative Assembly' or MLAs. The Chief Minister is called mukhya mantri. Since the Lok Sabha elections in April-May 2019, five new vidhan sabhas have been elected. State elections were held in October 2019 in Haryana and Maharashtra. Jharkhand voted in November-December 2019. In February 2020, the Vidhan Sabha elections were held in Delhi. Finally, in October-November, Bihar state politicians were held accountable by the electorate. Let’s see how the BJP has performed in these contests.

In Haryana, the BJP was not able to win any seats in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections but won seven out of ten seats in the 2014 elections. On October 15, 2014, the people of Haryana voted for the BJP and ousted an Indian National Congress (INC)-led state government. From only four seats in a 90-member state legislature, it became the majority party with 47 seats, while the Congress lost 25 seats to even fall behind a local party, the Indian National Lok Dal (INLD). In the Lok Sabha elections in 2019, the BJP totally wiped out the Congress by winning all ten seats from Haryana and increased its vote share to 58%, leaving the Congress at only 28%. With such a strong performance, there were expectations that the BJP would increase its seat tally to at least 60 in state elections in October. Most of the public opinion polls before the elections gave it more than 70 seats and one gave in 87 out of the total 90 seats.

The results were, however, dismal. The BJP lost its majority in the Vidhan Sabha. It could only win 40 seats, seven less than in 2014, albeit it was still the largest party in the assembly. The Congress, on the other hand, doubled its seats from 15 to 31. The vote share of BJP decreased from 58% in Lok Sabha elections (April/May) to 36% in October, a drop of more than 20%. The Congress maintained its vote share of 28% that it achieved in the Lok Sabha elections. Post-election, the BJP was able to form a government but this time it had to seek support from a local party, Jannayak Janta Party (JJP) that had formed as a result of the disintegration of the INLD.

Maharashtra, the big prize in the West, went full Hindutva in 2014. In the Lok Sabha elections, the BJP increased its seats to 23 while its ally Shiv Sena grabbed 18. Thus, the BJP-Shiv Sena alliance capturing 41 out of 48 seats. Although the alliance ended a few months after the Lok Sabha elections and both parties contested state elections separately, they formed a coalition government in Mumbai after the BJP won the elections. The main opposition to Hindutva forces in Maharashtra are the two Congresses, the Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party (a faction that broke away in 1999), that usually fight elections and govern as an alliance. In 2014, the primary cause of the defeat of the Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) in both Lok Sabha and state elections, besides the Modi tsunami, was the anti-incumbency sentiment as the two Congresses had been ruling nationally and Maharashtra for a decade.

In 2019, the shoe was on the other foot. It was the BJP and the Shiv Sena that had to fight against anti-incumbency and anti-corruption sentiment. After some initial bickering, during which the Shiv Sena asked for the role of “big brother” i.e. bigger share of seats, the two parties came together to seal an alliance. Amit Shah predicted that the BJP-Shiv Sena will win 45 of the 48 Maharashtra seats. Although the BJP-Shiv Sena could not touch the ambitious target set by Amit Shah, it did win decisively, winning 41 of 48 Lok Sabha seats. Its vote share was around 52%. The two Congresses-led alliance won only 6 seats and their vote share was around 32%.

After this dominating performance, the BJP-Shiv Sena alliance expected to win most seats in the Vidhan Sabha elections and they did win. However, the hope of increasing their majority, as in the case of Haryana, appeared to be too optimistic. In fact, both the BJP (17) and the Shiv Sena (7) lost seats. In contrast, the rival alliance won 15 more seats than the last state election.

Both the BJP and the Shiv Sena suffered a decline in vote share as compared to the Lok Sabha election a few months earlier. The BJP’s share dropped from 28% to 26%. The Shiv Sena witnessed an even bigger decline of 8% while the two Congresses maintained their vote shares.

For the BJP, the loss of seats and vote share became a minor issue compared to what happened after the elections. Despite being the biggest party in the Vidhan Sabha and allied with the Shiv Sena during the elections, it could not form the government as the Shiv Sena wanted chief ministership. The Shiv Sena formed a coalition with the two Congresses and its chief Uddhav Thackeray became Mukhya Mantri with only 56 seats in the state assembly. This was a big blow to the BJP as Maharashtra is the second biggest state in the union.

The last Vidhan Sabha elections of 2019 happened in Jharkhand from 30th November to 20th December 2019. In Jharkhand, 12 out of 14 Lok Sabha seats were won by the BJP in 2014. The other two were won by the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM). Later in 2014, it also won the state elections. For the first time in Jharkhand history, one party won close to majority seats in the Vidhan Sabha. The BJP’s confidence was evident from the fact that it appointed a non-tribal as CM of a state where tribal sentiment is very strong. In early 2019, the BJP’s popularity appeared to be waning. In late 2018, it lost a series of by-elections.

To add to its troubles, most of the BJP’s rivals in Jharkhand decided to form an electoral alliance. In January 2019, the Congress, JMM, Jharkhand Vikas Morcha-Prajatantrik (JVM (P)), and several parties announced an agreement to fight the Lok Sabha and state elections together. The pre-election polls predicted only four to seven seats for the BJP in the Lok Sabha elections. The result was surprising. The BJP not only again won 12 of the 14 seats in Jharkhand. Not only that, it increased its vote share by more than 10% to reach 56%.

Five months later, like in Haryana and Maharashtra, there were predictions, based on its strong performance in the Lok Sabha elections, that the BJP would easily win state elections and get the majority of seats. However, again like in Haryana and Maharashtra, Modi’s magic failed to work at the state level. The surprise was bigger in Jharkhand as the BJP was soundly defeated. Its vote decreased by more than 20% to 31% (as compared to the Lok Sabha elections) and its Vidhan Sabha seats decreased to 25 from 37. Even its state leader and sitting Mukhya Mantri Raghubar Das lost his seat. The opposition Congress-JMM-led alliance saw a small increase in their vote share but they won 22 more seats and formed government.

Delhi, the national capital territory, is one of the nine union territories of India. It has an elected legislature and a mukhya mantri but, like in union territories, a central (union) government-appointed lieutenant-governor shares powers with the mukhya mantri. The main contest in the Delhi Vidhan Sabha election held in February 2020 was between the BJP and a regional party, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). The Congress party that ruled Delhi for 15 consecutive years (1998-2013) was not expected to win a large number of seats.

Less than one year ago, in the Lok Sabha elections, the BJP had done what few thought possible. It had won all seven Lok Sabha seats from Delhi in 2014 and it won all of them again in 2019. Despite suffering a drubbing at the hands of the AAP in the state elections when it won only 3 of the 70 Vidhan Sabha seats (the rest going to the AAP), it bounced back spectacularly. The BJP also increased its vote share to 56%.

In the Vidhan Sabha elections, the BJP was determined to gain full control of Delhi. It not only employed all its resources but also tried to use the anti-Citizenship Amendment Act agitation in Shaheen Bagh, Delhi to its advantage. The Hindu-Muslim divide was highlighted and anti-Muslim rhetoric, sometimes dog whistled, was everywhere. The results, however, were a disaster. Although the BJP increased its tally, the total was still eight seats out of 70. The vote share dropped from 56% to 39%. The AAP won the election comprehensively by winning 62 out of 70 seats. Its vote share increased from 18% to more than 50% in ten months.

The result of the 2019-20 Lok and Vidhan Sabha elections followed the pattern set in 2014-15. The Delhiwallahs gave a full mandate to the BJP in the Lok Sabha elections but, a few months later, changed their minds and gave (an almost) full mandate to the AAP in the Vidhan Sabha elections. The BJP’s dream of capturing Delhi had to wait. As the Persian proverb, attributed to Delhi’s saint Khwaja Nizamuddin Auliya, states, “Hanooz Dilli Dur Ast.”

Bihar is the third largest Indian state in terms of population. While it is difficult territory for the BJP as far as Vidhan Sabha elections are concerned, the BJP has dominated the Lok Sabha elections. In the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, allied with two comparatively small, local parties, Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) and Rashtriya Lok Samata Party (RLSP), it won 31 of the total 40 Lok Sabha seats. The two major parties of Bihar, Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) of former Mukhya Mantri Lalu Prasad Yadav and Janata Dal-United JD (U) of current Mukhya Mantri Nitish Kumar, which have dominated Bihar for decades, were outclassed.

In the 2015 Vidhan Sabha elections, the alignment of major parties did not change. The JD(U)-RJD+others alliance fought against the BJP-LJP+others alliance but the results were different. The BJP-led alliance lost and the BJP itself was reduced to 56 seats from 91 before the elections.

In 2017, Nitish Kumar ditched the RJD and formed a new government with the help of the BJP. Therefore, in the Lok Sabha 2019 elections, the BJP allied with the JD(U) and again demonstrated its electoral prowess in national elections. The alliance won 39 out of 40 seats. The Congress won only one seat while the biggest party in the Vidhan Sabha, the RJD, failed to open its account. The BJP-JD (U) alliance vote share was more than 55%.

The Vidhan Sabha elections in October-November 2020 were supposed to be an easy ride after the sweeping victory in the Lok Sabha elections. The opposition was in disarray. The Congress has long accepted a supporting role in Bihar and the RJD was led by Lalu Yadav’s son Tejashwi Yadav, who did not seem to be interested in becoming a popular leader like his father. His stint (2015-17) as Deputy Mukhya Mantri under Nitish was uneventful and disappointing. When, at the height of the migrant crisis, hundreds of thousands of Biharis were walking thousands of miles to their homes after Corona lockdown, he was nowhere to be seen. Not surprisingly, two months before the election, opinion polls were showing 140 to 160 seats for the BJP-JD(U) alliance out of the total 243 seats.

Things changed in the last leg of the Bihar election campaign. Tejashwi came into his own and his promise of one million public sector jobs resonated. The opposition campaign was rejuvenated as Tejashwi addressed multiple rallies a day with thousands of people and claimed that Nitish was mentally and physically tired (after ruling Bihar for 15 years). In the end, JD(U)-BJP alliance won by a whisker. It won 125 seats as compared to 110 of the opposition alliance. The ruling alliance share of votes dropped to 37% from 55% in the Lok Sabha elections. The BJP fared well as compared to its partner JD(U) as it increased its seats from 53 to 74 in the Vidhan Sabha while JD(U) tally decreased to only 43 seats. While the BJP did increase its seats as compared to 2015 Vidhan Sabha elections, its performance pales in comparison to of its 2010 tally (91).

The main takeaway from the above analysis is that while Modi and the BJP might be unassailable at the national level but they are not impregnable at the state level. In fact, it has been mostly downhill for at least two years. The BJP has been consistently losing seats and vote share, except for a few instances, at the state level since late 2018. Vidhan Sabha elections since the colossal victory in Lok Sabha 2019 election did not buck the trend as far as state-level politics is concerned. Since late 2018, the BJP has been beaten by other parties in terms of seats won in Telangana, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Mizoram, Andhra Pradesh, Jharkhand, Delhi, Odisha, Sikkim, and Bihar. Its vote share has decreased, sometimes by double digits, in many of these states. Even when it has won most seats, as in Maharashtra and Haryana, it has lost seats and vote share. During this time, it has won a majority of seats only in the Vidhan Sabha of Arunachal Pradesh, a tiny state in the north-east with a total population of less than 1.5 million.