On October 24, when the results of the Assembly elections in Maharashtra and Haryana are announced, the political message of the verdict will echo far beyond those two states -- one in India’s west, and the other in the north. More so, perhaps, because these polls are happening less than six months after the general elections and would partly be seen as reflecting popular sentiment on the performance of Modi 2.0 so far.
The full-throated poll campaign, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and party chief and Home Minister Amit Shah for the BJP, contrasted with the lacklustre Congress campaign, with Rahul Gandhi now on, now off, has seen state-specific issues taking a backseat and national issues like the economy, joblessness (raised by Congress) and abrogation of Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir, promise to implement NRC across the nation (raised by the BJP) taking centre stage, with virtually no debate around the chief ministerial candidates or aspirants from any side.
The saffron party had swept the state polls held in 2014 in Maharashtra Haryana and Jharkhand, months after its massive Lok Sabha victory then. It could well be a repeat performance this week in Maharashtra and Haryana, and in Jharkhand in November-December.
These poll results will probably settle the question of whether the Modi factor is working equally in both parliamentary and state elections even in his second term.
Besides, it will also mean the emergence of Manohar Lal Khattar and Devendra Fadnavis as the new crop of powerful BJP chief ministers, after the eclipse of Shivraj Singh Chouhan (Madhya Pradesh), Raman Singh (Chhattisgarh) and Vasundhara Raje (Rajasthan), who lost their states in the assembly polls last year. The only other second-term BJP chief minister currently is Vijay Rupani in Gujarat, who had first become CM mid-term in 2014 after Modi became prime minister. Karnataka’s B S Yediyurappa has returned for a second term, but it is rumoured that he will not last the full term. Age may not be with Khattar for a very long innings, but Fadnavis is in the reckoning.
A second successive defeat for the Congress in these two states, where it had been the dominant party for long, will mean that Maharashtra and Haryana are going the way that Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh did at the turn of the century. The scale of internal rivalry within the Congress is also the same as was in those two states, which kept Congress out of power for 15 years. In Maharashtra, where the BJP initially rose on the Shiv Sena’s shoulders, it is now the big brother in the alliance. Similarly, in Haryana, after having tie-ups with regional players like Haryana Janhith Congress and INLD, the BJP has emerged as the most potent force. Helped by the decline of the regional parties as well as of Congress, the BJP has had a meteoric rise in Haryana, where its presence was earlier mainly among refugees from Pakistan.
A second term for Fadnavis will effectively put an end to the Nitin Gadkari factor in BJP, and Fadnavis will emerge as the party’s strongest Maharashtra leader after the late Gopinath Munde. In both Maharashtra and Haryana, the BJP propped up chief ministers from politically non-dominant communities. In Maharashtra, where Marathas mostly occupied the CM’s post, the BJP brought in a Brahmin face in Fadnavis. The BJP, which was earlier called the ‘Sethji-Bhatji (Baniya-Brahmin) party in Maharashtra, took a risk in propping up Fadnavis.
For Congress-NCP, which have seen a number of their leaders flocking to the BJP-Shiv Sena ahead of the polls, a second successive defeat in Maharashtra will make matters worse and would trigger a fresh round of desertions. It could well mean the political end of the once-powerful Sharad Pawar, now 78, as well as the NCP itself.
In Congress, the multiple power struggles, such as Sanjay Nirupam versus Milind Deora, in Mumbai and across Maharashtra will worsen. Like Pawar, age is not on Congress’ Sushilkumar Shinde’s (78) side either, and there is no semblance of unity among others such as Prithviraj Chavan and Ashok Chavan (both former CMs). Then there are powerful regional satraps who have shown their power more in infighting than by fighting the rival political force. The internal fight will exacerbate and speed up the decline of Congress.
In Haryana BJP, when Khattar was first made CM in 2014 in a marked departure from the state’s mostly Jat CMs, there were voices of disgruntlement within the party that had continued until quite recently. A second term will effectively put an end to such murmuring, consolidating Khattar’s position in the party. If the results go otherwise, both CMs will find it difficult to continue in their leadership roles as the disgruntled Maratha leaders in Maharashtra and Jat leaders in Haryana will use the occasion to assert their might.
In Haryana Congress, a defeat will mark the sunset for Bhupinder Hooda, the two-time former CM, who has managed to force the central leadership to kneel down before him this time despite having lost the state in 2014.
A second successive defeat will make it difficult for him to stay powerful in Congress politics. Rahul Gandhi’s pick Ashok Tanwar, who was made PCC chief in 2014 and removed five years later, just two months before polls this time, may stage a comeback, though he is now courting Dushyant Chautala. A victory for Congress, which will be nothing sort of a miracle, will at the same time firmly ensconce the old guard in the power seat. If the feat is achieved, Hooda’s stature will rise high in Congress ranks.
The BJP had won 47 seats in the 90-member Haryana assembly in the 2014 polls and has now set a target of 75 seats at least. Congress, by appointing Kumari Selja as PCC chief and propping up Hooda as CM face, is trying to forge a Jat-Dalit caste coalition, which seems difficult on the ground, given the history of animosity between the two communities and the number of Dalit atrocity incidents during Hooda’s past regime.
While the Khattar government in Haryana has won appreciation for fair recruitment to government jobs, the campaign theme of BJP has focused mainly on the persona of PM Narendra Modi and the steps taken by the central government. Article 370 resonates in Haryana, where a passion for the military uniform exists among the youth, who cutting across all caste lines join the Indian Army, central security forces and as policemen.
On a national plane, as these elections are happening amid an economic slowdown, a victory will give greater confidence to the BJP to counter the criticism of its handling of the economy and the BJP will take the argument that the ‘Janata ki Adalat’ (People’s court) has given its decision on the issue.
The opposition will find it difficult to counter the argument. A victory will also further silence the already muted criticism of the Modi government’s action in J&K and will embolden BJP to fulfil the unfinished part of its core agenda—implementation of Uniform Civil Code, early construction of Ram temple (though dependent on a favourable verdict from the Supreme Court) and the recent pitch of carrying out a nationwide NRC exercise. In a nutshell, while the BJP seems to be preparing for 2024, Congress has not yet emerged out of even the 2014 debacle, let alone the 2019 drubbing.