5 Key Takeaways from Assembly Elections 2017

Shashank Rai

As the dust settles down on the recent Assembly Elections in India, we analyze the aftermath of what is likely to be the defining moment of Prime Minister Modi’s time in New Delhi. No one could have predicted the overwhelming victory of BJP in UP and Uttarakhand. Such was the impact of the win, that its debacle in Punjab and Goa were hardly discussed. But it is important to keep the losses in mind because they give a much clearer picture of the country’s politics than what your favorite news anchor would have you believe. Below are India Ink’s 5 key takeaways from the latest round of state elections:

BJP coasted to massive victories in Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand in the recently concluded Assembly Elections

BJP coasted to massive victories in Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand in the recently concluded Assembly Elections

More than just a Modi Wave:

In analyzing the state elections and focusing simply on UP, it is easy to mistake the results as part of yet another Modi Wave. It is a simplistic analysis that misses the point. What turned the tide in the favor of BJP in UP, as well as Uttarakhand, was a strong grassroots organization network which even the regional political parties found difficult to match. It was the same organizational network and the same approach of booth-wise campaigning that reaped dividend for the party in the general elections in 2014 in the state. BJP President Amit Shah spent all his energies in 2014 in winning UP for BJP, given the 80 out of 543 Lok Sabha (Lower House) seats that the state commands. This organizational set up was further aided by an anti-incumbency factor and a divided opposition. The Mulayam-Akhilesh split in the Samajwadi Party (SP) did the Congress-SP alliance no favors while Bahujan Samajwadi Party's chief Mayawati’s refusal to join the alliance made sure that the Jatav, Yadav, and Muslim votes could not be consolidated against BJP. Sure Modi enjoys an unparalleled following across the country and is the only politician who can stake a claim to being a true national leader, but state elections are about regional politics and regional leadership. BJP’s local organizational set up and a divided opposition ensured that local leadership did not become a problem and Modi was able to take over the electoral narrative that he failed to do in Punjab or earlier in Bihar.


Performance is Critical and Change is Expected:

Modi, by his very nature, is a risk taker and seeks to stand out from the crowd. This combined with his exceptional marketing skills means that governance under him is likely to shake the system once in every short while. With the UP verdict, he also will have the Rajya Sabha (Upper House) numbers, from 2019 onwards, that he so badly craved during the Land Acquisition Bill debates. If his record in Gujarat is anything to by with, he will double down on his reform agenda and will seek to bring in more efficiency. But his stature and his relentless campaigning will also entail an expectation from the voters for similar performance at the state level. That could be a challenge however. State level governance is a whole different beast altogether and there have already been unrest in states like Gujarat and Haryana to indicate that BJP will be ill-advised to take their eyes off the states and believe the myth of ‘Tsunamo’, Modinomics, or ‘Surgical Strikes’.


Coalitions against BJP Must be the Regional Answer:

As discussed above, opposition to BJP could not match the party’s organizational set up nor could it put up a united front. In states where BJP has come up against a united opposition or a strong opposition with regional leadership, it has struggled. Bihar, West Bengal, and Punjab are shining examples of the same. It is difficult to see where the next national leader to rival Modi is going to come from. However, in state elections you do not need to rival Modi, but focus on state issues and your plans for the state. That is where the SP-Congress alliance went wrong. Instead of talking their development agenda for the state, they continued to target Modi throughout the campaign and Modi, on the other hand, took advantage of such mudslinging to focus on state issues, despite being a national leader.


… But not a National Solution:

That said, Modi should continue to enjoy national prominence. His popularity ensures that the voters are more than happy to believe whatever Modi peddles and if Congress and the rest of the parties in opposition hope to form another “Mahagathbandhan” (or Grand Alliance) for 2019, they are bound to struggle. Congress should learn from its own experience in UP in 2009 and 2011. While the state voted in big numbers for Congress in the 2009 general elections, the same voters, against all expectations, showed Congress the door in 2011 state elections. BJP saw the same trend in the 2015 state elections in Bihar, a state the party swept in 2014 general elections. The voters are smart and they differentiate between national and state governments. To expect them to vote by strict party lines across different elections is foolhardy. That is why most pundits feel that 2019 is a lost cause for Congress or any other party. To have any shot at 2019, Congress needs to change its approach. It needs to recognize that personal attacks on Modi are only going to embolden him and strengthen his support among voters. Now, more than ever, the Opposition Party needs to play the role of a true and responsible opposition. For its own sake.


Being Pro Poor is Not Enough:

Finally, these Assembly Elections also saw a shift from the BJP being largely a party for the middle class to a party for the poor. In that sense, it might sound paradoxical, but a big lesson for all the political parties is that being pro poor is not enough. Gone are the days when ‘Garibi Hatao’ (Remove Poverty) could win you the elections. The new India is changing and changing rapidly. The economic reforms of the ‘90s resulted in a big and booming middle class which wants more than just subsidies. The aspirations of the poor have also undergone a sea change. Hence, promising only subsidies is not the trump card it used to be. The subsidies need to be gift wrapped in hope for not only a non-poor India, but also a booming and thriving India. Distribution of all those laptops and bicycles did not win Akhilesh the elections because today’s India wants more jobs, better jobs. Modi may not end up being their savior but he is their best bet. Why pro poor politics worked for Modi is because he moved from the aspirational middle class to the poor. He never ceased to bring them hope. And that, singlehandedly, is the biggest challenge for the opposition. They need to capture the imagination of the electorate like Modi has. And for that, they need to beat Modi at his own game. One would hope that they know that they have their task cut out.


The author is the Editor at India Ink and a student of Public Policy at Georgetown University. He tweets @ThatSSR