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Three lessons for Modi-Shah in below-par performance in assembly polls

Modi, Shah have outstanding innings with the Congress as the principal challenger. But assembly election records fail.

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After the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said at a function in Varanasi, “This time, chemistry has defeated arithmetic.” On Saturday, Union Home Minister Amit Shah said, “Politics is not physics, but chemistry.” He was referring to the failure of the Samajwadi Party-Congress alliance in the 2017 Uttar Pradesh assembly elections and of the Bahujan Samaj Party-SP-Rashtriya Lok Dal coalition in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls. “People are aware. Coalitions formed on the basis of vote banks can’t guide people now,” he added.

What data from state and UT elections says

Coming from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s chief strategist, it’s foolhardy to rebut his argument. As the party gears up for the next round of assembly elections in UP, Uttarakhand, Punjab, Goa, and Manipur within the next three months, here are some data points to ponder on:

Since September 2013, when Modi was declared the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate, there have been assembly elections in 50 states and union territories.*

Out of these 50 elections, the BJP, either on its own or with pre-poll alliance partners, won only 19—a 38 per cent strike rate.**

Out of the 19 elections that the BJP won, 14 were in states or UTs where the Congress was the dominant player—Assam (two elections), Arunachal Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Delhi (until 2013), Haryana (two elections), Himachal Pradesh, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Puducherry, Rajasthan, and Uttarakhand. The remaining five states included Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand, Tripura, and Nagaland. Twenty states and UTs have had elections twice since the declaration of Modi as the BJP’s PM candidate. The National Democratic Alliance (NDA) had won eight of them (in elections held between September 2013 and September 2021) the first time they went to polls—Assam, Haryana, Maharashtra, Jharkhand, Rajasthan, MP, Chhattisgarh, and Delhias the single largest party. But when these states went to polls again after five years, it could retain only two—Assam and Haryana. It lost some major states including MP, Rajasthan, and Chhattisgarh in 2018 and Maharashtra and Jharkhand in 2019.  ***

Also read: BJP in talks with Amarinder, SAD’s Dhindsa to forge alliance in Punjab, says Amit Shah

Modi wave reflected victory in states and UTs

So, what do these above-mentioned facts indicate? Three points, broadly. 

Let’s start with the most obvious one that has been talked about ad nauseam. It’s a fact that Modi’s ascension to the national political centre stage gave a big boost to the BJP’s prospects in the assembly elections in the initial few years. Between September 2008 and September 2013, there were elections in 29 states and UTs; the party won seven of them. During the corresponding period in the next five years, after Modi’s rise to power as PM, 27 states and UTs went to polls; the BJP won 12 of them. And this doesn’t include Manipur, Goa, Bihar (after Nitish Kumar’s switchover to the NDA in 2017), and Arunachal Pradesh (after Pema Khandu’s switchover to the BJP in 2016). If one were to include these four states, it would mean 16 out of 27 states and UTs for the BJP after Modi’s arrival on the scene as compared to seven out of 29 in the five years before he became the PM.

Modi-Shah’s CMs didn’t deliver well

So, the fact that Modi made a huge difference in the BJP’s electoral fortune in assembly elections is undeniably true. While the people voted for him to be the PM, they were also voting for him in assembly elections.  

And there comes my second point. Modi-Shah’s choice of chief ministers didn’t match people’s expectations. Or rather, most of the CMs that Modi-Shah picked failed to deliver. Go back to the data mentioned above. The NDA won eight of the 20 assembly elections in states and UTs, which went to polls twice during the Modi era. But they voted out six of these governments five years later, except in Assam and Haryana. Save for the fact that the BJP managed to form the government even after losing its majority in Haryana, it should read seven out of eight. The only ‘knight in shining armour’ was Himanta Biswa Sarma in Assam. Sarbananda Sonowal might have been the popular CM in the north-eastern state earlier, but it was Sarma for whom the voters were rooting in the 2021 election.

Also read: Why Modi government is confident of a win in 2024 & how to build a coalition, Vajpayee style

Hanging on coattails

The third point is the fact that while the BJP has had an outstanding record against the Congress in assembly elections—out of 19 wins, 14 on the Congress turf—the saffron party struggles when it comes to non-Congress territories. Out of the remaining five—Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand, Tripura, and Nagaland—the BJP can claim credit for only UP and Tripura. It still needs Kumar to be in power in Bihar, while it has already lost out to Hemant Soren’s Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM)-led alliance after winning the tribal state in 2014. In Nagaland, it’s hanging on the coattails of Neiphiu Rio, a former Congressman. 

Dislodging a Left-led government that ran the government for 25 consecutive years in Tripura was no mean feat, of course. But the BJP must also thank the Congress for this. 

Also read: TRS attends Congress-led Oppn meet — a first since KCR became CM — as tensions with BJP grow

Another knight in shining armor?

That’s why the upcoming UP assembly elections are so crucial. It’s arguably the only state where the BJP was able to dislodge a regional party—Akhilesh Yadav’s SP. Can the BJP retain UP? What must encourage its leadership is the fact that UP CM Yogi Adityanath, unlike other Modi-Shah CM choices, has turned out to be a mass leader à la Biswa Sarma. And that’s why top BJP leaders are all running to UP to campaign to share credit if Yogi were to pull it off. But Yadav is turning out to be a tougher challenge than the BJP might have bargained for, going by the huge gatherings in his vijay yatra.

There may be a lot of hype and hoopla about the BJP’s onslaught against non-Congress-Left parties in West Bengal, Odisha, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Tamil Nadu, and even Maharashtra, among others. But the latter are no Gandhis who go on foreign junkets, assured that the voters will bring the Congress to power sooner or later. Look at how Telangana CM K Chandrasekhar Rao has reacted to his party’s loss in the Huzurabad assembly bypoll. His former  colleague, Etala Rajender, defected to the BJP and gave it a big boost by winning the bypoll, following his tradition of representing Huzurabad since 2009. KCR got Banda Prakash, a Rajya Sabha member, to resign and nominated him to the Legislative Council. He, like Rajender, belongs to the Mudiraj community and is likely to get inducted into the KCR cabinet.    

Modi and Shah have an outstanding innings with the Congress as the principal challenger, but their record in assembly elections, especially since 2018, isn’t very inspiring. They must be upset with the Gandhis for ceding to regional satraps. But why these satraps have been able to stand up to Modi and Shah is another story.  

*If a state or UT went to polls twice or thrice during this period, it was counted as two or three elections.
** This doesn’t include Goa, Manipur and Meghalaya where the Congress emerged as the single largest party but the BJP or the NDA went on to form the government through post-poll alliances; but it includes Delhi election 2013 and Haryana election 2019 in which the BJP emerged as the single largest party. This also excludes Maharashtra 2019 elections.
*** At the same time, of the 20 states/UTs that went to polls twice, the NDA made some fresh acquisitions—Puducherry, Arunachal Pradesh and Bihar.

DK Singh is Political Editor, ThePrint. He tweets @dksingh73. Views are personal.

(Edited by Humra Laeeq)

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