As counting trends gain clarity in the Maharashtra and Haryana assembly polls, two things can be said with reasonable certainty: the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah team made a great call to go it alone in Haryana, where they will gain a full majority, but they will definitely fall short in Maharashtra, thanks to their last-minute break-up with the Sena.
In Haryana, the BJP’s decision to break with Kuldeep Bishnoi’s Haryana Janhit Congress has been fully borne out by the results, as Bishnoi is hitting rock-bottom with barely a seat or two to show for his belligerence.
He made a huge mistake by concluding after the BJP’s bypoll reverses in some states that the BJP was losing steam. The Indian National Lok Dal of jailbird Om Prakash Chautala is now the opposition in Haryana, having consolidated most of its Jat vote vase. Congress is a miserable third.
It is in Maharashtra that the BJP will have to reassess strategy. Around 10 am, the BJP-led Mahayuti alliance of smaller parties seemed most unlikely to reach the half-way mark of 144 in a 288-seat assembly. The only gain from the last-minute break-up with the Shiv Sena is that the BJP has proved its point that it is the bigger brother – with the BJP exceeding the Sena total by a wide margin.
But it will need the Sena (or the NCP) to form a government. Having attacked the NCP all through the campaign, the BJP can at best use it as a bargaining card to get the Sena in line. But both Sena and BJP will have to swallow their pride and kiss and make up. For the vote is really against the Congress-NCP, and in favour of the BJP and Sena. It is not for one party alone.
With hindsight it can be said that the Modi-Shah duo took the right call in Maharashtra of going it alone, but they erred grossly on two things: the late timing of the break-up, which left little time for effective campaigning and finding good candidates, and the wrong timing of Modi’s US trip. Spending five days in the US when he was needed in Maharashtra was clearly a poor tradeoff. Five days of extra campaigning could have made all the difference between merely being the largest single party and a party with a clear majority on its own.
The elections have proven several things.
First, the BJP is the prime pole of India’s political landscape, and Modi is its flag-bearer.
Second, national politics and state politics need not be completely at variance. While regional factors will be important in any assembly election, the electorate is not keen on permanent state-centre discord. The voter sees synergy in centre-state cooperation. This is the message from both Maharashtra and Haryana – two states in which the BJP was never a strong force ever.
Third, the Congress has begun a process of revival, both in Haryana and Maharashtra, compared to the Lok Sabha debacle. The NCP has held its own to some extent, but appears unlikely to become larger than the Congress. The best course for Congress and NCP is to merge in order to gain in future. Together they could have nearly a 100 assembly seats. When the Sena and BJP broke up, they should have stayed together to stem their losses or even pull off an incredible win. They passed up a good thing out of sheer hubris. Ajit Pawar’s eagerness to dump the Congress proved his undoing.
Fourth, very tiny parties like MNS make no sense. The Sena has clearly established itself as the inheritor of Balasaheb Thackeray’s legacy – not surprising, given that this was the founder’s express wish. The Sena fought like a tiger after the break-up with BJP, and has gained from this.
Fifth, the BJP’s good showing in both states will strengthen Modi’s position at the centre, and he can now move full steam ahead with some difficult economic decisions. The move to initiate labour reforms, the decision to deregulate diesel prices and raise gas prices are signs of growing political confidence in the Modi government. One should expect faster movement on legislative and administrative changes.
Sixth, the rise of the BJP in two more states will force the party’s opponents in all states to build anti-BJP alliances. Just as there were anti-Congress alliances in the past, now there will be anti-BJP alliances.
Seventh, the BJP will see the Haryana and Maharashtra results as a vindication of its strategy of growing in many non-traditional states by going solo – among them, West Bengal, Odisha, Tamil Nadu, and Kerala. It is only in Odisha and Tamil Nadu that it will have to tread carefully, for these states are currently run by parties that are not inimical to the BJP (the BJD in Odisha and the AIADMK in Tamil Nadu). The BJP is unlikely to try and go too far with staunch allies like Chandrababu Naidu in Andhra Pradesh or the Akali Dal in Punjab. The BJP needs their strength in the Rajya Sabha to roll back some of the Congress; growth-retarding legislation.
Eighth, the BJP’s next challenges will be in J&K, Jharkhand and Delhi. The party will seek a win in Delhi and Jharkhand, but will try to becoming the biggest in J&K so that it can influence state politics with its clout. In the Lok Sabha elections, the BJP’s vote share was the largest in J&K, thanks to high turnout in Jammu and Ladakh and low turnout in Kashmir Valley.
Ninth, current allies of the BJP – like the LJP of Ram Vilas Paswan and the Shiv Sena – will now be more wary of the BJP. They will become more troublesome to handle, though they will bide their time for now.
Tenth, the pollsters seem to have been broadly correct. They gave the BJP the lead – and the results seem like to bear them out. Exit polling is getting better, it seems.
The writer is editor-in-chief, digital and publishing, Network18 Group