People seem invested in the central government’s policies. But several other trends have emerged - the most important being the continuing irrelevance of the Congress, which drew a blank. With her victory in West Bengal Mamata Banerjee could be poised for the leadership of an opposition combine in 2024.
Indian democracy remains vibrant, robust and raucous. This was proved once again on May 2 when the results for the elections in four states and one Union Territories were announced. In three, the incumbent governments were returned to office with comfortable to landslide majorities. In the remaining two, the challengers wrested power following a closer than expected tussle.
Significantly, anguished cries of electronic voting machine (EVM) fraud, which are raised after every election, were conspicuous by their absence this time – another sign that Indian democracy, with all its flaws and warts, is still the greatest show on earth. Such allegations, it seems, only surface when the opposition parties, who still exercise considerable influence over the media, are rejected by the people.
“India’s state election results show democracy is alive and kicking , that EVMs are not being manipulated – contrary to the doom and gloom pundits. The time is now for state, national leaders to come together, focus on saving lives, show the world that India is united #IndiaCovidCrisis,” tweeted Manoj Ladwa, Founder and CEO of India Inc.
By all indications, these state polls were fought mainly on local factors and national issues, such as the Central government’s handling of the Covid crisis did not seem to have any impact on the final results.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) coalition it leads, was a contender for power in three of these elections. It won two of these polls – in Assam and Puducherry.
The BJP failed to wrest power from the incumbent regional party, the TMC, in West Bengal, but increased its seats tally from three in the outgoing house to 76, i.e., a more than 25-fold increase. Then, although it lost in Tamil Nadu, the NDA, which had been in power for two consecutive terms, performed creditably, contrary to exit polls, which had projected a wipe-out for the alliance.
It may be recalled that the polling process had been completed in three states and the sole UT by April 6, i.e., around the time Covid cases began to spike but well before it reached its current alarming proportions. So, post-facto attempts by some political commentators in India to retrofit the results as a referendum on their carefully crafted narrative of alleged mismanagement by the Central government does not wash.
Then, the state governments are playing a much larger role in tackling the fallout of the second wave of Covid than they did in the first, and governments that did their homework well on this count have been rewarded.
But nationally people remain invested in the central government’s policies as there was no visible anti-incumbency against it.
Though these were state elections – and each of them was decided on a host of local factors – the results are expected to have an impact on national politics in India leading up all the way to the 2024 general elections.
The most important takeaway from this round of election results is the complete eclipse of the Congress and its first family – Sonia and Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra.
The party, which tied up rank communal outfits in Assam and West Bengal, drew a blank in every state. In Kerala, which has elected the Left Front and the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) alternatively for the last five decades, it was the “turn” of the Grand Old Party to return to power.
The ruling Left Front, however, bucked this trend to return to power. Exactly two years ago, almost to the day, the state had sent 19 Congress members to Parliament, giving the Left just one seat. The assembly election results, thus, mark a 180-degree turn away from the Lok Sabha results. The loss is all the more embarrassing for the Congress as its former President and de facto leader Rahul Gandhi is an MP from the state.
Then, in Assam, where the Congress ruled for three consecutive terms from 2001-2016, it failed miserably in its comeback bid. And in West Bengal, where it was the principal opposition party in the outgoing assembly, it failed to win a single seat, a very dubious first in its history.
In Puducherry, it lost power to the NDA. The only consolation prize was Tamil Nadu, where, by virtue of hanging on to the coat tails of a dominant regional party, the DMK, it will be part of the ruling alliance. But here, too, the leader of the DMK has made it clear that he won’t be inducting any member of the Congress in his Council of Ministers.
The results will considerably weaken the Congress’s claims to be the leader of the opposition combine in the 2024 elections. The fulcrum of the opposition, thus, seems to have been dented.
This will also bring to the surface the murmurs of dissent against the Gandhi family and though a palace coup seems unlikely at this time, their hold over their party and their claim to be the natural leaders of any alliance against the BJP stands severely damaged.
This then brings us to the next question: If not the Congress and the Gandhis, then who? Her stupendous victory in West Bengal, where she bettered her party’s 2016 tally against all odds, can pitchfork TMC chief and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee to the pinnacle of Opposition politics, eclipsing the primacy of Sonia Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi. But Indian politics is known to throw up surprises. The next general elections are still three years away and a lot could change by then. Also, it’s not clear at this point whether the other regional satraps, especially from states like Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and Bihar – not to speak of the Congress, considerably weakened but which must necessarily be a part of any credible Opposition combine – will be ready to accept Banerjee’s leadership, especially if any of them bring as many MPs to the table.
For the BJP, the election results present a mixed bag. It will take confidence from its performance in Assam and Puducherry and comfort from its better than expected tally in Tamil Nadu. It was never a factor in Kerala, so the loss of the only seat it had won’t hurt much.
But West Bengal will be cause for introspection, despite the dramatic improvement in its seats tally as described above.
Overall, the results can by no means be seen as a negation of prime minister Modi’s governance record.
Therefore, the just concluded round of state elections may well have been like no other because of the massive impact the results may have in shaping the contours of Indian politics over the next three years.