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#5254, 22 March 2017

IPCS Discussion

2017 Indian Assembly Elections: How Did the States Vote?

On 21 March 2017, IPCS hosted a discussion on the recently concluded legislative assembly elections in India. The speakers were Manoj Joshi, senior journalist, & Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation (ORF); and Ajay Vir Jakhar, Member, IPCS Executive Committee, & Chairman, Bharat Krishak Samaj (Farmers’ Forum, India).

The following are some remarks that were made during the course of the interaction.

Uttar Pradesh
The broad take-away from the outcome of the 2017 legislative assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh (UP) is that the Mandal era, when the social justice platform dominated politics, is over. However, that does not imply that the Kamandal camp has won either. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) merely ran a well thought-out, skillful, and systematic campaign in the state, strategically triangulating complex caste equations. They managed to consolidate the upper caste community, a group that they are anyway viewed to represent. 

Besides the BJP, UP had two major political parties - the Samajwadi Party (SP) and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP). Both had won certain big social groups as their ‘core’ - the SP won the Yadavs from the Other Backward Class (OBCs) community while the BSP won the Jatav Dalits. Additionally, both sought Muslim votes. The BJP, through its strategy, successfully won mostly the non-Yadav OBCs and non-Jatav Dalits. The party also won over several defectors, thereby effectively neutralising the 16-18 per cent votes from the Muslim, Yadavs and Jatav Dalit communities. 

What former UP Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav's SP did was similar to Hillary Clinton's campaign, i.e., projecting the present as ‘good’ and promising more in the future. However, today, this narrative hardly works. Conversely, the BJP, in its campaign, presented an appealing anti-status quo futuristic vision.

A communal agenda was largely missing from the dominant campaign narrative, barring in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ‘innuendo-style’ rhetoric. Prime Minister Modi also took to bashing Pakistan, which for him, some say, is an indirect broadside against Indian Muslims. Nevertheless, it was Modi’s energetic, authoritative, and credible leadership that delivered such a large mandate for the BJP. Without him, the party simply could not have won the elections. 

Modi successfully changed the narrative around demonetisation, which in itself was a disastrously executed move. Despite the fact that a lot of people were hurt by the move, Modi managed to sell it as, among other things, an attack on the rich. No other leader could have managed to do this. Nonetheless, BJP President Amit Shah too played a crucial role in implementing the party's UP strategy, including spurring defections from other parties. 

From the BJP’s point of view, the 2014 and 2017 elections have been ‘cumulation points’. It is not yet the default party. However, now, they have ventured into a new political experiment with the appointment of Yogi Adityanath as the Chief Minister of UP - a move that is somewhat imponderable. It is worth nothing that neither the SP nor the BSP lost its core electorates. However, the BJP was able to consolidate the rest by exploiting the anti-SP/BSP grievances. 

The BJP's victory in UP in 2017 is extremely crucial for Modi. Everything he is doing today is aimed at winning in the general elections in 2019. Evidently, the erosion of his party has not begun yet, contrary to what many might portend. However, the economy is in a dismal state, with prospects of its future appearing dull; and job creation is abysmal. Prime Minister Modi therefore requires a clear strategy to win the 2019 general elections. Thus, it appears that he has decided to push the Hindutva narrative forward by anointing Yogi Adityanath essentially due to the fact that two years is drastically insufficient for any chief minister to deliver on big development promises. 

With regard to the BJP’s links with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the latter is happy to have someone like Modi who is winning votes from them. In other words, the BJP is delivering the nation that the RSS wants. Hence, they are not complaining. However, theoretically, the Sangh does not prefer figures like Modi who think for themselves. The same applies to UP's new chief minister, who has an independent support base and does not kowtow to third-party lines. Yogi Adityanath holds a unique leadership position in this regard. 

For now, Prime Minister Modi has successfully captured the narrative, without the presence of any effective national-level rival. In the era of fake news, the one who sets the narrative, wins. 

In Punjab, there are several reasons as to why the Congress won and the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) lost. While the former projected a strong and trusted chief ministerial candidate in Capt (Retd) Amarinder Singh, the latter failed to do so. The AAP was clearly the anti-establishment entity in the elections, but Punjab dismissed it despite a historical propensity for change. It was correct in doing so as the party cannot do well in big states owing to its strictly urban based framework. For now, the AAP has no future in Punjab. 

A big reason for the AAP’s loss was the exoneration of its convener Sucha Singh Chhotepur from the party. Despite the fact that he carried out meticulous groundwork to build a strong base for the party, fellow members like Bhagwant Mann did not favour him due to competitive sentiments. The party's image was also rocked by a sex tape and tickets-for-money scandal, which further dented its reputation. In fact, it was the only party in the state accused of selling tickets for money. 

Furthermore, the AAP’s closeness with militant elements did not go down well with many, especially the local population of Malwa - a region that was once deeply affected by the militancy. It was also seen as incapable of handling sensitive issues like the Satluj Yamuna Canal Link (SYL) water dispute.  

Some of the AAP’s vote was also deflected to the BJP-Akali Dal coalition due to unbridled support from the followers of the Dera Sacha Sauda (DSS) sect, which is backed by poor, landless farmers. Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, the leader of the sect, is known to support whichever party is the incumbent at the centre - because the incumbent controls the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), which is investigating an active rape charge against him. 

The Congress was advised by Prashant Kishor, who was eager to make his mark as an astute campaign strategist at the state level. As the party was desperate for a win, it incorporated most of Kishor’s advice. The elaborate “farmer’s loan waiver” form that they distributed worked in their favour, as it made the public feel that they would actually receive benefits. It also helped the party create a database of target groups. 

However, Congress’ Punjab win does not denote any kind of revival at the national level. It merely ensures the party's survival, which still lacks a national unifying figure. 

Rapporteured by Angshuman Choudhury, Researcher, SEARP, IPCS

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