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India’s ruling BJP has major setback in state elections

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This article is part of the Indian Election Series – a partnership between the Australia India Institute and the Melbourne School of Government’s Election Watch project.

The results of the recently-concluded state elections in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, and Chhattisgarh are a massive blow for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

The BJP governed Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh for 15 years and enjoyed a huge majority in Rajasthan for the last five years.

But in Madhya Pradesh, the Indian National Congress (INC) – the BJP’s main rival in next year’s national elections – won 114 seats (of 230) and is set to form government with the help of allies. The BJP could win only 109 seats, seven short of the required simple majority (116).

The INC’s performance in Chhattisgarh was even more remarkable, where it bagged 68 of the 90 assembly seats – thereby ensuring a thumping defeat for the BJP.

In Rajasthan, where the BJP government of Ms Vasundhara Raje Scindia was battling a strong anti-incumbency wave owing to a particularly lacklustre performance over the past five years, the INC ended up with 99 seats of 199. The BJP has 73.

Two other states also recently went to the polls – Telangana and Mizoram – which were won by Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) and Mizo National Front (MNF) respectively.

It may be too early to extrapolate the results of these state elections and draw conclusions about the fortunes of the BJP and INC in the forthcoming national elections, expected in April or May of next year. The federal elections will be fought over 29 different states, each with its unique political dynamics and local issues at play.

However Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh together make up 65 federal parliamentary seats; and at the last national election in 2014 the BJP won 62 of them. Considering the state election results, the BJP will struggle to win even one-third of these seats during the federal elections.

The results indicate that there is a lot of resentment on the ground against the BJP and popular sentiment is shifting against the party,

These three states are predominantly agrarian, where the share of agriculture in GDP and total workforce in agriculture is higher than the national average. Demonetisation and the haphazard rolling out of the Goods and Services Tax were massive shocks to the informal economy including agriculture, from which small-scale entrepreneurs and farmers have not yet completely recovered.

Prime Minister Modi’s promises of generating 20 million jobs per year and the much-vaunted Make in India policy has not lived up to its hype.

Further, there are serious concerns about the corrosive impact of the BJP-led government on various institutions. In the latest saga, the government has started to interfere with the workings of the Reserve Bank of India and is demanding it transfer additional amounts into the government’s coffers for election expenditure. This perceived interference is bound to make both domestic and international financial investors circumspect about the workings of an autonomous financial institution and may lead to a crisis in the currency and capital markets. This will surely dent Mr Modi’s image as a reformist Prime Minister, a plank on which he led his campaign in 2014.

These state elections have given a new lease of life to India’s main opposition party, the Indian National Congress.

From a situation in which it was almost completely wiped out in the 2014 elections, its comeback in the Hindi heartland is a significant achievement. But that does not mean that the party can take the 2019 elections for granted. Compared to the electoral machinery of the BJP, the Congress is far behind in the organisational sense. It has managed to tap into the disenchantment of farmers but has not articulated a progressive vision of its own.

Even though Prime Minister Modi remains the most popular leader in India, these elections have proven that he has lost the ability to single-handedly swing elections decisively in his party’s favour.

Another salient feature of these elections was the fact that, for the first time, jobs were the central issue for the electorate; and rural distress was brought to the forefront during the election campaign – something which had been missing from the political narratives over the past four years.

Those harbouring hopes of a BJP win next year being a foregone conclusion have had a reality check. In the process, Indian democracy is slowly balancing itself out. The brutal majority with which the BJP came to power in 2014 and subsequently its willingness to destroy all public institutions was taking India down a dangerous path. These election results have, to some extent, stemmed that tide. For that very reason alone they will go down as a crucial moment in India’s political history.