As the toxic smog envelopes much of North India and New Delhi and its sister cities in the region choke, it may be a useful moment to look through the haze generated by the recently concluded state elections. There are five significant takeaways from the Maharashtra and Haryana election results — takeaways that implicate how we should think about the politics of India going forward.
First, it may be time to stop blaming technology for poor politics. If nothing else, these elections should be seen as redemption for the electronic voting machines that electoral losers have constantly blamed for their losses. Yes, India should continue to strengthen the security around EVMs (air-gap approach is simply not enough) and scale up the use of voter-verified paper audit trails or VVPATs. But a discourse that delegitimises EVMs, and thus the entire democratic process, can no longer have any validity or be given any oxygen. As we move to more fluid forms of referendums in the future, technology platforms and personal devices will be indispensable.
Second, state elections are precisely that — elections in and about states. Voters in India have consistently demonstrated great maturity in responding to local leaders and local issues at the hustings. This was clear even during the general elections earlier this year, where many voters in Odisha clearly voted for Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik at the state level and for Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the national level. Governance in India has clearly shifted to the states, and the real politics of development and delivery is being played out there. It is these leaders who are being held accountable for the basic services that governments are supposed to provide. National leadership may set the broad narrative, but it is state leaders who deliver — whether on schemes or on votes. National parties that will do well in the states will rely on local leaders and performance.
Third, the Congress should be wary of drawing the wrong lessons from its better-than-expected showing in Haryana and the fact that it has not been decimated in Maharashtra. The sturdiness of the party’s grassroots in these states shows that the ‘Rahul Factor’ was not the major determinant of the party’s apparent revival in the 2018 state elections prior to the 2019 Lok Sabha polls. Rahul Gandhi may not have hindered, but he did not help either – the local leaders were the single most important factor.
But that does not mean in turn that the party should decide that the ‘old guard’ is its only possible alternative. The clique around Sonia Gandhi is no more likely to turn the party around than the clique around Rahul Gandhi. It is too much to expect unelectable leaders to manage a party that is supposed to relate to the voter on the ground. And in both instances that is what the malaise in the Congress apparatus seems to be. Their only hope in the days ahead is to be able to groom and incubate local leadership that can credibly offer an attractive proposition to the voters. In a sense, that would mean reverting to the previous system of regional satraps that served the Congress well before Rajiv Gandhi did away with that political legacy.
Fourth, even if the big-O ‘Opposition’ is missing in India, it is clear there is a market for small-o ‘opposition’. Indian democracy has never been at its most stable when there was no alternative. The Congress, structurally weak, has still managed to garner protest votes in large enough numbers to put up a fight. Frankly, it would have been even closer but for ‘Brand Modi’ that today is beyond that of any other political figure in independent India. If BJP wants to become that ‘big-tent’ party that is relevant across the length and breadth of the country, it will do well to invest in a new and diverse group of local and regional leaders and help them emerge. Maharashtra has proven the usefulness of this approach.
A last point. The BJP needs to be cautious on expending excessive political capital by way of Modi’s charisma and popularity in state elections of which a series are coming up in the next couple of years. Often a simple majority is enough in the states and there is no merit in aiming for humongous majorities, thereby raising popular as well as cadre expectations of spectacular electoral performance, from panchayats to assemblies each time. Linked to this is the increasing tendency of the BJP to field dubious candidates and denying tickets to deserving ones. Maharashtra shows the first is fraught with danger; Haryana shows the second is not a good idea in the cut-throat world of electoral politics.
Mature economies expect politicians to respond to the demands of voters — and it is clear that voters want accountability. The electorate has thrown down the gauntlet, will a leader arise to pick it up?