The people of Maharashtra and Haryana would cast their vote to elect a new state government today. This would be the second time within a span of six months that they would be exercising their franchise, the first being the 2019 Lok Sabha elections held in the month of May earlier this year.
Past electoral trends suggest if the Assembly elections are held shortly after the Lok Sabha elections, as is the case with Maharashtra and Haryana, there is a great possibility of voters electing the same party they had voted in during the preceding ballot. In eight of ten such instances, they voted for the same party. The Delhi and Bihar Assembly elections of 2015 and Odisha in 2019 were among the few exceptions.
Theoretically, therefore, there are possibilities of both kinds. In today’s Assembly elections, voters could exercise an electoral choice different from how they had voted during the 2019 Lok Sabha polls or they could go the way they did a few months back. The mood on the ground in both states suggests the verdict would be in conformity with the broadly established pattern. For, there is hardly any likelihood of any of these states bucking the trend. The BJP seems to be on a very strong wicket and the inability of the Opposition to put its house in order has played its part.
While the popular vote share of political parties remains the most important indicator of the mood of the voters, the movement of leaders from one party to another (defection) is another sign of which way the wind is blowing. During the last couple of months in Haryana and Maharashtra, there was movement of 43 political leaders from one party to another. Of these, there were 19 leaders of the Congress Party (nine in Haryana, 10 in Maharashtra) who left their parent party to join other parties, mainly the BJP. The BJP itself did not suffer on this account but welcomed 31 leaders during the last few months.
There was also an exodus from the NCP; as the count suggests, 11 NCP leaders left the party of whom five joined the Shiv Sena and six switched over to the BJP. Charanjeet Singh Rori is the only leader to have joined the Congress, leaving his parent party, the Indian National Lok Dal (INLD) in Haryana. These defections do suggest that the Congress, which began on a weak wicket when elections were announced, kept slipping and instead of consolidating its position seems to have lost more ground to the BJP during the last two-three weeks of the election campaign.
Even if we treat these defections as politics of opportunism and believe that this does not depict the right picture, the past performances of the political parties also favour the BJP. During the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP registered a stunning victory in both Maharashtra and Haryana. The BJP in alliance with Shiv Sena polled more than 51 per cent votes and won 41 Lok Sabha seats in Maharashtra. In Haryana, it polled 58 per cent votes and won all the 10 Lok Sabha seats. If seen in terms of Assembly segments in Maharashtra, the BJP-Shiv Sena combine led in 225 of the 288 Assembly constituencies, while in Haryana it led in 79 Assembly seats, the Congress being virtually decimated - it led only in 22 Assembly seats in Maharashtra, while its alliance partner NCP led in 23 Assembly seats. The story of the Congress in Haryana remained the same, with the party leading only in 10 Assembly seats in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.
The ground reports suggest though some sections of the population share some concerns about growing unemployment, rural distress and the agricultural crisis, the popular mood has not changed significantly. The issues of national identity, national pride and the abrogation of Article 370 by the Narendra Modi government have overshadowed local issues. These are likely to loom large on the minds of the voters when they cast their vote today. There were concerns about unemployment, joblessness, farmer distress and rural distress even during the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, but the national issue of that moment — the Pulwama terror attack and the Balakot air strikes —overshadowed them. While these issues were often referred to as the “real issues of livelihood” during campaigns, a sizeable section voted on the “national issue”. What have also strengthened the position of the BJP is the popularity of Prime Minister Modi and the absence of any credible face among the Opposition parties. The Congress, which is the main Opposition in both these states, looks very weak when voters compare the two parties on the parameters of its leadership. Prime Minister Modi has been a vote catcher for the BJP and it should not surprise us if large numbers of people in these two states vote for the BJP solely in his name.
Though voters have not always voted in the Assembly elections the same way that they vote during the Lok Sabha elections even if held after a short interval, they exercise different voting choices only if there is a viable alternative as was the case in Bihar (Mahagatthbandhan in 2015), Delhi (the Aam Aadmi Party under Arvind Kejriwal) and most recently in Odisha (Naveen Patnaik’s BJD). The Congress, which performed badly both in Haryana and Maharashtra during the 2014 Assembly elections and in the most recent 2019 Lok Sabha elections, has failed to show any sign of revival. On the contrary, it has got further weakened by rebellions and defections from within the party. For me, it is difficult to imagine that the Congress was ever in a winning position in today’s election, but a united Congress could have gone down fighting bravely and won seats in some pockets with Dalit and Jat predominance in Haryana and Maratha, Muslim and Dalit combinations in Maharashtra. Today’s political reality is at a great distance
from that scenario.