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Mainstream, VOL LVIII No 8 New Delhi February 8, 2020

Victory of Opposition Alliance in Jharkhand Assembly Elections

Fundamental Challenge to BJP’s Political Hegemony

Sunday 9 February 2020

by Prannv Dhawan and Ishaan Bansal

The results of the Jharkhand State Assembly elections represent a comprehensive electoral setback for the ruling political establishment. This setback is a major one not just because it is the first absolute electoral defeat faced by the rather triumphalist political dispensation after the landslide victory in the May 2019 Lok Sabha elections but also because it revives the traditional electoral logic of the Opposition-led, anti-BJP rainbow alliances (mahagathbandhans). Despite its distinctiveness as the first clear electoral defeat in the Modi 2.0 regime, it presents a significant continuity with the recently declared electoral outcomes of the Haryana and Maharashtra Assembly elections. This continuity manifests itself in three ways. One, like in Haryana and Maharashtra, the BJP’s vote-share and seat-share went considerably lower than its Lok Sabha performance seven months ago. While in the Lok Sabha elections in Jharkhand, the BJP got a dominating vote-share of 50.96 per cent with a seat-share of 78.57 per cent, in the State Assembly elections these numbers were reduced to 33.37 per cent and 30.86 per cent respectively. Much like other recent State elections, this is quite a significant decline in the BJP’s performance in State elections.

Source: Collated by the authors from media reports

Source: Collated by authors from media reports

Secondly, the Jharkhand results strengthen the perception of mass disillusionment about ineffective and poor governance in BJP-ruled States, the hence send a strong message against the BJP’s invincibility at the State-level. It also reinforces the idea of Assembly elections being the “self-correcting mechanism of democracy”. Moreover, it concretises the emerging understanding that national narratives like security, illegal immigration and terrorism can’t capture the entire spectrum of social and political aspirations in a State. Moreover, it also presents a limit to the aggressively majoritarian ideological narrative of the BJP as the electoral data from Jharkhand establishes the diminishing marginal utility and even futility of communal campaigning in various constituencies. In a way it presents a pronounced political challenge for the electoral machinery based on divisive agendas like Ram temple construction, National Register of Citizens and communally charged demagoguery by top leaders like PM Modi who, during a campaign speech, sought to delegitimise anti-CAA protests by stereotyping ‘Muslim’ attire of the protesters. Even a voter turnout of 71.69 per cent in the final phase of the elections conducted post-nationwide CAA discord, the protests being much higher than the average turnout of 66.03 per cent might be reflective of the public mood in Jharkhand against the CAA.

Source: Collated by authors from media reports

Thirdly, this continuity manifests in successful counter-hegemonic political manoeuvring and alliance-building that was seen in Maharashtra where ideologically incongruent political entities joined forces against the BJP’s unprincipled and unethical tactics of dominance. In other words, the BJP pushed all non-BJP parties together in a context where they didn’t lose public sympathy due to its no prisoners taken and unforgiving attitude.

These three factors also contributed significantly to the primary distinctiveness of the political phenomenon on the UPA’s victory in the tribal-dominated State of Jharkhand. The deep Opposition fragmentation between the JMM and UPA was remedied almost perfectly by the political managers who belatedly appreciated the importance of providing a serious electoral alternative to the Opposition voters. Hence, the usual menace of rebel candidates or independents was virtually non-existent even as routine bickering between alliance partners was pragmatically avoided. The challenge of vote transfer that surfaced predominantly in Karnataka between the JD-S and Congress and even in Jharkhand during the Lok Sabha elections was effectively resolved.

This result is also a direct and resounding no against the anti-tribal policies of the previous BJP Government under CM Raghubar Das. Despite the BJP’s effort to appeal to the 26 per cent tribal voter-base in the State by ducking the criticisms against the non-tribal credentials of Raghubar Das by changing the electoral slogan from ‘Gharghar Raghubar’ to ‘Jharkhand pukara, Bhajpa dobara’ or putting national narratives like security, illegal immigration and terrorism at the forefront did not work, the voters voted against the anti-tribal amendments in the SPT and CTA Act. Land rights activists have argued that these amendments allow use of tribal land for commercial purposes and easy transfer of land making corporatisation of tribal land easier.

Apart from the non-tribal credentials of Das, his arrogance in dealing with government officials and general public and lack of any concern for the basic needs like Health and Education made for poor governance and a general discontent. Even with heavyweights like Amit Shah and Modi backing him, Das’ arrogance led to discontent among the voters making him lose his own seat against Saryu Roy. Going against veteran Saryu Roy and preventing him from getting a BJP ticket was also Das’ major political blunder of losing Roy who fought from an independent ticket.

The results show that the Modi-Amit Shah brand of politics of ignoring the importance of multi-party federal structure by counting on very specific Hindutva-based national narratives to drive home State electoral victories does not work even when their dominance at the Centre can’t be questioned. Clever re-branding, changing slogans and ducking the core local electoral issues by bring national narratives at the forefront can only go so far in getting the votes. To expect that the BJP alone will be able to win nationally as well as all the States, therefore, without having to make certain electoral and/or ideological compromises is proven to be too far-fetched.

Conclusion

Certainly, the BJP has begun to reap negative returns for its domineering posturing and tactics as the political hegemon that would fundamentally change the grammar of multi-party federal parliamentary system. The loss of natural ideological allies like the Shiv Sena and the ultimate public sympathy in the much-derided concept of Mahagathbandhans is a testament to the fact that its electoral and political behaviour as an ideological behemoth unwilling to moderate its stance on controversial issues or make mutually respectful power-sharing arrangements has driven other political formations as well as a vast chunk of citizens to the wall. Hence, instead of steamrolling ‘structural reforms’ like simultaneous elections that dismantle the edifice of federal multi-party parliamentary democracy, it needs to engender trust within various other constituents of the democratic polity, much like its older Vajpayee-era avatar used to.

Prannv Dhawan is a third-year law student at National Law School of India University, Bangalore. He leads the Law and Society Committee at the University. Ishaan Bansal is a final year liberal arts student at the Ashoka University, Sonipat.

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