There was nothing inevitable about Manohar Lal Khattar. He was not the face of the Bharatiya Janata Party campaign in the 2014 Haryana Assembly elections, which came right after Prime Minister Narendra Modi had registered a huge victory in Lok Sabha polls earlier that year. And as a “Punjabi” BJP leader in a state that had been dominated by Jats and the Congress, he represented something of an experiment.
Until Wednesday, it was expected that Khattar and the BJP would score a boring walkover in the assembly elections. But as leads began to come in, it became clear that something more interesting was on the cards. It also became apparent that the Khattar, non-Jat experiment could by no means be called an unambiguous success.
Some quick takeaways.
1. BJP doesn’t get majority
Through most of the morning of counting, it seemed clear that the BJP would be the single-largest party in Haryana. But, barring some huge changes in the final counting, it was also clear that it would not win a majority by itself. As of 3 pm, the party was leading in 40 seats – six short of the 46 it would need to have a majority in the 90-strong house. The Congress was at 32 seats.
From one point of view, this is not surprising. After all, Khattar’s government was an experiment and not one that was without its difficult moments – most prominently the Jat agitation in 2016 that saw the Army being called in to quell protests.
But in the era of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP President Amit Shah, and in the aftermath of the party’s massive victory in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP was expected to cruise to a victory. After all, it had got a a vote share of 58% in Haryana in the general elections. Nearly all the exit polls pointed to an easy victory, with many giving the BJP a three-fourths majority.
One pollster, Axis-MyIndia, said the numbers would be much closer and would end with a hung assembly. This now seems much more accurate.
2. The JJP may end up playing kingmaker
The result looks extremely likely to be a hung house in Haryana. Yet the BJP may still be able to cobble together a government by reaching out to as many as 10 winning candidates that don’t belong to either alliance. But if the independents and the smaller parties are not enough, they will be forced to deal with the Jannayak Janata Party.
The JJP is an offshoot of the Indian National Lok Dal, founded by two-time Haryana Chief Minister Chaudhary Devi Lal, whose family has been seen as the leader of the Jats in the state for decades. His great-grandson, Dushyant Chautala, founded the JJP in 2018 after a disagreement with his uncle, Abhay Chautala who continues to run the Indian National Lok Dal, albeit with a lot less support than it once had. The Indian National Lok Dal also contested these elections, but as of 3 pm was only on course to win one seat.
Dushyant Chautala’s JJP, however, was leading in 10 seats, meaning it would be in place to demand a significant pound of flesh from either the BJP or the Congress in case either needs additional support to form a government. That would be a huge boost for a party that is not even a year old, and would make it clear that the mantle of the Jat leader has formally passed on to Dushyant.
Tie-ups with either side are complex, however, thanks to the BJP’s anti-Jat push and the competing interests of the Congress’ Jat leadership, which means if the JJP gets involved it is hard to predict what will happen. (There is another player in this game, too: the Enforcement Directorate.)
3. Serious questions about Manohar Khattar’s government
The general consensus about the Haryana administration over the past five years is that it has not done particularly well, aside from some government recruitment that took place without the traditional corrupt methods.
On the flip-side, there have been several instances where governance – particularly of the law-and-order sort – has very publicly failed, most prominently in the Jat agitation of 2016 and the Dera Sacha Sauda protests in 2017. On those occasions, the state machinery almost seemed paralysed until the Centre jumped in to restore the peace.
Still, no one expected too much anger against the Khattar government, which seemed to have moved past those bumps. Indeed, the BJP which tends to change its election candidates frequently, in one sense to neutralise anti-incumbency, had not done this in a major way in Haryana.
The voters have responded, and they do not sound happy. Seven Cabinet minsiters, as well as the BJP’s state president and the speaker of the assembly are all on course to lose their seats, as of 3 pm, sending a very clear message to the state government. Only Khattar himself and Health Minister Anil Vij look likely to retain their seats.
What worked against them? Most reportage before the elections suggested a cakewalk for the BJP. But some did say that, aside from the general anger at the anti-Jat bias of the BJP, there was also the sense that a Congress campaign against what it claimed was the anti-poor tilt of the state government had begun to take hold.
4. Opposition and ‘political economy’
One of the conclusions many drew after the Lok Sabha elections that saw the BJP manage a huge victory, despite slowing growth and pervasive unemployment, was that nationalism and politically emotive appeals prevailed over anxiety about the economy and development. Going into these elections, the presumption was that voters would make the same choices.
Yet the result is a lot more ambiguous. For one, all parties in Haryana tend to be much more nationalist and pro-army, so there is less of a gap between them than in other states. But the BJP – which got a whopping 58% of the vote share in the Lok Sabha polls earlier this year – looks on track to grab just 36% or so in Assembly, a huge drop for the same party in the same year.
Some of this can be explained in terms of turnout and voter fatigue. Seventy percent of voters came out in the Lok Sabha polls in May, whereas only a 64% turnout was recorded in these elections. Even then, the drop in vote share is huge and suggests that voters are making actively different choices between Lok Sabha and Assembly polls and sending a message to the state administration.
Perhaps the BJP cannot presume that nationalism as well as a national narrative can bring it victory in the states. Maybe it will not work to choose a chief minister who is merely a Modi minion rather than a local leader with a popular base of his own. More analysis will, of course, have to wait for the final results.