Though it looked tight for sometime in the day, as of 5 pm on Monday, the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha-Congress alliance was on course to form the government in Jharkhand, with 49 seats to the Bharatiya Janata Party’s 22. In fact, outgoing BJP Chief Minister Raghubar Das – who has already conceded the state on his party’s behalf – was even trailing in his own constituency.
Earlier, exit polls had suggested an edge to the JMM-Congress, but many still expected the BJP to put in a solid performance. The 5 pm leads, however, made it seem like the saffron party will not even get the single-largest party tag, with that going to the JMM instead.
The result puts a full stop on a rather odd year for the BJP.
It began 2019 having just lost three major electoral confrontations with the Congress, in the the North Indian states of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. Despite this, the BJP managed a massive victory in the Lok Sabha polls, improving its performance from 2014.
The first set of state elections after that were supposed to be a walkover for the BJP, still flying high from the Lok Sabha win and its move to alter the status of Jammu and Kashmir right after. Instead, it was dented in Haryana where its needed a new alliance to come to power. Though it had the numbers with Shiv Sena, its ally in Maharashtra, the latter broke off to form a grand anti-BJP alliance with the Congress and National Congress Party instead.
It goes into 2020 having lost another state, Jharkhand, facing the headwinds of a slowing economy, massive nation-wide protests against the Citizenship Act changes and elections in Delhi where the Aam Aadmi Party will put up a stiff fight.
The trend that first became apparent with the Gujarat elections in 2017 has become clearer now. Though the BJP under Narendra Modi and Amit Shah are massively popular at the national level, clearly becoming the pole around which all other political parties organise, its state-level results are much shakier.
In each of the states, it is possible to explain this through local factors. In Jharkhand, for example, the BJP was up against a crowded political field, with its own ally, the All Jharkhand Students Union, choosing to contest by itself. Moreover, as we explained in the Political Fix preview, the Great Indian Slowdown has affected Jharkhand more than other states, with consumption hit harder and unemployment much higher than the national average.There were also questions about the BJP’s strategy, choosing to focus on its Other Backward Classes leadership over tribals, whom the JMM considers its core constituency. Chief Minister Raghubar Das was said to be particularly unpopular, especially with the tribals, and evidently in his own seat too as the results seem to suggest.
But even if local factors explain away each individual loss or victory, the sum of those is a clear trend of Modi’s national popularity coupled with what seems to be weakening state efforts or leadership. Some of that may be down to how the BJP has organised itself under Amit Shah – and whether that is going to change.
Over the last five years, the party has tended to pick lesser-known faces as chief ministerial picks, in the hopes of building a new leadership that is more aligned to Modi and Shah than the older LK Advani-Atal Bihari Vajpayee regime. It has been more willing to bring in turncoats from other parties to bolster leadership and, under Shah, has been ruthless in its craze to win power by any means.
However, Shah is no longer fully in charge. Though he remains party president, his attention is significantly divided. This is not just because he entered government as Home Minister earlier this year, but also as a result of Modi seeming to hand over much of the core work to his No 2.
JP Nadda, the working president of the party is also expected to formally take over soon, and he does so in the midst of all of these challenges – a string of middling state results, disagreements with alliance partners all over and fears that the government may have overplayed its hand.
How will Nadda’s BJP be different from Shah’s, especially with the latter looming over everyone from North Block?
The question may be answered sooner than we expect: Delhi goes to elections in just a couple of months and, though the BJP ought to be a front-runner, its internal divisions have kept it out of power in the capital for two decades now. Even Shah’s last-minute introduction of Kiran Bedi as a chief ministerial candidate in 2015 couldn’t change things. What will the gameplan be this time around?