Beyond The Rise Of Regional Parties: 3 Key Lessons From The State Assembly Elections Of 2016

Posted on May 29, 2016 in Politics

By Sabah Kochhar:

The future of Indian politicsAs the recent Assembly elections have proven, there are many important messages for political parties and pundits alike. But, going beyond data and numbers, the results pose serious questions for strategists and intellectuals creating a world of speculation. Here are three key lessons learnt from the election results:

1. Populism Is Here To Stay:

With the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) resuming power, “Amma” Jayalalithaa is the undisputed star of the show as she proves anti-incumbency theorists wrong. The victory is not a sign of the AIADMK’s win so much as it is the sign of Amma’s power and the message that pro-poor development schemes are the way ahead.

Another case in point is the Mamata Banerjee-led Trinamool Congress (TMC)’s victory in West Bengal, once again fighting the ghost of anti-incumbency looming over the state. The TMC, who won 184 seats in 2011, significantly improved their tally to win over 210 seats in the 294-member assembly.

In her tenure, Jayalalithaa set up many social welfare schemes including Amma canteens, Amma water, Amma Baby Kits, Amma Cement, Amma pharmacies and Amma seeds. She also introduced schemes for women and even ensured that freebies such as fans, laptops and mixers were given to Below Poverty Line families in the rural hamlets of the state. She reportedly provided a 100% subsidy to small and micro farmers. All of these combined worked in the favour of the AIADMK party.

Mamata also expanded her support base with several welfare schemes for the youth and the needy. These include the Kanyashree scheme, which offers a monthly scholarship of Rs. 750 to girl students from financially weak families and the ‘Sabuj Sathi’ scheme under which cycles are distributed to students. The TMC also planned a monthly dole of Rs. 1,500 to one lakh unemployed youth in the state under the ‘Yuvashree’ scheme, calling it an “assistance” to meet their expenses.

Unsurprisingly, both Mamata and Jayalalithaa have been criticised by middle-classes, “intellectuals” and opponents alike, with many citing their reforms and schemes as being too opportunistic for “doling out sops and money”. The fact remains that despite all of the BJP-ruled center’s aspirations for bullet trains and fancy technology, there are more than enough numbers of Indians whose basic needs are yet to be met. Even as the aspirational upper classes might scoff at the freebie culture, poverty and lack of access to primary resources remains a fact of life in India.

The message is clear: People here voted less for caste, religion or ethnicity oriented identity-based politics, and more for basic resources, infrastructure and social development. What’s dismissed as “populism” is a new kind of identity being created: one of an overarching political notion for the poor.

2. The End Of The Congress Era?

With the Congress winning only Puducherry, India’s ‘Grand Old Party’ has now lost stronghold in Assam and Kerala only to be reduced into a regional level outfit. The party’s loss in Delhi to Kejriwal’s AAP was only the beginning of what’s turning out to be a gradual erosion. With further losses in Maharashtra, Haryana, Jammu and Kashmir, among others, many had been predicting such a downward slope for the past few years. Presently, the few places it has contested power have been with the help of regional allies instead of solely through its own merit (the RJD-JDU alliance in Bihar, the Left Front alliance for the recent Bengal elections and the DMK partnership for Tamil Nadu all proving this).

Many have criticised the party’s excessive dependence on Nehru-Gandhi dynastic politics and the current face of the family’s prospective leader, Rahul Gandhi, has been dubbed “Pappu” by the public and media alike (a sign of their attitudes to nepotism and inefficient leadership). With the party stronghold being seen as corrupt coupled with a lack of clarity for the country’s future, even Shashi Tharoor said that it was high time the party cease introspection and take strict action instead. “The party’s core problem is that it can neither dispense with the first family nor, under current circumstances, live with them,” says Pratap Bhanu Mehta of the Centre for Policy Research.

As the Congress loses out in Assam this time, the question of whether it can reclaim the narrative of Nehruvian pluralism so as to win more seats will be the test of time. With the next two years bringing key elections in Gujarat and Karnataka, it remains to be seen if the party takes hold of the situation or bites the dust.

3. The BJP Is Now A National Level Party:

Now that the BJP’s Sarbananda Sonowal scored a major victory in Assam, the party has made inroads into the erstwhile Congress bastion in the North-East. Going hand in hand with the Congress’s defeat in Kerala and the pre-eminence of regional parties in Delhi, Bengal, Tamil Nadu and UP, the BJP has managed to cement itself in an otherwise fragmented polity. What worked for the BJP in Assam was the focus on local level leaders and a shift from characteristic Hindutva politicking, replete with indigenous faces like Sarbananda Sonowal and Himanta Biswa Sarma. The focus on the issue of undocumented or “illegal” Bangladeshi migrants in Assam managed to swing the tide in the BJP’s favour, showing the dangerous influences of nativist identity politics.

In defeating the incumbent Congress in Assam, the oft-promised “Congress mukt Bharat” refrain might just be turning into reality.

What lies next in store for the BJP is the fate of Uttar Pradesh’s elections. Even though Mayawati’s BSP has been predicted to mark a comeback, the BJP can play up its Hindutva cards this time in UP, even if it didn’t work in the case of Delhi or Bihar. Already the BJP has climbed to the status of the only national party, but this might just be consolidated further. By building on anti-Muslim sentiments in parts of UP, they might just take on regional parties too.