India’s state elections and the continuing irrelevance of the Indian National Congress
Author: Arun R Swamy, University of Guam All of the participating parties in the latest round of Indian state elections made some gains — with one exception. The once-dominant Indian National Congress (INC) continued its slide into irrelevance. The national ruling party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), did not fare much better but could take […] The post India’s state elections and the continuing irrelevance of the Indian National Congress first appeared on East Asia Forum.
Author: Arun R Swamy, University of Guam
All of the participating parties in the latest round of Indian state elections made some gains — with one exception. The once-dominant Indian National Congress (INC) continued its slide into irrelevance. The national ruling party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), did not fare much better but could take some solace from expanding beyond its traditional strongholds, mostly at the expense of the INC.
The big winners were regional parties who continued to dominate in the states they govern. Yet even for these parties, the elections hid some dark clouds. Set against the backdrop of India’s second COVID-19 surge in which a homegrown variant of the virus is ravaging the country, the elections provide few clues for the future.
Five jurisdictions went to the polls this spring in a process spread out over several months due to concerns about security and the spread of COVID-19. Two states, Tamil Nadu and Kerala, and one union territory, Puducherry, were in the southern cone of the country. Two states, West Bengal and Assam, were in the east. None were in the core BJP regions in northern and western India.
Only in Assam did the contest resemble the national political scene with the incumbent BJP-led National Democratic Alliance defeating the INC-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) to retain power. Since each alliance in the state was led by its respective national party, the election replicated the national alignments. But with a proliferation of regional and ethnic parties comprising both alliances and playing a spoiler role, it was hard to draw a line from this result to a potential national election.
Regional factors were even more decisive in the other states, particularly in West Bengal. Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, who broke away from the INC in 1998 to form the regional Trinamool Congress, led her party to a third successive victory but lost her own seat in the legislature following a concerted BJP effort to unseat her. While she can continue as chief minister as long as she is elected to the legislature within six months, this personal defeat may not augur well for her national ambitions.
In West Bengal, the BJP’s emergence as the alternative to Trinamool may prove the real story. In a state which once boasted the world’s longest-running democratically elected communist government (1977–2011), the once-dominant Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M), allied with the remnants of the INC in the state, finished a far-off third.
But in Kerala, it was the CPI-M-led Left Democratic Front (LDF) that won an unprecedented second term in office — in a state where the LDF and INC-led United Democratic Front have alternated in power every election for 40 years. The BJP, which had pushed to establish itself in the state, drew a blank.
Kerala’s eastern neighbour, Tamil Nadu, was the only state in which the incumbent party lost power. Since the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam party, which lost power, is part of NDA while the victorious Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam is part of the UPA, this election technically saw a shift from a BJP-aligned government to an INC-aligned one.
But with both national parties playing a marginal role, the outcome reflected local rather than national factors, notably the death of both regional parties’ longstanding leaders since the last election. And given that Tamil Nadu has been governed since 1967 by one of two wings of the Dravidian movement — the political expression of Tamil cultural nationalism — the national implications were indirect at best.
The Tamil-speaking former French enclave of Puducherry also saw its government change, this time benefiting the BJP. But the incumbent government did not so much lose as fragment, as many INC leaders defected to a rebel faction that allied with the BJP, or to the BJP itself. Puducherry joins a long list of states and territories governed by a rebel INC faction.
Given the varied local political configurations and the fact that incumbent parties won across the political spectrum, it is difficult to draw any serious lessons from the elections for the future of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s BJP government. It is also impossible to gauge what effect the COVID-19 surge might have had — or might still have — on the BJP’s political fortunes since most of the voting occurred in March, before the worst of the current surge.
One fact that stands out is the continued decline of the INC and its putative leader, Rahul Gandhi. Rahul, the son, grandson and great-grandson of former prime ministers, has been a reluctant and ineffectual leader. He was thrust into a position he does not want by the INC’s chronic inability to agree on a democratic (or any) process for selecting its leaders.
This has caused many factions, led by figures like Mamata Banerjee who command real popular support, to leave the party. Several of these govern individual states quite successfully, but none can challenge the BJP nationally. The future of Indian politics and the fate of the Modi government depends on whether the INC gels into an effective alternative or continues on the path of irrelevance.
Arun R Swamy is Professor of Political Science at the University of Guam.The post India’s state elections and the continuing irrelevance of the Indian National Congress first appeared on East Asia Forum.