Transcript: India's Five State Elections and their Implications

Kenneth Bo Nielsen [00:00:06]

Welcome to the Nordic Asia Podcast, a collaboration sharing expertise on Asia across the Nordic region. My name is Kenneth Bo Nielsen. I'm a social anthropologist based in Oslo and also the leader of the Norwegian Network for Asian Studies. Election seasons in India. The Indian news portal, The Wire wrote recently. Largely follow the same format. First, political parties come out with a candidate list. Then there's a high voltage poll campaigning, including big promises, mudslinging, rivals, massive rallies, and a dizzying display of money and muscle power to woo voters and form government. The past few months have indeed been election season in India. And in this episode we zoom in on the five assembly elections that were recently concluded in the states of Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Goa, Manipur and the Punjab, and we analyse the results and its implications for national politics. Now, these five elections are state elections, but nonetheless, many see them as a mid-term evaluation of Prime Minister Narendra modi and his Hindu nationalist government led by the Bharatiya Janata Party or the BJP. To shed some light on these elections and their implications, I have with me a panel of five scholars of Indian politics and democracy who will closely followed the campaigns over the last many months and not least, the counting of the votes that happened on the 10th of March. With me is Arild Engelsen Ruud, professor of South Asian studies at the University of Oslo. Guro Samuelsen, post-doctoral fellow at MF Norwegian School of Theology, Religion and Society, where she is part of the myth of politics in South Asia project. Also here is Rahul Ranjan, post-doctoral fellow at Oslo Metropolitan University, where he is part of the Riverine Rights Project. Edward Moon-Little, a candidate in social anthropology at the University of Cambridge and a fellow at the Highland Institute. And last but not least, Shreya Sinha, lecturer in international development at the University of Reading. Welcome to all of you. So let's start with the big picture. Arild Ruud, the votes in all five states have now been counted. In your view, what are the three most important take home messages from this election?

Arild Engelsen Ruud

Well, thank you, Kenneth. The main thing is, of course, that the BJP, the ruling party, Modi's party, has won four out of five states with excellent results. Any party leader would be very happy about that. And in particular, because they've won the largest state of all states with the Pradesh, after a lot of controversies and with a highly controversial chief minister, which sort of puts to shame all the criticism of the Chief minister and of Modi, of playing on a very simple Hindutva card, Hindu nationalist card. But but, you know, with great success and I think this is a boost this is a tremendous boost for the BJP, the ruling party heading towards the next national election. They seem invincible, quite clearly invincible. I think it's quite fair to assume that we are heading towards another period with Narendra modi as prime minister of India. So the second takeaway is, of course, that the the most famous but no longer very large political opponent of Narendra Modi and BJP, the Congress, under the leadership of the Gandhi, Nehru family, did very badly, very badly indeed, losing all over the place. And very serious questions have now been raised by prominent, more prominent than previously leaders of the Congress Party about its way forward and how to how to deal with what is basically a very weak position. The third takeaway would be that I think it's quite interesting that there are certain states in which the BJP, the ruling National Party. Doesn't seem to get much leeway in this case. This round of elections, Punjab in the Punjab, the BJP doesn't really have a whole lot of traction. Last year they lost resoundingly in West Bengal. Previously, it's been shown that they have very limited entry into certain states in the South, in particular Kerala and Tamil Nadu. So it's interesting that they have this enormous, you know, presence and success in certain states, whereas in other states there is they don't really register.

Kenneth Bo Nielsen [00:05:24]

So let's move on to the level of the individual states. And as you said, we, of course, have to start with Uttar Pradesh, a state with an electorate the size of Brazil. No, I mean, this is electorally the most important state in India. It's often said the road to Delhi runs via Lucknow. It's also, as you said, a crucial state for the BJP, a state that's been governed now for five years by a hard line Hindutva chief minister, Yogi Adityanath. And this was a comfortable win for the BJP in U.P., this time to more than 40% of the popular vote and a comfortable majority in the state Assembly. Yogi and the BJP, they must be very happy.

Guro Samuelsen

Yes, they must be. And that's been clear. The images that we've seen from celebrations as well. Now, the significance of this victory is profound, as you've said, both for U.P. and also for India due to its size, is seen perhaps as the the most important of these states in terms of predicting where the nation will be heading also in 2024. And it is also, remarkably, the first time in 37 years that an incumbent chief minister has been re-elected in Upi. And I think also the situation in the state has been comparable to the political situation on the national level in the sense that there were really just two questions that we asked ourselves ahead of the election. The first was how happy or how disgruntled are people actually with the data, not government. And the second question was, if not the Yogi Modi combine, then who? So despite the fact that Priyanka Gandhi led an active campaign, the Congress Party is not really a serious contender in U.P. politics anymore. So the opposition had to come from the two regional parties, the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party, which are both products of the democratic deepening of the 1980s and 90s and represent so-called lower caste or and Dalit segments of the population respectively. As the campaign evolved, the election was largely framed as a two party contest between the alliance stitched together by Samajwadi party leader Akhilesh Yadav on the one hand, and the incumbent BJP on the other. So first, Yadav was able to build an electoral alliance with several minor parties. And then in February, several leaders of the BJP, along with a number of MLAs, crossed over to the Samajwadi party. And this kind of defection is often a sign of change in the direction of the political wind in U.P.. So it gave additional fuel to the idea that that Akhilesh Yadav would be capable of challenging the election machinery of the BJP. And now we have the answer. So much for the party strategy worked. And as far as it was able to garner almost all of the anti BJP vote. But this was far from enough to actually challenge the BJP.

Kenneth Bo Nielsen [00:08:38]

So it worked. But it didn't work well enough to put it to put it that way. I mean, I'd like to just ask you to say a little bit more about this, because there has been a lot of controversy in Yogi's first five years in office, communal polarization, often confrontational rhetoric, a good deal of vigilantism as well, and so on and so forth. On the other hand, some would also claim a good track record on law and order. For example, how do we explain his re-election, his ability to fend off the challenge from the so much what party?

Guro Samuelsen [00:09:11]

Well, as you say, Kenneth, Yogi Adityanath has been an extremely polarizing political figure since he was installed in 2017. And really the overarching the sky, so to say, under which this election has been fought has been Hindu-Muslim communal relations. We've had numerous instances of hate speech, genocide, calls from Swami Narasimhan and another Hindu extremists, and the normalization really of hate speech against Muslims by various Hindutva organizations and outfits and by BJP legislators and also by the chief minister himself. And so this is sort of the major topic that has been present in the campaign. And what your data not has talked about has been the need in for a dum da Sarkar, right? A strong and decisive government which is necessary both in order to ensure development and also to curb crime. So the BJP has portrayed itself as anti corrupt, which is then, of course also aimed at both the opposition parties. They've talked about how under the BJP development is more transparent that there is no sort of face value or favoring of specific communities in terms of handing out or development benefits and villages and so on, development, electricity to every poor household and to every village has been one of their messages. And also this has gone hand in hand with this anti-mafia anti crime rhetoric. The infamous mafia bosses of are now scared. Right? And at the tail end of the campaign, we saw this emergence of the bulldozer as a quite curious symbol. It was used in BJP rallies and speeches and also in their celebrations yesterday. It's a symbol that combines the developmental vision of the party, which is a sort of Gujarat model of development. Now, also in U.p, with its stance of being absolutely ruthless in dealing with mafias and so-called criminal elements.

Kenneth Bo Nielsen [00:11:21]

A last question I want to pose to you about the up elections here. Concerns, of course, the Bahujan Samaj party. When the votes were being counted, I saw newspaper headlines very early on in the day asking, is this the end of the road for the BSP? Some years ago, we spoke about Mayawati as a potential Indian prime minister one day. This time round, her party got roughly 13% of the votes in her home state, her bastion, and I think just a single seat in the state assembly. And this actually came in the wake of what many people saw as a quite uninspired and very lacklustre campaign from her party and her party activists. Is this the end of the road for Mayawati and the BSP?

Guro Samuelsen [00:12:07]

I would say it looks very much like the end of the road. There has been rife speculation, of course, about the reasons why the BSP has been so inactive and also these counterclaims that the party would emerge as the dark horse, but because they don't rely on traditional media. And so, you know, there was this idea that there was an actual mobilization going on that sort of media and liberal commentators didn't pick up on. But we heard that claim being made in 2017 as well. And then it turned out to hold little truth. It bagged 21% of the vote and won 19 seats. And now in 22, we see further worsening or even collapse of the party. And I would like to say quickly two explanations think. First, the BSP has never been electorally successful except for when it has been either part of coalitions or it has forged solid alliances with communities outside of its core constituency of the Dalits and the JAT of caste. And that coalition making has been a problem in the party dealing with this sort of retaining its assertive Dalit core while catering to other communities as well. And I think secondly, that there is a generational divide in 2013 and 14, while parents of the BSP families were really still loyal to the party, the youth voted for Modi because they felt that he was the one who spoke really to their hopes and aspirations.

Kenneth Bo Nielsen [00:13:44]

So let's move on to the neighboring state of Uttarakhand, which has also been BJP territory since 2017. This time it was expected to be a closely contested election. Both early opinion polls, but also the exit polls, suggested that the Congress and the BJP would be almost neck and neck with an almost equal vote share. At the same time, the campaign showed that the Congress continued to be home to intense infighting, even backstabbing and betrayal within different factions, all trying to establish supremacy within the party. Rahul Ranjan In the end, the BJP won comfortably in Uttarakhand two.

Rahul Ranjan [00:14:27]

Thanks, Kenneth, for having me. Yeah, it's interesting because the broader mood of the election campaign when it started, it started in the background of, you know, Congress led opposition hurling attacks on BJP for being incumbent because they've had three chief ministers within one period of of the election. So it was understood that the larger political campaign will allow Congress to gain grounds against BJP. And we've also seen how new parties such as AAP has made its entry into the political fray by using, I think, one of the only party that used Terry Dam compensation as a way to make an effective appeal to people in this state. But the results are out and the fact is that BJP has won 44%, which is close to 47 seat and Congress has won 38%, which is 19 seats. We do see that there is a fall in the number of seats that the BJP has won in the state. So in the prior election, they have had 57 seats out of 70 and the Congress had 11. So there is a marginal gap between both election. However, BJP has managed to win the election again, and there are several factor to this. This is a state, this is a newly formed state. So it was in 2000 that Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and Uttarakhand was formed. And it's also the state in India that has a major concentration of India's uphill. So it's led by different internal logic of vote campaigning. But there are two things I would say to the election that sort of stand out on one level. BJP's victory suggests almost an unprecedented level of women voters who have turned up to vote in this election. So, in fact, women voters have outnumbered male voters in 38 out of 70 seats across the state, including the ones in the hills. And the second is that BJP was able to strategise the political campaigning across the state in a much more mainstreamed way than the Congress did during the election.

Kenneth Bo Nielsen

Some of India's smaller states have also elected than US employees, and this includes the smallest state of the Indian Union, with just over a million voters, which by Indian standards is almost nothing, namely the state of Goa. Yes, some might say that this would make over an insignificant state in the bigger scheme of things, but I think this in a sense, we can see the GOA elections as a kind of microcosm of Indian politics at large at this conjuncture, at least from the opposition's point of view, during the campaign in Goa. This time I think the mood was such that the opposition felt that they actually had a chance of ousting the BJP from power. This was the first state election since the death of Manohar Parrikar, who was undoubtedly the tallest political leader in Goa's recent political history. Chief Minister. On many occasions now his successor as Chief minister, Pramod Sawant, did not enjoy the same stature and respect across party lines that Parrikar used to have. And we could add to this relatively strong sense of anti-incumbency, and the BJP looked to be on a weak wicket before this election. And yet, as the counting commenced, it turned out they bagged 20 seats out of the 40 the assembly contesting on their own with no alliance partners, even though they managed only roughly one third of the votes in the state. And of course, the explanation for this translation of one third of the votes into a majority in the Assembly lies in the fragmentation of the opposition. We had many opposition parties in different alliances, one with the Congress and the Goa Forward Party, a regional party with a presence in a few select seats. In combination, this alliance managed 11 seat. There was another opposition alliance comprising another regional party, the Maharashtra Party, in alliance with the Trinamool Congress, who had entered Goa in the fall of 2021, led almost entirely by Prashant Kishor Ipac. This alliance managed two seats in spite of getting around 13% of the votes. And then there was the aam Army Party who'd been around in Goa for a while now winning two seats this time around. Now all parties in this opposition could agree on the need for ousting the BJP from power after it had had two full terms in office but they couldn't agree on how and they couldn't agree on under whose leadership this alliance should be carried forward. So in spite of roughly 45% of all go on voters voting for one of these parties in these two alliances wanting to dislodge the BJP. This didn't happen. And I think this perhaps more or less shows us the national political situation in a nutshell or in a microcosm of fragmented opposition, unable to find solid common ground and common cause, thereby enabling the BJP to dominate politically with only around one third of the popular vote. There's another big story to the go on elections, which we unfortunately don't have time for here, and that's the impact of the Revolutionary Goans Party, a party fighting for the existence of Goans in their own motherland. To quote from their program, they managed, this time only one seat. I think they won this seat with just 75 votes. So it's a very narrow win. But they managed one seat. But what they also managed was a very good performance in many of the other constituencies where they ran. They didn't run in all of them, but where they did field candidates, they performed unexpectedly well. And this came after a campaign where they managed, I think, to energize many voters, particularly many young voters, in a way that many of the more established parties haven't been able to do for a while. But that's quite another story and maybe something we can return to in in another episode. Another small state that voted this time around also was Manipur. Now politics in India's northeast is immensely complex and in many ways animates it by political logics that differ from from the ones that one can encounter in in other parts of India. It's also a part of India where the BJP used to be a non-entity or at least a very small player, but where it's made rapid inroads over the last few years. It was part of the incumbent government in Manipur in coalition with local parties. This time it's the single largest party with more than 37% of the popular vote, and it has a majority in the Assembly on its own. Edward Moon-Little, what are we to make of this outstanding performance by the BJP this time around?

Edward Moon-Little

Thank you, Kenneth. It's a big result. It's a tremendous win. The BJP went into the election very confident they didn't have pre-poll alliances after forming the government and coalition before. So they went in on their own and they've won 32 out of the 60 seats. It's a big, big win. For a long time this was a Congress state. Successive chief ministers and Beren Singh has managed to retain it and proved a very popular chief minister on the local parties. It's also good news for the Nargis Peoples Front who represent communities identify as nagas. This includes a tango community, the wrong mind, the cowboy, the mouse community. It's also quite a good election for the National People's Party, a regional party in northeast India based out of Meghalaya, who formed the coalition with the BJP last time around, they managed to kind of stay strong and have become the opposition with the most seats in Manipur. And it has been a disaster for Congress, really. You know, there are serious questions about what next for Congress in Manipur. So we've gone from 2017 where Congress won the vote but were not able to form the government. They had more people elected than the BJP. In 2012, they had 42 out of the 60 seats and now they're in single digits. So it's a disaster for Congress. No one is sure what is next to them in Manipur. And many Paul's been able, the BJP and Manipur have been able to do very well with upland tribal Christian voters phenomena explained well in long Comer's work on Hindutva in northeast India. They've also managed to do very well with the constituency. I worked with her people who are brought up as Hindus and have chosen now to identify themselves as non Hindus, as following the traditional religion, which is they see as the religion of the dominant community in the valley of Manipur. So the BJP have been able to appeal to these people who identify as leaving Hindu. They've been able to do really well with communities that are Christian. So it's been a big success for them. The election has also been seen as more violent than the previous election in 2017, and there are many accusations about poll captures by militant groups in the constituencies in the hills. So those will remain controversial electoral decisions for quite a while afterwards.

Kenneth Bo Nielsen [00:23:57]

So we're reaching the end of the road of this tour de force of the five recent state elections in India. Let's let's move to the last and final of the five states, the Punjab. Shreya Sinha, the incumbent Congress Party government has been a House divided for quite some time. Factional rivalries, defections and new parties being formed out of the Congress. The Congress did poorly, as perhaps was expected, But the big news in this election is undoubtedly the landslide victory of the aam Artemis party winning a clear majority of seats on its own. What brought the aam Army Party to power this time?

Shreya Sinha

I mean this is absolutely unprecedented at 92 out of 117 seats up as basically one more than three fourths of all the seats. And this is not just unprecedented for AAP it's also unprecedented for state elections in Punjab more generally. And what AAP really benefited from was the complete disillusionment with the two traditional parties and a very clear messaging that people must give one chance to this new party. And so there was a lot of messaging around the Delhi model and what it achieved with the reduction of electricity bills, with primary health care centres and so on. And also what worked in its favour, especially towards the end, was that the Congress, the Akali, even the BJP, they appeared to be pulling out all stops to prevent AAP from winning. So they were kind of taking pot shots on Bhagwan Man's character who's now going to become the Chief minister. You know, just days before the election, they started calling Kejriwal a terrorist. And so it kind of reeked of this sort of desperation and hostility. And it was just really at odds with the kind of change that people were looking for. But I don't think this was a foregone conclusion when the campaigning started, to be honest. I mean, of course, state elections in Punjab have so far been a kind of bipolar contest between the Congress and the Shiromani Akali Dal, even though in the last state elections in 2017, AAP emerged as the largest opposition party for much of the five years since then, any party infrastructure was basically dismantled. There was a lot of disillusionment among its members. I mean, I've personally seen defunct party offices in smaller towns during my field visits. You know, even now the party has fielded several candidates who actually defected from the Congress and the Akali Dal. And more than that, I think Punjab elections are such that the votes are sort of you know, there are three different regions. So there is the southern belt, which is the Malwa, which is the largest. And then there's the Marja in the northwest and then the Deuba in the northeast. And so people were not expecting AAP to do as well outside of the MALWA and that was meant to be the key to them being successful in the elections. But, you know, lo and behold, it did do very, very well. And the corollary to that is that, you know, this sort of historical majority of the AAP has basically decimated the Congress and the Akali. And I think this is very important about the elections as well. I mean, it's very striking that all the major leaders have lost the elections, you know, for former chief ministers have lost the election. Both the battles Badal senior and lost Wickremesinghe Majithia has lost. Captain Amarinder Singh, King of Patiala has lost from Patiala Navjot Singh Sidhu has lost. This is quite phenomenal and actually Congress need not have done so badly. They really squandered their chances because they couldn't control the infighting. They changed the CM three months before elections and even the appointment of a Dalit face as the Chief Minister in the last few months. It didn't yield the desired results and there were some ground reports that it alienated the dominant jats from the party. And then, of course, there's the Akali, who have been reduced to all of four seats, even though they were, you know, they are so strong at the panchayat level, at least they were they have been known to be. They control the ego, whereas they have a lot of resources. And so the real thing is that, you know, the old sort of hegemony have been disrupted in the state and we need to see what comes out of this and what and how are delivers against the promises it has made.

Kenneth Bo Nielsen [00:28:27]

An exciting conjuncture in Punjabi politics. This landslide winner of the AAM Aadmi Party. There's another component or another aspect to this election I'd like to hear your views on. Farmers from the Punjab, they played key roles in the massive farm law protests that we've that we saw in India from late 2020 until late 2021, a movement that was targeting the Modi government and its neoliberal policies in agriculture. To what extent has this farm law movement been important in shaping electoral outcomes in the Punjab this time? I mean, I know, for example, that some of the farm unions and some of the movement leaders ventured into politics also standing for elections.

Shreya Sinhab

Yeah, I mean, I think everybody expected the farm movement, of course, to have a big impact on the elections. But I think the real way in which the protest shaped the elections is that it it kind of really brought out the discontent against the existing political parties and these traditional parties, you know, in Punjab Congress and the Akali Dal. And I think this is what also the AAP really gained from and it, you know, this kind of disillusionment led some farmer leaders to fight elections, but they really did not stand a chance. I mean, they were recognized as a party, you know, the same age. MORCHA Some of the farmer leaders made this platform. They were recognized as a political party only in the last minute. They did not have a symbol. Most of the candidates were fighting well, all the candidates were fighting as independent candidates, and they didn't get support from the other farm unions, you know, in terms of any kind of electoral support. And even voters on the ground were sort of differentiating between their participation and the protest and, you know, support for these leaders. As you know, political leaders and so many farmers thought that the protests were only about farmer issues. But people in power, people in legislative positions, need to have a wider agenda that the farmer leaders didn't have. So, you know, it's not surprising that they did not see much success in the elections. And, you know, because the farmer protests were really good at mobilizing and kind of bringing to the fore the shortcomings of the Congress and the Akali dal and how they had failed the farmers and the farming interests over several years. This obviously worked against them and in in favor of AAP. But I do want to remind the readers about the not the readers. I want to remind the listeners about one thing, which is that, you know, AAP in Delhi was the first state government to notify one of the new farm laws when they were introduced back in December 2020. So if the central government reintroduces the new farm laws, you know, it would be worth keeping an eye out for what the AAP government in Punjab will do about them.

Kenneth Bo Nielsen [00:31:23]

Interesting. Arild Ruud, let's zoom out from the individual states and back to the big picture of these elections. At a press conference a few days before the counting of the votes began. Amit Shah held a press conference where he said that the BJP would form the government in four states and improve their performance in the Punjab. He also said that these assembly polls had shown that Modi was the most popular prime minister the country had ever seen, and that this had directly benefited the party in these elections. So what he was doing here was attributing this anticipated stellar performance of the BJP directly to Modi's leadership and Modi's popularity. And they did it. They won four states forming governments. Even in the Punjab, their vote share went up a little bit. Modi and the BJP now arguably confidently looking forward to 2024 or?

Arild Ruud [00:32:22]

Oh, definitely. I must say, Ahmed Shah is a wonderful you know, if you agree with him, political organizer. And he really has a good sense of what's happening in the country. So he is worth listening to, even if you don't agree with him. One of the things that we haven't spoken about, but I think which is really interesting, is that what to many has appeared as a pretty chaotic and incompetent few years of rule from the central government and from Modi's premiership hasn't really registered, hasn't affected the vote support there. As you mentioned, the farmers movement, which was a big thing, a lot of farmers were very dissatisfied for months and months on end. They protested in Delhi. There was a few people who died. There's this incident with the minister's car or the the sun that's one thing. Demonetisation. A few years back, the conflict with China, which hasn't really been resolved and certainly not, you know, in any way that would give you the impression that Modi is really the defender of of Indian interests and of course, the terrible handling of the pandemic with bodies being banned en masse along the Ganges and in the crematorium grounds in Delhi and elsewhere. A lot of people walking Miles and miles and miles out of Delhi because he shut the whole country down with four hours notice. I mean, all these things are terrible governance, disasters. They don't seem to matter. They don't seem to matter. I mean, that's really interesting, isn't it? And voters are pretty happy with him, which is why I think that Amit Shah and the whole BJP, Narendra modi. Yogi Adityanath, I mean it's not about it's not about governance, right? It is partly about governance, but it is about something else. It's a big cultural project, the RSS. A big and the whole family of organizations behind the BJP are into a cultural project of transforming India into a Hindu state. And that registers with a lot of voters. That's a popular project, a national project that a lot of people vote for Yogi Adityanath I don't see him really as the next prime minister, but it certainly is a it's an interesting proposition that's come up and a lot of people do seem to think that he would be a great next prime minister after Modi. And he is a Hindu saint. You know, he's a holy man. He wears I mean, he's more Gandhi than Gandhi and more religious and Gandhi. So that's really interesting. And where this whole thing is going to take India, who knows? But I really think that we're looking at a next period with Modi. Of course, one thing that we also spoke about here today, which I think is really interesting, is that, you know, he or BJP gets just less than 50% of the vote. Between 40 and 50% of the vote in in the bigger states and in some states much less right. Nationally. Modi BJP never got you know, they're not 50%. They have this massive support in parliament, the presence in parliament because of the electoral system. But the problem is that the whole opposition is fragmented. Right. So you have AAP now in Delhi and Punjab. You have Trinamool in West Bengal cetera. So the opposition is divided. And Congress is weak. Congress is terribly weak. They put it Priyanka Gandhi as sort of the next Indira Gandhi who would sort of salvage the party. It didn't work. It didn't work. So the family cannot pull it together. There doesn't seem to be an alternative within the family. So for the moment, the opposition is too fragmented and weak to present an alternative to BJP.

Speaker 3 [00:36:29]

Arild Ruud, Guro Samuelson, Edward Moon-Little, Rahul Ranjan and Shreya Sinha once more, Thank you for guiding us through these elections and their broader implications. My name is Kenneth Bo Nielsen and thank you for joining the Nordic Asia podcast showcasing Nordic collaboration in studying Asia.

Speaker 2 [00:36:50]

You have been listening to the Nordic Asia podcast