Economy to BJP: Are you listening?

The recent election show how the slowdown is finally starting to show up as an electoral determinant.

There are so many ways to slice and dice Indian election results that those brave and/ or foolish enough to try and quickly interpret verdicts run a high chance of missing any number of insights. With that caveat out of the way, here’s my day-of-the-result take on what is the most significant message Haryanvis and Maharashtrians have sent to BJP.

That message is: The ongoing economic slowdown is finally starting to show up as a non-trivial electoral determinant.

There are good arguments against my thesis.


BJP’s Haryana performance can be explained by a re-consolidation of Jat votes against the party. Indeed, BJP’s 2019 assembly poll vote share has gone up in Haryana compared to 2014 (36.2% vs 33.2%). That the party still couldn’t get a simple majority is surely because Jats decided to try and vote out the non-Jat incumbent chief minister Manohar Lal Khattar.

In Maharashtra, BJP’s strike rate has actually improved, since it contested fewer seats this time (164 in 2019, 260 in 2014) – in 2014 state polls, BJP and Shiv Sena fought separately. And even while contesting far fewer seats in 2019, BJP’s vote share has dropped moderately to 25.3%, compared to 27.8% in 2014 state polls. BJP’s pre-poll ally Shiv Sena’s vote share has also dropped moderately to 17% from 19.4% in 2014. This is difficult to read as a big swing in Maharashtra against the ruling combine. And after all, BJP and Sena, whatever their internal wrangling now, are comfortably placed to retain power. And in Haryana, BJP is still the single largest party.

State and national verdicts have started going different ways repeatedly, and so to read a national message from state polls is a fallacy. MP, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh voted BJP out in 2018 and Gujarat gave BJP a fright in 2017 state polls but all states voted overwhelmingly for the party in 2019 national polls. Odisha gave BJP a handsome proportion of Lok Sabha seats but resoundingly elected BJD in the state assembly, when polls were held simultaneously earlier this year. Karnataka didn’t give BJP a clear mandate in state polls – the subsequent fall of the Congress-JD(S) government was a different story – but BJP swept in Lok Sabha. Given all this, won’t it be injudicious to read Haryana and Maharashtra results as anything more than mostly a sum of local factors? For example, BJP managed restive Marathas in Maharashtra better than it did restive Jats in Haryana. Or, the fact that seven of Khattar’s ministers lost in Haryana indicates that local factors played a big role.
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All of this does seem to question my thesis about these results being the first warning sign from the economy to BJP. So, here are my counterarguments.

First, elections were held in Haryana and Maharashtra with Congress in near-disarray, BJP’s poll machinery in top gear and its two big stars and strategists, Narendra Modi and Amit Shah, front and centre in campaigning. Imagine if Congress hadn’t blundered over Haryana’s local party leadership and in Maharashtra, it had campaigned vigorously. It is not a stretch to think BJP may have suffered more in both states.

Second, BJP barely mentioned economy and related issues in its campaigning. Its themes were ‘nationalism’ and welfarism. This combination won general election for the party earlier this year, when the economy was already in the slowdown mode. This formula was buttressed post-general election. First, by extending the PM-Kisan scheme to more income groups. Second, via the Jammu and Kashmir decision on Articles 370 and 35A. Third, by aggressive rhetoric on illegal migrants and the National Register for Citizens. And fourth, via the Bharat Ratna for Veer Savarkar pitch. This seemed a potent combination to many, including all pollsters bar Axis. But something else was at play against this – that surely is at least one explanation for BJP’s less-than-rousing performance in both states.

It’s not at all illogical to suggest that the ‘something else’ was the sharpening of the economic slowdown post-general election. Maharashtra is India’s largest state economy and Haryana, although a small state, is the 13th largest state economy, and fifth in terms of per capita income. Both have good industrial bases and large rural populations. The sharpening slowdown has, all data sets suggest, hit both urban and rural population. Rural demand distress is in fact now acute. In both Haryana and Maharashtra, BJP’s electoral performance in many rural areas shows a distinct dip. It will be heroic to argue that the slowing economy is not playing a role at all.
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Indeed, an interesting hypothesis to explore will be whether local factors against BJP assumed sharper overtones because the economic slowdown is so pronounced. That is, had the economy been doing better, may be the Jat vote in Haryana and local issues that pulled BJP/ Sena down in some Maharashtra regions would have had less impact.

Finally, GDP growth was likely around 5% or may be slightly less – FY20 second quarter data is yet to come out – as campaigning for these state elections got underway. It’s not unreasonable to assume that in a country that needs 8% average annual growth on a sustained basis to aim for mass prosperity, 5% growth will start impacting poll results at some point of time.
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So, there’s likely a message from the economy to BJP from Haryana and Maharashtra. The party should listen.
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