India (state elections) 2012

State elections were held in five Indian states in January, February and March with all five states announcing their results on March 6. The biggest and most important of these five states up for grabs was Uttar Pradesh (UP), which is the most populous sub-national entity in the world with a population of nearly 200 million and an electorate of some 127 million. Elections were also held in Goa, Manipur, Punjab and Uttarakhand.

Uttar Pradesh is India’s most populous state and a political powerhouse, being the political base of the Indian National Congress’ (INC) ruling Nehru-Gandhi dynasty. Despite being a demographic powerhouse as well, UP has tended to lag behind the rest of India in terms of economic development and industrialization. Since the 1990s, in the ever-fragmented world of Indian politics, UP has moved away from traditional dominance by the INC and other national parties in favour of rather regional, but not regionalist, parties; the Samajwadi Party (SP) and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP). Like in the rest of India, identity politics based on caste or religion are very important in UP. The Samajwadi Party, led for ages by former Chief Minister Mulayam Singh Yadav, appeals largely to Muslims (19% of UP) and Yadav’s own Yadav caste, a lowish pastoral caste. The BSP, led by incumbent Chief Minister Mayawati, appeals to dalits (untouchables). The conservative Hindu BJP, the main right-wing party in India, maintains a strong base, though nowhere near the base the BJP had in the 1990s when it controlled the state government for a few years. Like in the rest of India, the BJP appeals to the upper castes, including Brahmins and Rajputs, while it has very low support amongst Muslims and untouchables.

The BSP’s Mayawati and the SP’s Mulayam Singh Yadav have alternated in power for the past 15 years or so, though state governments have rarely managed to live out their five-year terms. Mayawati ruled between 2002 and 2003, before Yadav took over and ruled until the 2007 elections. The 2007 state elections will likely go down as one of the most important state elections in UP, given that they gave Mayawati’s BSP won an absolute majority with a pretty staggering 206 out of 403 seats against 97 for the SP, down from some 150 incumbents. The BSP built its majority in 2007 through a unique coalition of Mayawati’s dalit core electorate and the urban upper classes, a sort of anti-Yadav (the middle classes of sorts) coalition driven by the idea that the main rivals of the dalit were the Yadavs and not the upper classes. The BSP and Mayawati’s spectacular victory gave the BSP some national aspirations and Mayawati’s name was floated as a potential future Prime Minister. However, the BSP’s home for a breakthrough in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections were dashed when it won only 21 seats, all but one of them in UP where it won only 20 seats to the INC’s 21 and the SP’s 23. Of course, in terms of popular vote, its vote share in UP was down only some 3% on its 2007 record (30% of the vote), but the thing which matters in Indian politics is often the seat count.

Mayawati’s rule has been marked by many allegations of corruption – she has become one of the wealthiest politicians in India, meaning she’s probably filling her pockets – and of mismanagement of funds – of the type of building statues of herself and stuff like parks. Corruption is a major issue in India nowadays, with the Anna Hazare campaign last year, and Mayawati has likely taken a major hit because of all the corruption and mismanagement of funds issues.

The INC, in some tough straits nationally, heavily targeted the elections in UP after it won its worst result in the 2007 elections, taking only 22 out of 403 seats. The INC’s rising star of sorts, Rahul Gandhi, a MP for UP, campaigned full-time in UP for over a year and with lavish funds. The INC was obviously hoping to restore the party’s past glory days in the family stronghold, after the decrepitude of 2002-2007. It had won a decent showing in the 2009 federal elections, however.

Turnout in UP was 59.5%, up over 10 points from 2007, when it stood at 46.1%. Results were:

SP 224 (+127)
BSP 80 (-126)
BJP 47 (-4)
INC 28 (+6)
RLD 9 (-1)
NCP 1 (+1)
Others 14 (-3)

The two most important things that we can get out of the UP results are, firstly, Mayawati’s defeat and, secondly, the slap in the face for the INC. Mayawati’s defeat, and the replacement of a huge BSP majority by an even bigger SP majority led by Mulayam Singh Yadav’s son Akhilesh, does not seem to have surprised observers of Indian politics all that much though for casual observers like myself it was certainly the most interesting thing out of the results. After the BSP’s underwhelming performance in 2009 and the SP’s strong performance that same year, this year’s defeat is not all that shocking. The popular vote margin was far narrower than the seat gap indicates, with the BSP taking something like 26% or so of the vote, down only 4% from its 2007 result; and the SP winning 29%, up 4%. The BSP’s defeat is likely the result in part of the controversies surrounding Mayawati’s government such as corruption and misuse of public funds. The BSP itself has blamed the results on vote shifting by Muslim voters from the BSP to the SP, as to prevent a BJP victory. In the end, however, the SP and Yadav’s victory is only the replacement of one strongwoman – Mayawati – by a strongman – Yadav. It is unlikely to change much in terms of government policy.

The other thing which can be taken out of the UP elections is the slap in the face for the INC. Rahul Gandhi had campaigned full-time in the state for a year or so, and the INC was hoping to score major gains in the state, but ultimately it fell quite short of its hopes of winning 60-80 seats. The whole INC had been hoping for a strong performance in India’s gargantuan state. In New Delhi, Prime Minister Singh’s INC government is limping toward the 2014 elections, hurt by corruption scandals, slowing economic growth and rising inflation. It is having trouble passing its main policy initiative – foreign investment liberalization – at the moment because some of its allies are blocking such reforms. The INC had hoped that a strong performance in UP, which would entail a hung parliament, could mean an INC-SP alliance both in UP and in New Delhi, where the SP’s 23 members currently support the government without being part of the ruling coalition. In the end, the SP will govern alone in UP and the INC is left licking its wounds in UP after a disastrous result, gaining only 6 seats and winning only 12% of the vote (+3% on 2007). The only good news for the INC is that the BJP continues to fare no better, despite the government’s troubles, the national BJP is struggling to appear as a credible alternative. It had a terrible showing in UP.

IBN has a nice interactive map, which most other news outlets also have.

In predominantly Sikh Punjab, the INC was also hoping for a strong performance in a state which has been ruled since 2007 by Parkash Singh Badal of the Sikh-centric Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), the traditional representative of predominantly upper-class Sikh jats (landowners and so forth) in Punjab. The INC draws its support, largely, from upper-caste Hindus (about 37% of the population) and lower castes. The SAD and INC have usually been rivals for control of the state, which has alternated between chaos, INC governments and SAD governments. The SAD is allied with the conservative Hindu BJP both in Punjab and nationally, as part of a strategic alliance which serves the needs of both parties. The INC had hoped to do well in Punjab after a strong performance in the state in the 2009 election, taking 8 seats to the SAD’s 4 and the BJP’s one. Back then, the Chief Minister, Parkash Singh Badal, was in hot waters after he took the unpopular move of making his son Deputy Chief Minister. Results were:

SAD 56 seats (+7)
INC 46 seats (+2)
BJP 12 seats (-7)
Others 3 seats (-2)

Ultimately, the INC failed to make any significant gains in Punjab, a second black eye for the INC after its poor performance in UP. The government’s reelection is the first time since the 1980s that an incumbent government has won reelection. The IBN’s map is here.

The small Himalayan state of Uttarakhand, created in 2000 from parts of UP, has been ruled since its creation by the BJP save for one term (2002-2007) when it was ruled by the INC. The incumbent BJP government is fairly popular, but in the 2009 election, the INC won the state’s five seats in the Lok Sabha. It was one of the INC’s main targets this year. The results were:

INC 32 seats (+11)
BJP 31 seats (-4)
BSP 3 seats (-5)
Others 3 seats (nc)
UKKD 1 seat (-2)

The INC and BJP end up basically tied in a hung parliament, with the other parties – the BSP, which won three seats on the border with UP, 3 independents and the lone member of the regionalist UKKD – acting as kingmakers. The UKKD in the last legislature sided with the BJP, but it is hard to see the BSP’s members backing the BJP. The IBN’s map is here.

Manipur is a small and troubled state in India’s mountainous north east. The dominant ethnicity in Manipur are the largely Hindu Meeteis, who make up 60% of the population. But the state has long been the scene of interethnic violence between the Meeteis and the two main ethnic minorities: the northern Naga and the southern Kukis (close to the Mizos of Mizoram), both of which are Christian. The INC has ruled the state since 2002. The ruling party in the neighboring Nagaland, the NPF, entered the competition, as did the ruling party in West Bengal, Mamata Banerjee’s All-India Trinamool Congress (TMC). Results were:

INC 42 seats (+12)
TMC 7 seats (+7)
MSCP 5 seats (+5)
NPF 4 seats (+4)
LJP 1 seat (+1)
NCP 1 seat (nc)

In one of the INC’s few truly good results of the night, the INC won an absolute majority in Manipur. However, the downside for the INC nationally is the strong showing by Mamata Banerjee’s TMC. The mercurial TMC, which now governs West Bengal, is a member of the ruling UPA coalition, but the populist party has so far blocked the INC’s economic reforms and after the strong result in Manipur, the TMC can be expected to be even more assertive as it is confident of its chances in a general election at this point. The IBN map is here.

The former Portuguese counter of Goa retains a large Catholic minority (about a quarter of the state), which has traditionally backed the INC. The INC has governed the state since 2005. The BJP is the other main party in Goa, dominant with Hindus, while the Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party (MGP) has usually had a solid base with lower-class Hindus and at one time supported merger with neighboring Maharashtra. The results were:

BJP 21 seats (+7)
INC 9 seats (-7)
MGP 3 seats (+1)
Others 5 seats (+3)

The BJP-MGP coalition won a large majority in Goa, though again the vote shares were much closer. It has been written that the BJP reached out to Catholic Goans and did fairly well with a traditionally core INC electorate. Goa is a small state, but it was still a significant defeat for the INC, hurt locally by corruption and economic troubles. The map is here.

The results of this round of state elections, to be followed later in the year by elections in states such as Gujarat, are generally a pretty bad omen for the ruling INC. Its poor showing in UP and its failure to do better in Punjab overshadow its better luck in Manipur and Uttarakhand. It is hurt by corruption scandals, lagging economic growth, a lack of policy initiatives and high inflation. With the TMC now extending its arm outside West Bengal with much success, it also must deal with a tough partner who will continue blocking the government’s landmark reform initiatives in 2012. However, the BJP fared little better. Outside Goa, it lost seats in all other states and won no seats again in Manipur. The BJP has failed to appear as a credible rival to the INC and, like the INC, finds itself weakened in the fragmenting world of Indian politics.

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Posted on March 10, 2012, in India, Regional and local elections. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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