Shrinking space for secularism

March 19, 2017

Analysing the results of elections in five Indian states

Shrinking space for secularism

The results of elections in five Indian states of Uttar Pradesh (UP), Punjab, Uttarakhand, Manipur and Goa have produced unexpected results, proving the opinion polls wrong once again. The Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was predicted to win India’s population wise largest state of UP, but not with the astounding margin it eventually did when the results were announced on March 11.

The Indian National Congress performed better in Punjab and Goa than most opinion polls had predicted, not bad for a party that has been on a losing spree since the 16th Lok Sabha (Lower House) elections in 2014. The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), predicted to do well in Punjab and Goa, performed poorly in both, even failing to open its account in the latter.

In the elections for the 403-member UP Assembly, the BJP and its allies won 325 seats, the most by any party in four decades. The Akhilesh Yadav-led ruling Samajwadi Party (SP) emerged as the major victim of the elections in the state despite contesting them in alliance with the Congress, as its seats decreased from 224 in the last elections in 2012 to just 47 in 2017. The elections in UP followed the trend of the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, when the BJP won 71 of the 80 seats.

The party’s overwhelming victory came as a surprise even to its supporters because they were not expecting such a crushing defeat for its rivals in a state where every fifth person is a Muslim. Lest one forget, the BJP had not fielded a single Muslim candidate on any of the seats it contested in the state. As a direct result of this, again in line with the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the number of Muslim legislators decreased from 69 in 2012 to just 24 in 2017. BJP leader and Home Minister Rajnath Singh is being considered as the new chief minister of UP.

In the elections for the 117-member Punjab Assembly, the Congress regained power in the state after a political drought of one decade, and comfortably defeated AAP and the ruling Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD)-BJP alliance. In real terms, Punjab is the only state that BJP lost in these elections and where it would not have its government, courtesy the incumbency factor and drug problem in the state.

While the Congress won 77 seats (up from 46 in 2012), the tally of SAD-BJP alliance decreased from 65 in 2012 to just 18. The much touted AAP managed to win only 20 seats, as opposed to what analysts and opinion polls had predicted based on its support on the ground in the form of volunteers. Congress leader Amarinder Sindh, to whom the success is being attributed, will be sworn in as the new chief minister of Punjab.

Politically unassailable, Modi would now enjoy unlimited and unhindered powers to pick up the threads of engagement with Pakistan and other neighbouring countries.

In the elections for the 70-member Uttarakhand Assembly, the BJP won as many as 57 seats and the ruling Congress only 11, though opinion polls had predicted a neck and neck contest between the two. While the BJP’s tally increased from 32 in 2012, the Congress won 20 seats less than it did in the last elections. Satpal Maharaj and Trivendra Singh Rawat, two senior BJP leaders, are vying to be nominated as the new chief minister of Uttarakhand.

In the elections for the 60-member Manipur Assembly, the Congress emerged as the single largest party with 28 seats (down from 47 in 2012) but the BJP has hobnobbed with smaller parties to stalk a claim to government with 21 seats (up from 0 in 2012). This will effectively put an end to the 15-year Congress rule in the state. The BJP has put forward the name of its leader N. Biren Singh as the new chief minister of Manipur.

The results of elections for the 40-member Goa Assembly were no different than that of the Manipur Assembly. Once again, the Congress emerged as the single largest party with 17 seats (up from 9 in 2012) but the BJP has hobnobbed with smaller parties to stalk a claim to government with 13 seats (down from 21 in 2012). BJP leader Manohar Parrikar has sworn as the new chief minister of Goa after resigning as the defence minister. Interestingly, AAP failed to win a single seat in Goa despite massive campaigning and media hype.

The elections in UP, in particular, were important in terms of not only India’s national policymaking but also its foreign relations. They were said to be a test of Narendra Modi’s popularity after bold decisions such as ‘surgical strikes’ and demonetisation drive, particularly considering that the BJP relied on his image alone by not announcing a chief ministerial candidate in advance unlike most other parties.

By winning the UP with such majority, the BJP has also ensured that the next Indian president would be of its choice.

More important, the elections indicate the decreasing space for secular parties such as AAP, the SP and the Mayawati-led Bahajun Samaj Party, whose seats in the UP Assembly decreased from 61 in 2012 to just 19 in 2017. In hindsight, the secular parties should have formed a grand alliance against the BJP like they did in the Bihar Assembly elections last year with amazing success. The elections in UP have also put to rest the debate around minority vote, at least for the next few elections.

Analysts, in an attempt to rationalise the BJP’s victory, contend that a large number of Muslim women voted for the BJP in the hope that the party would introduce Uniform Civil Code for Muslims, thus effectively putting an end to the practice of triple talaq. However, others disagree and would rather believe that the BJP’s success is a result of ‘reverse engineering’, whereby Hindus voted en masse for the candidates of their community regardless of their political divide.

When the results of the state elections were announced, the BJP, despite its overwhelming success in UP and Uttarakhand, had reasons to worry like it could not retain Goa and Punjab. However, with smart manoeuvring that is also being dubbed as ‘horse trading’ by rivals, the party is on the brink of forming government in Manipur and Goa where it had won fewer seats than the Congress.

On the other hand, the leadership’s inability to nominate a chief ministerial candidate in Goa put a dampener on the Congress’ otherwise reasonable performance, winning most seats in three of the five states.

In the ultimate analysis, while politically the BJP has been the major beneficiary of these elections, the AAP has hit the rock bottom after its impressive performance in 2014, when it won 67 of the 70 seats in the Delhi Assembly and four of the seven Lok Sabha seats from Punjab.

At the ideological level, the results of the elections have put India’s secularism under threat because all the avowedly secular parties -- the BSP, AAP and SP -- have suffered another jolt after the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, while the proponents of Hindutva have had another field day.

Politically unassailable, Modi would now enjoy unlimited and unhindered powers to pick up the threads of engagement with Pakistan and other neighbouring countries. The election results have given him a new lease of life in the mid of his tenure. The fear that Modi might be emboldened to adopt an aggressive policy towards Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal is not unfounded considering his record. However, the first victims of right-wing ascendency in India would be its secularists!

Shrinking space for secularism