India is the largest working democracy in the world and elections have always been the legal and valid mechanism to change governments both at the center and the states since its independence from the British rule in 1947. Just a few days ago, the state legislative assembly elections were held in the states of Assam, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal and Puducherry, a Union territory. It is interesting to note that all these elections took place during the Covid 19 led pandemic. In fact, the Covid situation marred the electioneering process to a great extent. The elections in all of these states and Union Territory kicked off in March and were held in phases. Once the elections were over the counting of votes took place on 2 May. Other than Assam, all these states' governments were run by parties other than Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the ruling party at the center. Here it may be noted that the BJP is serving its second consecutive term at the center. The party was bent upon to extend its sway by winning the elections in all these states and thereby forming its own governments. For this reason, the central party stalwarts like the Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Home Minister Amit Shah and chief ministers of other BJP run states made a number of election campaign visits to these states. As part of strategies, BJP employed everything from promises of investments, employment creations and even promoting alleged communal divide. The other approach used to bring in its fold the politicians of other parties through desertion. But in the end nothing worked in the major states like West Bengal, Tamil Nadu and Kerala. Here it may be noted that these states have a long tradition of electing Communists and regional parties. In the states of West Bengal and Kerala the Communists have been in state power for many times. In West Bengal they remained in power for an uninterrupted period of more than three decades. Then Trinomul Congress was in power for the last two consecutive terms. In the case of Kerala, the Communists were in and out of power for a couple of times. Here it needs to be mentioned that the Indian National Congress ruled India uninterrupted from 1947-1977. In fact, the Congress has been the only all India political party having formed governments both at the center and the states for many years. From the 70’s, the regional parties like the Communists particularly in West Bengal and Keralamade their headways in state politics by winning elections and forming governments defeating primarily the ruling Congress party.Thus from the 70’s, the Congress as an all India party began to encounter stiff competition of the regional parties particularly at the state level. Moreover, the mid-seventies has been a watershed period in the history of Indian politics after its independence in 1947. It all started with the promulgation of the State of Emergency in the country by the government led by Mrs. Indira Gandhi. Excesses done during the emergency disillusioned cross section of people who used to vote for the Congress particularly in the general or Lok Shava elections. This provided an opportunity and a glimmer of hope to the other political parties which were in reality no competitors at all to the Congress to form a political Party called ‘Janata Party’ through a process of merger. Thus formed Janata Party won the Lok Shava elections and formed the government at the center by defeating the long invincible the All India Congress Party (Indira). The political parties those merged to form the Janata Party included the Congress (Organization), Bharatiya Jana Sangha, Bharatiya Lok Dal and Socialist Party of India as well as defectors from the Congress (Indira). But the Janata Party did not last long as the ruling party at the center because of continuous in-fighting and ideological differences. In 1979, the Prime Minister Morarji Desai had to resign and Chaudhury Charan Singh of the erstwhile Lok Dal succeeded him but failed to continue as the Prime Minister as the majority alliance partners did not lend him necessary support in the Parliament to prove his majority. This led to the reemergence of Indira Gandhi and her Congress (I) which won the general election, 1980. Meanwhile, the Janata Party formed in 1977 fragmented and dissolved. However, later the term "Janata" has been used by several political parties such as theBharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Janata Dal (United), Rastriya Janata Dal and Biju Janata Dal to name some. But it is interesting to note here that over the years, the BJP has only been successful in expanding its support base throughout India. The BJP’s rise currently as the largest political party in India is quite dramatic and sensational. It has been the ruling party at the federal level since 2014. As a political party, its policy has historically reflected religion based nationalist positions. It has historical close ideological and organizational links to Rastriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). But as a political party it was known as the Bharatiya Jana Sangh.It became part of the mainstream political process by merging with several other political parties to form the Janata Party that won the 1997 General Election. As a result, merged Janasangha also became for the first time a part of the government thus formed by the victorious Janata Party as part of the coalition. As stated earlier, the JanataParty could stay in power for about 3 years until fighting caused the breakup or dismantling of the Janata Party. In the midst, the members of the erstwhile Jana Sangh formed the current political party called the BJP. Although initially unsuccessful, it grew strength over time. Following victories in several state elections and better performances in national elections, the BJP became the largest party in the parliament in 1996 and formed the government that lasted only for 13 days as it failed to prove its majority in the Parliament. After 1998, the BJP led coalition known as the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) formed a government that lasted for a year. Following fresh elections, the NDA won and the new government it formed lasted for a full term in office. However, for the next ten years the BJP was the principal opposition party under the Congress led government. But in 2014, Narendra Modi, longtime Chief Minister of Gujrat, led the party to a landslide victory and formed the government at the center. The BJP repeated the same feat and again formed government in 2019 for the second consecutive term. At the state level, the BJP led NDA alliance formed governments in majority of them. The BJP during its rule under Modi did well in the economic front. The economy was growing at a very fast rate. However, things in the economic front took a great jolt in the negative direction due to the pandemic caused by the Covid 19 virus. On the political front, the BJP government took a number of controversial measures. For instance, the abrogation of Article 370 of the Indian Constitution that provided special status to the state of Jammu and Kashmir. Political discontentment has already been there in the said state the abrogation of the Article 370 further complicated the situation. The BJP also embarked on different issues relating to citizenships in different states. This also caused resentments and apprehensions in certain states and among minority communities especially the Muslim. In recent times, the BJP has also increasingly been criticised for alleged curbing of freedom of expressions and press freedom. However, the most damaging of all is the current handling of the Covid situation in the country particularly in the capital city of Delhi. It has been widely reported in the world media including Indian that the health system completely collapsed causing deaths and sufferings to tens of thousands of Covid patients due to lack of Oxygen support. The situation went out of control of the government that it had to ask for international help and assistance to mitigate the situation. Countries around the world including Bangladesh also responded to the call and extended medical assistance to the suffering people of India.
Experiences suggest that in any election in India the performances of the ruling party are always evaluated and the voters cast their votes based on those evaluations. This is true both in the case of general and state elections. The excesses done during the Emergency promulgated by the Congress led to its defeat after about 30 years in power after the independence of 1947. The Janata Party that replaced Congress in 1997 could not complete its 5 year tenure because of in -fighting and mismanagement of the state affairs. Because of that failure, in the next general election, people voted them out and brought in the Congress again. In the states, in the later years of independence, the regional parties gained footholds by championing local developmental issues and problems. The all India political parties had to accept this reality and formed alliances with them especially during the general elections to gain majority seats in the lower house of the Parliament, the Lok Shava. From the mid- seventies election alliances have become quite common in India both at the center and the states. In the just concluded state elections, the performances of the BJP as the ruling party in the center were evaluated and the people gave their verdicts against it in West Bengal, Kerala and Tamil Nadu though it gained some grounds in some of these states. The next Indian general election is scheduled to be held in 2024 to elect the members of Lok Sabha. It appears that electoral alliances will play the key role in deciding the fate of the political parties in winning elections and forming government at the center. It seems this fact is true both for the ruling BJP and other political parties like the Congress and other regional based parties. Other than the BJP and the Congress through now in shambles none has India wide presence as political parties. To some extent, the communists in some form or other have party structure in most of the states. But they have already lost their strongholds in West Bengal and Tripura. Only in Kerala, they have been able to hold grounds. In Indian general election, the Hindi speaking belt plays a crucial role. This belt comprises of Bihar, Delhi, Haryana, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh. These were earlier strongholds of the All India Congress. In the course of time, different regional parties came into prominence in these states. Some of these parties also formed governments either alone or with support from other parties. The other states like the Punjab, Himachal and Jammu and Kashmir in the north- west and those in the South like, Andhra, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka have a long and strong tradition of having regional parties with the record of winning state elections several times.Given the reality that the BJP is already serving two consecutive terms at the center, the other all India party like the Congress will be bent upon to win the next general election.The regional big parties having presence in a number of states like the SP, BHP, Delegu Desham Party, DMK and AIIDMK (won in Tamil Nadu)that are out of state power for quite sometimes will also try to stage a comeback in the political scenes of states and the center. The Trinomul Congress of West Bengal led by Momota Banerjee will also try to grab in the opportunities to catapult to the national level politics as her party comprehensively beaten the BJP in the just concluded state election. She will also most likely to vie for the leadership role as the Prime Ministerial candidate at the national level in the coming years. It will be very interesting to see how the political parties both, national and regional, play their cards especially during the 2024 general election. But whatever may be the scenario that might emerge during the election, the strategy of alliance that also includes the ruling BJP will be the ultimate deciding factor to win the election and form the government at the center.
(The different sources of information are acknowledged with gratitude)
The writer is a Professor, Department of Public Administration, University of Dhaka.