By Robert Poulson-Houser
On September 12, the Election Commission of India announced that Haryana and Maharashtra will hold state elections on October 15, with results to be announced on October 19. This is the first real test for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to show that its victory in the April-May parliamentary elections—and mandate for economic reform—is just as pronounced at the state-level. The potential gains for the BJP in winning state elections are threefold:
- Secures more votes in the 2017 presidential elections
- Increases the party’s weak representation in the upper house of parliament (Rajya Sabha)
- Expands the number of states likely to adopt economic policies aligned with Modi’s own development agenda
Winning Maharashtra, the second most populous state in the country, would be a major victory for Modi and his allies, though recent history is against them. The last two state elections in Maharashtra have been carried by an alliance formed between the Indian National Congress (INC) and the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), while the BJP has an alliance with the Shiv Sena (SHS). In 2009 the INC/NCP coalition won a combined 144 seats, compared to 90 for the BJP/ SHS coalition. The 2004 results were similar, with INC/NCP winning 140 seats, compared to 125 for the BJP/SHS coalition. Despite past defeats, the BJP and Shiv Sena are mounting a formidable challenge to the INC/NCP hold on the state in the run-up to October 15.The BJP won 23 out of 48 seats in the recent parliament election, and the Shiv Sena won 18 — and recent opinion polls suggest that the BJP/SHS could do similarly well in the state election next month.
The biggest challenge to the BJP’s rise in Maharashtra could be its own ambitions. For the past 25 years, the BJP and the SHS have “seat shared” in Maharashtra, dividing up the seats so that voting blocs stay intact. Since party leaders struck this deal 25 years ago, the SHS has contested 169 seats, while the BJP went after 119. Following the overwhelming victory of Modi and fellow BJP members in the Lok Sabha, the party’s ambitions in Maharashtra have grown. The BJP now wants 15 more seats from the SHS, with some BJP factions calling for a fifty-fifty split between the two parties. SHS Chief Uddhav Thackeray has denied the BJP request for evenly splitting the seats, implying that the SHS could strike out on its own rather than compromise. While this rift’s outcome is unclear, an end to the BJP-SHS alliance would be a high hurdle to the BJP’s chances of controlling Maharashtra.
In the 2009 Legislative Assembly of Haryana elections, the INC won 40 seats out of the 90 available, while the BJP claimed only 4 seats. 2005 was even worse for the BJP, as they took 2 seats compared to the INC’s impressive 67. This is not to say that the BJP will fare as poorly this time around, as the BJP just won seven out of the 10 Lok Sabha seats in Haryana and party officials are optimistic about the party’s chances in the state assembly as well. Furthermore, the INC’s image has been tarnished by corruption allegations related to land allocation and the non-competitive appointment of jobs.
The BJP currently controls 5 state legislatures: Gujarat, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Goa and Chhattisgarh. BJP allies in the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) control 3 other states: Punjab,
Telangana Nagaland, and Andhra Pradhesh, along with the Union Territory of Puducherry. Victories in Maharashtra and Haryana would create a contiguous bloc of BJP-controlled states, meaning that development of the Delhi-Mumbai industrial corridor will be easier to control from New Delhi. Winning Maharashtra and Haryana would give the BJP the ability to implement the “Gujarat model” across a larger swath of states. If the BJP is successful, it will strengthen its position in the next presidential election, and increase its likelihood of winning a majority of seats in the Rajya Sabha.