By Richard M. Rossow —
Results of five Indian state elections were released on December 11, 2018. Congress unseated the incumbent Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) governments in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, and Chhattisgarh. Regional parties won the elections in Telangana and Mizoram. The BJP’s losses and, to a lesser extent, the failure of a Congress-led coalition in Telangana, may slightly help the BJP in the 2019 national election. These state results will put a serious dent into plans to create a grand coalition against the BJP, as regional parties sense the BJP’s weakness. And the BJP itself will likely redouble efforts to shore up partners itself.
The BJP has dominated state elections over the last five years, as well as the 2014 national election—becoming the first party in 30 years to win a single-party majority. The party also improved the number of states it led from 5 up to 15 over this period. While much of this electoral success came at the expense of the Congress Party, India’s powerful regional parties were also concerned that the BJP would continue to widen its map of electoral success. An existential threat can create some interesting bedfellows.
The concept of an anti-BJP coalition saw early success in state election in Bihar in late 2015. The BJP had won 22 of 40 Parliament seats from Bihar in 2014. Two local parties, the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and the Janata Dal-United (JD-U), managed to put aside their mutual animosity to lead a coalition of other anti-BJP parties, and found success. The BJP won only 53 of 243 seats in the state. This anti-BJP coalition in Bihar was short-lived (the JD-U rebuilt its partnership with the BJP in mid-2017) but served its narrow electoral purpose.
Building anti-BJP coalitions in other state elections has been less successful, and the BJP continued its streak of electoral successes. But with the national election approaching in the spring of 2019, the Congress Party—feeling relatively weak—was leading an effort to cobble together a major pre-election coalition. The thinking is that if Congress can work with leading regional parties in key states like Uttar Pradesh, Congress has more to gain in giving up seats to local partners but blocking the BJP’s ability to win seats. In October I looked at this strategy in a bit more detail for Bloomberg Quint in a piece titled “India Election 2019: The Congress Coalition Conundrum” where I looked at coalition opportunities in India’s 15 largest states, representing 85% of India’s Parliament seats. Some of these state-level coalitions appear wildly unrealistic, unless driven—as in Bihar—by an “existential crisis.”
The BJP’s electoral machine has certainly hit a bumpy patch. Some of these bumps are more perception than reality, such as the feeling they “lost” Karnataka in the May 2018 election. The party doubled its seats, winning far more seats than its two rivals, Congress and the Janata Dal-Secular. Yet because the BJP was not able to form the government, the state election was akin to a defeat. Now, with losing multiple states in contests that were largely head-to-head against Congress, the feeling that the BJP’s fortunes are declining is amplified. The “existential crisis” of Congress and regional parties is far less palpable.
In addition, the concept of a “grand coalition” failed in Telangana. Congress pulled together multiple regional parties and the Communist Party of India for a wide-ranging pre-election coalition aiming to unseat the incumbent Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) government. Yet the incumbent TRS increased its seat total from 63 to 88. Congress and the Telugu Desam Party (TDP), the two main parties in the anti-TRS coalition, both lost seats.
The BJP remains the main political target across India. They will head into the 2019 national election as the incumbent single-party majority party, and in charge of India’s three largest states (Bihar as a junior coalition partner). Some level of coalition-building against the BJP is inevitable, particularly looking at traditional Congress allies such as the National Congress Party (NCP) and the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD). But the ability to lure in non-traditional partners, at least before the election, is certainly diminished. And the BJP’s interest in shoring up key partners is strengthened.
Richard M. Rossow is a senior fellow and holds the Wadhwani Chair in U.S.-India Policy Studies at CSIS.