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Thumping wins in state polls don't mean India's opposition party can count on victory in next year's national election.
Is India’s main opposition party within sniffing distance of national power after nearly 10 years out in the cold? The short answer: The prospects of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) look much brighter than before, but it’s still far from a shoo-in.
In local election results announced Sunday, the BJP trounced its main rival, the ruling Congress Party, in four key states. By doing so, the BJP has announced that under its charismatic new leader, Narendra Modi, it’s the party to beat in national elections due by next May.
The BJP won more than two-thirds of the 590-odd state assembly seats up for grabs Sunday. BJP incumbent governments retained power in two states (Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh) and scored a crushing win over Congress in Rajasthan, taking more than four-fifths of the seats in the state assembly. In Delhi, too, the BJP emerged as the single largest party. If the BJP mirrors this performance in parliamentary elections in 2014, it would translate into about 50 of the 72 parliamentary seats in the four states.
In Delhi and Rajasthan, Congress not only lost power but plunged to historic lows. Its sole consolation was a win Monday in the tiny northeastern state of Mizoram, which sends just one representative to parliament.
Battered by corruption scandals and economic mismanagement that has driven India’s growth rate to its lowest in a decade, Congress is arguably at its lowest ebb since it was swept from office in 1977 by voters resentful of then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s 21-month suspension of democracy. The scale of the defeat in Rajasthan—a showcase state for the party’s handout-heavy brand of economics—suggests that some voters have begun to demand more than just sops like free medicine and highly subsidized grain.
The party’s 43-year-old heir apparent, fifth-generation Nehru-Gandhi scion Rahul Gandhi, is struggling to capture the public imagination. Mr. Gandhi’s campaign, rooted in sentimentalism about his family’s past, resentment of the rich, and promises of free food and medicine, has failed to fire up voters. At a campaign stop in Delhi, the crowd had to be exhorted not to leave before Mr. Gandhi had even begun to speak.
This week’s electoral victories validate the BJP’s September decision to nominate Mr. Modi, the chief minister of Gujarat, as its prime ministerial candidate. In his first big outing as his party’s de facto leader, Mr. Modi delivered. It is impossible to quantify his contribution to the victory—strong chief ministerial candidates in all four states obviously played a role, too—but there is no denying that his leadership has galvanized party workers and expanded the BJP’s appeal with a message of hope centered on economic development.
Nonetheless, Mr. Modi should hold off on ordering a new bandhgala for his swearing-in as prime minister. A BJP victory in 2014 is hardly guaranteed. The party has ruled India for only six of 66 years since independence (1998-2004). Its strength in northern and western India is offset by weakness in the south and near invisibility in the east. The BJP’s share of the national vote has declined in each of the last three elections, and the party has withered in several states where it once showed promise.
In 2004, while leading the national government, the BJP famously mistook a strong showing in state elections as a harbinger of the national mood and called early elections—only to be defeated by Congress.
The Hindi-speaking states where the BJP won this week all happen to be ones where it has long enjoyed a strong presence. If state elections had instead been held in, say, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, West Bengal and Kerala, the results would have looked dramatically different.
Moreover, the surprising success of the Aam Aadmi (Common Man) Party ought to keep BJP election managers up at night. In national elections, this new anti-corruption party could siphon away the urban voters on whom a BJP comeback depends in large measure.
On Sunday, AAP denied the BJP a clean 4-0 sweep by drawing away many anti-Congress voters who otherwise would have likely supported the BJP. The upstart young party effectively prevented the BJP from consolidating the anti-Congress vote. If it can replicate its success in other cities next year—an unlikely but not impossible prospect—it will rob the BJP of many of the seats it must wrest from Congress to have a viable shot at forming the next government.
The BJP today is better placed to seize power than at any time since its shock defeat in 2004, but improved odds are not the same as assured victory. Whether the party will build on its momentum or squander it remains an open question.
Mr. Dhume is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a columnist for WSJ.com. Follow him on Twitter @dhume.
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