Lessons for BJP

The Opposition alliance of the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM), Congress, and the Rashtriya Janata Dal comfortably crossed the halfway mark in the Jharkhand Assembly elections. The incumbent state government, under the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Chief Minister Raghubar Das, has certainly seen the mandate of the people withdrawn. One thing is clear: The contestation and political competition that are not really visible at the Central level are alive and well in India’s states. One more state, and this the crucial resource-rich state of Jharkhand, has slipped out of the BJP’s grasp. This follows the devastating loss of Maharashtra after negotiations with its long-time ally, the Shiv Sena, broke down in the context of a poorer than expected performance by the BJP.

Indian voters have several times in recent years demonstrated an ability to detach the state and national political narratives. Something similar may be at work in Jharkhand, and the Aam Aadmi Party will be devoutly hoping that voters focus on local issues and its performance in power during the Delhi Assembly elections in February. For the BJP, it is a timely reminder that in state elections, which are fought frequently on issues of service delivery and livelihoods, its handling of the economy is causing it distinct political distress. It must stop being distracted by various social issues from its main task of reviving the economy. If it continues to dissipate political capital and administrative energy on other issues, then political setbacks at the state level are likely to multiply. It is time perhaps for the BJP to look once again at how it intends to win state-level elections. It needs to invest in new state leaders who are distinguished not by their loyalty to the central leadership or to the party’s ideology but who can create followings of their own, thanks to their performance, sub-national appeal, and charisma — much like Narendra Modi did as chief minister in Gujarat. The Jharkhand verdict has sent out a clear signal that the image of Mr Modi, despite his enduring personal popularity, has limitations as a mascot when it comes to state elections.

It is almost certain that Hemant Soren of the JMM will be sworn in as chief minister of Jharkhand. The party of the Jharkhand agitation has successfully navigated the transition to being a “regular” political party better than many of its analogues elsewhere. But Jharkhand’s new leadership should keep in mind the reasons for their predecessors’ relative unpopularity. Jharkhand needs infrastructure, investment, and service delivery. It is, of course, important to ensure social inclusion. But without growth inclusion is difficult to attain, and voters express their disappointment through the ballot box. The party should also be on guard against a tendency in recent years by new state administrations to demand wholesale renegotiation or to cancel contracts signed by the previous incumbents. There may be questions worth asking about deals made by the previous government — there often are — but any decisions should not be precipitate and made only after transparent investigations. Jharkhand needs investors, and the new government cannot afford to put off investors.


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