Where are the state leaders?

A relatively new trend in India’s Assembly elections is the unfortunate decline of state-level leaders of national political parties. It is a trend that may have got lost in the heat and dust over the flurry of Assembly election results that were declared on Monday. Rural stress may well have cost the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) several Assembly seats in rural Gujarat, just as the transient nature of the adverse impact of the goods and services tax (GST) on trade and small enterprises may have failed to make any significant dent on the BJP’s vote bank. But far more important and significant for India’s electoral politics are the disturbing signs of disappearing local leaders of national political parties.

Till a couple of years ago, Assembly elections were fought largely on the strength of local leaders of national political parties in fray. Maharashtra, Assam and Punjab experienced the might of the local leaders from both the BJP and the Congress. They fought these Assembly elections using their grassroots knowledge of the states they represented and their popularity with the local people. 

Devendra Fadnavis, Sarbananda Sonowal, and Amarinder Singh are a few of the strong local leaders, whose popularity and following played a key role in the final outcome of the Assembly elections in these states. Each of them held a key party position in his respective state before playing a leading role in helping his party to win the Assembly election. Of course, national leaders like Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Amit Shah, president of the BJP, and Rahul Gandhi, who is now the Congress president, campaigned hard during all the Assembly elections in these states. But the state leadership in these elections was a strong force to be reckoned with. 

In that context, the Assembly elections in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh are a departure and confirm a trend that began with the polls in Uttar Pradesh earlier this year. Not that the BJP or the Congress did not have any local leaders occupying senior and important positions. There were plenty of them. But the role they played in the elections and the profile they enjoyed during the campaigns were relatively insignificant. Mr Modi, Mr Shah, and Mr Gandhi towered above them all when it came to campaigning during the elections. 

Consider the polls in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh. Does anybody remember what all was said during the campaign by Vijay Rupani, the BJP chief minister of Gujarat, or Prem Kumar Dhumal, the BJP’s chief ministerial candidate in Himachal Pradesh, or for that matter Shaktisinh Gohil, the Congress heavyweight in Gujarat, and Virbhadra Singh, the outgoing Congress chief minister of Himachal Pradesh? The campaigning, particularly in Gujarat, was virtually monopolised by Mr Modi and Mr Gandhi. Indeed, two of these local leaders lost their elections – Mr Dhumal in Himachal Pradesh and Mr Gohil in Gujarat, in contrast to the performance of their respective parties – the BJP won Himachal Pradesh with a thumping majority and the Congress increased its seats tally by 16 in Gujarat. 

The irony is that both the national political parties are celebrating the victory of their national leaders in these elections. The BJP is busy propagating how its victory in Gujarat established once again the Modi magic and the prime minister’s charisma. And the Congress is patting itself on the back saying that the Gujarat polls have heralded the rise of Rahul Gandhi as the party’s new leader, who could challenge the BJP. These are all justified claims. But these two parties are so preoccupied with their national leaders that nobody seems to be shedding any tear for the poor performance of some of their top local leaders or examining why they had to suffer such a setback. 

Along with the worrying decline in the importance of state-level leaders of national political parties, these Assembly polls also point to the increasing irrelevance of local issues in such electoral battles. Rural distress or the disruption of the GST were issues that the Congress raised. But these were not strictly local issues. The slow rise in agricultural income is a problem that affects farmers across the country. The disruptions caused by the GST are being felt in all corners of the country. The BJP’s campaign on development also had a larger appeal that virtually converted an electoral battle for a state Assembly into a referendum on national issues.

The election manifestos released by these two political parties do refer to local issues and concerns, but the dominant narrative of the campaigns fought by the BJP and the Congress had little trace of those issues. This was largely because the campaigns were fought by their national leaders. While their immediate goal was to win the Assembly elections, but their more important long-term goal was to secure their prospects at the next general elections. The current battleground was the state Assembly, but the real fight was for the Lok Sabha in 2019.

Such an approach does not augur well for either the BJP or the Congress. Apart from neglecting governance issues in states, the predominance of national leaders and national issues even in Assembly elections can create a leadership void that could have serious consequences for political succession. Already, state leaders including chief ministers are reluctant to be part of the government at the Centre as they do not want to lose their power and independence. It would be even more unfortunate if national political parties expropriate whatever space that still belongs to the state-level leaders. Both the BJP and the Congress must develop and nurture a strong team of state-level leaders and allow them to have their space and grow into their respective roles with responsibilities. Such a spirit of cooperative federalism is critical not just for the BJP, but also for the Congress.

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