Decoding BJP's shrinking footprint: With Jharkhand defeat, the party loses 5 states in 2019 alone

The BJP enters 2020 at its lowest ebb

bjp-glasses-pti A supporter wears a pair of sunglasses with the election symbol of BJP during a march in support of CAA | Reuters

The JMM-led three-party opposition alliance, including Congress and the RJD,  stormed to power in Jharkhand on Monday, ousting the BJP in yet another state in the Hindi heartland, a development that could have profound implications for the country. The Raghubar Das government's feat of providing a stable government that lasted a full five-year term in a state where chief ministers struggle to finish a single term did not cut ice with the electorate, which decided to repose faith in a coalition that fought over seats and broke up five years ago.

Contesting the state assembly elections alone for the first time sans long-standing ally the AJSU Party, the ruling BJP bagged 25 seats, five less than the JMM which led the table, clinching 30 in the 81-member House. The JMM-led alliance, which also has the Congress and the RJD, secured 45 seats, way above the majority mark of 41. Of the 75 seats, the JMM won 29 seats, the Congress 15 and the RJD 1, as per the results available till yesterday night. CM Das tendered his resignation. 

What explains the BJP defeat?

Magnitude of loss

With Jharkhand joining the growing list of states slipping out of BJP's rule, the party now governs mere 35 per cent of the country's landmass in comparison to over 71 per cent during its peak in 2017, when it was in power in the entire Hindi-speaking heartland.

Its string of losses in states despite the massive victory in the April-May Lok Sabha elections may force the party's top brass to revisit its strategy for the assembly polls as it prepares for the upcoming battles in Delhi and Bihar. The percentage of population being governed by the BJP in the states, either on its own or with its allies, now stands at around 43 per cent from over 69 per cent two years back, data analysis show.

In all three state which have gone to the polls since Prime Minister Narendra Modi led the BJP to a landslide win in the general election, the party's vote share has fallen by big margins compared to the Lok Sabha polls. The saffron party's vote share was more than 55 per cent in Jharkhand and 58 per cent in Haryana in the Lok Sabha elections. However, it slumped to 33 per cent and 36 per cent respectively in the assembly polls in these two states, held barely a few months after the general elections.

Significantly, the party has suffered losses in states at a time when it has been successful in fulfilling its longstanding ideological promises, including nullifying Article 370, criminalising the practice of triple talaq and enacting Citizenship Amendment Act. The Supreme Court's verdict in favour of building a Ram Temple in Ayodhaya was also a big boost to the BJP. Top party leaders in election rallies spoke at length about these "achievements" under the Modi government but the voting returns have been less than what they might have expected.

Also, the victory of the JMM-Congress alliance in Jharkhand has come as a moral booster for opposition unity and for the grand old party seeking to become relevant again in Indian politics after suffering two successive defeats in general elections. Party leaders feel that the BJP is not invincible and can be defeated if like-minded parties get together. This, they feel, has been proved right in some states and the experiment can be implemented in upcoming polls.

Though the Congress has returned to power in seven states with the latest victory in Jharkhand, its last two successes have come primarily with the support of allies. While Congress is in power in the states of Punjab, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Puducherry on its own, it has come to power in Maharashtra and Jharkhand jointly with the support of its allies Shiv Sena and NCP and Jharkhand Mukti Morcha.

Series of setbacks

The BJP, which had posted a spectacular victory in the Lok Sabha election in the middle of the year, was yet to score a convincing triumph in an assembly election since.

In the two assembly elections held after the Lok Sabha polls, the party failed to win a clear majority in Haryana, where it had to ally with Dushyant Chautala's Jannayak Janta Party to cobble together a government.

In all, the party has lost its fifth government of 2019, with setbacks in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan and Maharashtra. Congress won by the skin of its neck in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, while the BJP was routed in Chhattisgarh. 

The BJP emerged as the single largest party in Maharashtra where it fought the polls together with its oldest ally Shiv Sena. The two together could have easily formed a government which may have lasted for five years, but irreconcilable differences between the two Hindutva parties saw the Shiv Sena do the unthinkable—align with the Congress and its offshoot NCP—and form a government.

What led to the defeats?

The last two phases of the five-stage polling in Jharkhand were held after the passage of the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill and both Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah had made a strong pitch in its support. However, the state, with a substantial Muslim population, seemed to have rejected the CAA as also the idea of a nation-wide National Register of Citizens (NRC). A spate of incidents of lynching of Muslims over suspicion of cattle theft is likely to have caused a polarisation of Muslim votes against the current dispensation that went against the BJP.

Moreover, the BJP's failure to carry forward its alliance with Sudesh Mahato's AJSU Party also appeared to have cost it dearly. Mahatos are a sub-caste of OBC Kurmis, which have a significant presence in both Bihar and Jharkhand. Their alienation had a compounding effect as the JD(U), the BJP's partner in Bihar's ruling coalition, contested assembly elections in Jharkhand independently. This might have dented the BJP's OBC vote bank. JD(U) supremo Nitish Kumar is a Kurmi by caste. The JD(U) failed to open its account.

Political watchers believe that the BJP may have to reconsider its tactic of backing leaders from non-dominant communities in assembly elections, as consolidation of Jat, Maratha and tribal votes against it is seen to be one of the reasons behind its below par performance in Haryana, Maharashtra and Jharkhand respectively. If the Haryana and Maharashtra results gave the BJP something to cling to, its defeat in Jharkhand was absolute as, for the first time since the state's formation, the party has not emerged as the single largest. 

Then there are the local issues. The poll results indicate that local and real issues of farm crisis, economy and unemployment have found more resonance at the ground and that bodes well for the opposition in future polls to win back states from the BJP.

Upcoming Delhi, Bihar polls

The Jharkhand poll results indicate that people are concerned about local issues, senior AAP leader Sanjay Singh said on Monday, calling it a "good sign" for his party which he claimed has consistently been working on factors like health and education. Results of the assembly polls in Jharkhand sent ripples through the political waters of Bihar. Elections are due in both states in less than one year.

Maharashtra BJP leader Devendra Fadnavis on Monday night called for recalibration in strategy for the states where the saffron party is facing a challenge from a united opposition bloc. "We will have to manoeuvre our politics in such a way that where there are multiple parties, we will have to do politics of over 40 per cent (to secure that much vote share) and where there are two parties, we will have to emphasise on [securing the vote share of] over 50 per cent," the former chief minister told reporters. 

-Inputs from PTI