Bihar 2015: Indian democracy still works

The ‘Modi wave’ has been flattened in Bihar, one of India’s biggest states.

This past Sunday, the Electoral Commission announced the results. The BJP, the national ruling party since the 2014 federal election, was trounced.

A ‘Grand Alliance’, including among its main components two state parties (one of which formerly ruled the state in alliance with the BJP) and the Indian National Congress (INC), won an overwhelming majority. According to results currently posted on the Commission’s front page, the BJP remained the largest single party in votes (24.4%), but the combined votes of the three main grand alliance partners came to 41.9%. Other smaller parties that participated in the “seat-sharing” (whereby one of the partners represents the alliance in a given constituency) bring the total to around 46%. Of the main alliance partners, the Rashtriya Janata Dal won 80 of the 243 seats, the Janata Dal (United) won 71, and the INC 27.

The total alliance seat take represents over 73% of the seats, offering a stark reminder of just how disproportional the FPTP system can be, especially when multiple parties cooperate and there is a relatively uniform swing.

I had suggested back in May, 2014, that I did not think the BJP win meant a fundamental change in how the country would be governed, despite the fact that the BJP had won big in Bihar itself in the national election. The outcome of the Bihar election is yet another reminder of the centrality of alliance politics in India.

Maharashtra 2014: BJP taking post-poll support from ex-ally of Congress

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) continues to show signs of seeking to break out of the post-1998 pattern of two large pre-electoral coalitions that have taken turns governing India. While the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) remains the governing formula at the federal level despite BJP having a majority of seats, the BJP played serious hardball in the recent campaign for the Maharastra state assembly. In elections on 15 October, the BJP won 119 of the 288 seats (41.3%). It appears that it will take “outside support”–i.e. post-electoral cooperation but no governing coalition–from the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP). While the Times of India on 19 October referred to this offer of support as “unexpected“, it was pretty clearly foreshadowed by the frenetic reshaping and ultimately breaking of alliances in the week leading up to the deadline to declare candidacies.

The significance of these developments is that the BJP has an alliance at the federal level with a Maharastra-specific party, the Shiv Sena. In the Lok Sabha election earlier this year, these parties continued their pre-election alliance, in which the parties agree not to compete against each other in districts and to support one another’ candidates. It appeared as if the alliance was critical to the strong BJP performance in the state in those elections. Further, Shiv Sena sits in the federal cabinet of BJP PM Narendra Modi. Meanwhile, the NCP is (or was) an alliance partner of the Indian National Congress Party (INC), in both the 2004-2014 federal government and in the state of Maharashtra until the run-up to these elections. The INC and NCP ruled the state in alliance for 15 years.

In late September, there was a flurry of media reports of a “seat-sharing row” between the BJP and the Shiv Sena, with the former demanding the right to contest districts currently held by the latter. The BJP was explicit in saying that there had been a “Modi wave” and that it was thereby entitled to a larger share of the districts. Meanwhile, the NCP played hardball with its ally, Congress (INC), demanding additional seats and an alternation in the Chief Minister’s post.

On 25 September, days before the candidate-filing deadline, the BJP announced it was dumping its ally, Shiv Sena. Barely an hour later, the NCP broke its alliance with the INC.

Given the concurrence of the demands from the national partner (BJP) against its ally and against the BJP’s national rival by a state partner (NCP), and the quick succession of the two announcements, it is hard to believe it was not being coordinated. It was seemingly foreshadowing the formation of a BJP-NCP post-poll alliance if the BJP won the most seats, but not a majority. And, of course, that is precisely what happened.

It was all quite dramatic, and it appears to be part of a BJP strategy of supplanting its erstwhile allies in favor of single-party minority government (when a majority is not (yet) in reach). It is especially telling that it would prefer to take outside support from an erstwhile Congress ally instead of continue a relationship with its own former pre-poll partners. (The Shiv Sena, contesting alone, won 61 seats, according to preliminary results, while the NCP won 42 (and Congress 44); BJP is 27 seats short of a majority.)

In my first post-election entry on the Indian federal result, I said that I doubted the BJP majority meant a re-writing of the fundamental rules of Indian politics. Yet the pre-poll and post-poll politics in Maharashtra suggests the BJP is attempting just such a re-write. Several key state elections are coming up in the next year, and the NDA partners have been put on notice.

AAP minority government of Delhi resigns

Well, that did not last long. Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal of the Aam Admi Party (AAP) tendered his resignation today after his minority government was refused support by both Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party for tabling its signature Jan Lokpal Bill to create an anti-corruption body.

The federal dimension of the Indian system is critical to the story here, as the Congress, which had earlier promised support (at one time even saying it would be “unconditional”) to the AAP, is now claiming that an anti-corruption bill for Dehli can’t be submitted without clearance from the central (Congress-led) government.

The legislators from the Congress and BJP who voted today to prevent him from tabling the Jan Lokpal Bill say they support the proposal, but cannot ignore the fact that it has been vetoed by Delhi’s constitutional head, Lieutenant Governor Najeeb Jung. The chief minister had firmly rejected the opinion that before it is presented for review in the legislature, the bill must be vetted by the Lieutenant Governor as a representative of the centre.

Of course, the underlying story here is that the BJP expects it might lead the next central government, after elections in April-May this year. The upstart AAP is one of its principal competitors in some parts of the country for voters turning away from the Congress party. If the resignation holds, most likely the assembly would be put in “suspended animation” under rule from the center until new elections would be held. Those elections could be concurrent with the federal election.

For background on December’s Delhi assembly election and formation of the government, see my earlier post.