A supporter waves a flag of India's main opposition Congress party at a massive rally at Ramlila Ground, in New Delhi, India Image Credit: Reuters

In the 5 year period between 2018 and 2022, there were 30 state elections, that is, every Indian state had an election (we are counting Delhi and Puducherry as states here, since they have chief ministers).

In every election, the BJP comes up with an ambitious “mission” number. If the state assembly has 100 seats, the BJP election campaign will announce “Mission 65+” or some such number to suggest it is sweeping the election.

Given the BJP’s dominance in Indian politics, how many of these 30 elections do you think the BJP won with a clear majority of its own, without pre- or post-poll allies? In how many of these states did these ambitious “missions” succeed?

25? 20? Or at least 50%, that is 15? Ok, at least 10?

In 5 years, it won only 7 states on its own, fair and square: Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Gujarat, Manipur, Tripura, Arunachal Pradesh, and Goa.

Note that these 7 include only 2 large heartland states which have substantial seats in the Lok Sabha, the lower house of the parliament. And we are being generous in including Goa, where it was actually 1 seat short of majority.

Read more

Not a one-way street

Where the BJP won with an alliance or formed an alliance immediately after election, that should be a large number, right? It’s only another 9 states, and most of them are small north-eastern states. The northeast has a habit of aligning with the centre anyway.

These 9 states are Haryana, Assam, Sikkim, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Puducherry (it’s actually a union territory with an assembly), Bihar and Maharashtra.

In Bihar, the BJP’s ally Janata Dal (United) has dumped them and in Maharashtra their ally Shiv Sena had dumped them after the election.

By contrast, the opposition won Odisha, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Punjab, Jharkhand, Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Telangana, Delhi, and most recently, Himachal Pradesh.

That’s a clean, simple, single-party majority in 13 states, most of them big states. This number would be 14 or 15 if Jammu & Kashmir and Ladakh had assembly elections.

A hung assembly in Karnataka had also led initially to a coalition government of the opposition, fallen like Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh by poaching lawmakers (“Operation Lotus”).

If we look at what really matters — the Chief Minister’s post — then how many chief ministers does the BJP have? Things look a little better here, with 11 CMs. The BJP’s NDA allies have another 6, most of them in small northeastern states.

The opposition has 13 Chief Ministers, many of them in Hindi heartland states, where the BJP sweeps nearly every single seat in the Lok Sabha elections.

Rahul Farooq Abdullah Gandhi Priyanka Bharat Jodo Yatra
Jammu and Kashmir National Conference (JKNC) chief Farooq Abdullah joins Congress leader Rahul Gandhi and party General Secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra during the party's Bharat Jodo Yatra as it enters Uttar Pradesh, in Ghaziabad on Tuesday, Jan 3, 2023. Image Credit: ANI

The India of States

Looking at Indian politics through states, the big picture does not suggest the kind of BJP dominance that the political conversation in and about India now takes for granted.

State politics certainly does not suggest we are on the verge of becoming a one-party state. Indian opposition parties look unnecessarily demoralised.

The reason why the BJP’s dominance feels so overwhelming is because it has a clear majority in the centre, and it is able to use this clear majority to assert itself over states as well.

This feels new to many Indians because they were not born or too young to see how dominant the Congress was even when Rajiv Gandhi won 404/516 seats. When you have a strong centre, the balance of power in Indian federalism naturally shifts away from state capitals.

The BJP also looks stronger than it is because the opposition is divided and not a single party. No amount of kite flying is going to change that. But the lesson here is that opposition Chief Ministers need to be more united. In many ways the tension between centre and states is healthy for Indian federalism.

20200915 Rahul Gandhi, Tejaswi Yadav, Akhilesh Yadav and Aditya Thackeray
Clockwise from top left: Rahul Gandhi, Tejaswi Yadav, Akhilesh Yadav and Aditya Thackeray Image Credit: PTI / Gulf News archives

The federal opportunity

When PM Narendra Modi was chief minister of Gujarat, he used this tension to assert himself as a leader of the Gujarati people, often suggesting that Delhi was being unfair to them. The space that federalism gives regional parties is pregnant with possibilities.

The centre’s dominance often means that we see “Operation Lotus”, with which the BJP manages to install a government even after losing a state election.

Yet the space also allows a three party coalition of opposition parties to rule Maharashtra for 3 years, and it allows Tejasvi Yadav to return to treasury benches in Bihar.

The BJP’s inability to make state elections a one-way contest outside Gujarat and UP also begs the question: what can we learn from state politics about the centre? The answer is leadership. It is thanks to strong leadership in the states that they are often able to win against an all-powerful BJP. That is what is missing at the national level.