No end of the road for the Congress

Here’s a look at the Congress Party’s national prospects, first published as an oped in the Hindustan Times:

After a merciless series of election defeats since 2014, it’s tempting to write off the Congress as a leading national force. With few visible signs of a Congress revival, some argue that India’s regional parties are now the main bulwark against the BJP.

This certainly seems to be the case with the next big state election: Uttar Pradesh in 2017. The Congress is very much the underdog, with the BSP seemingly best positioned to beat back the BJP. The Congress’ current irrelevance was shown up — if in a small way — in the two recent UP by-elections where, in the absence of the BSP, voters dissatisfied with the Samajwadi Party gravitated towards the BJP.

But it may well be premature to write off the Congress. Even in its present nadir, the Congress is either the ruling party or the principal opposition in six of India’s 12 largest states (which account for 80% of the Lok Sabha seats). The BJP, at its current zenith, is one or the other in six states, although it clearly hopes to add UP to this list soon. Obviously ruling a state counts for more than being the opposition, but the Congress remains the only feasible alternative in a big swath of the country. Recall that the party ruled only two such states (Orissa and Madhya Pradesh) when Sonia Gandhi took over in March 1998. In military terms, the party’s intentions might seem suicidal to some, but its capabilities cannot be ignored.

Things will remain tricky for the party through early 2017. It will need to put in a respectable performance in UP, which at a minimum means winning enough seats to affect government formation in the state. It will have to fight off a challenge from the Aam Aadmi Party in Punjab and retain some of the smaller states. This won’t be easy: The BJP could lose a third of its 2014 UP vote of 42% in a four-way race and still have a chance of winning the state.

But once the Congress is past this stage, opportunities may begin to open up in Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, all of which are ruled by the BJP and together account for 91 of the 543 parliamentary seats. The Congress won just three of the 91 in 2014. As tempting as it is to project BJP’s invincibility indefinitely into the future, the fact is that all of these governments are vulnerable to a challenge, and the Congress will be the only party positioned to take advantage.

Gujarat has been plagued by a Patidar agitation and its chief minister is facing allegations of cronyism. The three-term Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh governments are also battling corruption charges, while Rajasthan tends to seesaw between the BJP and Congress (although the BJP will also be defending a large vote margin — as the AIADMK just managed in Tamil Nadu). The Congress will be in danger of losing its last major state, Karnataka, but the risks will weigh against the BJP.

So how does any of this matter? Despite the 2014 Modi wave, the national landscape is still shaped by state politics. While dissatisfaction with the UPA was obviously a factor, the data from the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies show that satisfaction with the ruling state government was perhaps the most important determinant of voting. Consider that the Congress’ 2014 vote share in Karnataka actually rose in comparison with 2013; but the BJP gained seats because of its merger with BS Yeddyurappa’s splinter party.

It is possible, as many commentators assert, that the Indian voter’s disenchantment with the Congress is irreversible. But it’s too easy to extrapolate the most recent trend into the future. Nationally, the Congress is positioned to the left of the BJP, ready to reap any disappointment with Narendra Modi’s development rhetoric, possesses a deep bench of younger leaders and has more boots on the ground than any other contender.

And if the party shakes off its stupor and survives the UP and Punjab elections, it has the chance to take the battle to the BJP heartland.

Advertisements

A tax too far

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s minority status in the Rajya Sabha has proven to be a big impediment to its legislative goals, and the long-delayed Goods and Services Tax (GST) — which needs a 2/3rds majority in the Rajya Sabha to pass — seems as distant as ever.

In the Rajya Sabha elections held for 12 seats this week in Assam, Kerala, Nagaland, Punjab and Tripura, the Indian National Congress (INC) dipped from 66 to 63 seats (in the 245-seat upper house), while the BJP was flat at 48. The INC might drop another seat in the Rajya Sabha in the coming 4-5 months while the BJP could gain another three, but the ruling coalition is unlikely to make any meaningful gains in the upper house until 2018, close to the end of its term.

This is what the Rajya Sabha could look like by August:

Screen Shot 2016-03-22 at 11.08.53 PM.png

Clearly, the BJP will need the support of several uncommitted regional parties to pass bills through the upper house until at least 2018, and probably beyond.

And what of the GST? In a recent investor note, Morgan Stanley argued that:

The key to the bill’s passage is a reduction in the number of Upper House members opposing the bill. That number currently stands at 91 and it needs to fall to 82 for the bill to clear – we forecast that to happen by July 2016.

Not so fast.  It seems as if the Morgan Stanley analysts are treating the Janata Dal (United) as a GST supporter and placing the AIADMK — a vocal GST opponent — into the “opposing” column. But that’s overly optimistic: the JD(U) has a coalition in Bihar with the INC and is unlikely to vote for the GST bill. Neither are the two Left parties that control nine seats between them. And the Kerala, and Tam

The conclusion: this round of Rajya Sabha elections changes nothing for the BJP, it’ll still need INC support to pass the GST.

Ab ki baar, cut-and-paste sarkar: the case of Make in India

In his 25 Sep 2014 speech at the launch of Make in India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi described the initiative as a “lion’s step” towards promoting Indian manufacturing and generating millions of jobs. Amitabh Kant, who oversees the programme, stated in a subsequent interview that “Make in India is like a movement reflecting a new mindset of growth in India.”

The Congress Party begged to differ and ex-Prime Minister Manmohan Singh described Make in India as a “carbon copy” of the UPA’s manufacturing policy, but in the public perception Modi is the prime maker of Make in India.

Turns out Singh was right.

Okay, so the goals are identical, but surely the Modi government is bringing its own set of policy instruments to the challenge?

Screen Shot 2016-02-14 at 11.55.08 PM.png

Screen Shot 2016-02-14 at 11.53.50 PM.png

Hmm. What about regulations? After all, Modi has proclaimed himself as the brusher aside of regulatory thickets.

Screen Shot 2016-02-15 at 12.33.10 AM.png

So the goals are the same, the policy instruments are identical and there is little difference in the approach to regulatory reform. But Singh is still being unfair describing Make in India as a carbon copy of the UPA’s National Manufacturing Policy: the Make in India document is better edited, tighter, uses more active voice.

Sure, Modi deserves credit for taking this manufacturing policy forward with his trademark salesmanship, and he may yet make a success of it. But it also undeniable that governments build on their predecessors’ work, something that Modi has so far lacked the grace to acknowledge. Whether it is road building, direct benefit transfers or financial inclusion, the Modi government has tried to hog credit, even when much of the groundwork and implementation had been done by the UPA. And it would seem that this is also the case with Make in India.

Ab ki baar, cut-and-paste sarkar.

H is for Hawk

In an Indian Express op-ed on 11 January, political scientist Paul Staniland argues that we shouldn’t lose too much sleep over Pathankot-style terror strikes because “despite understandable public outcry and past success, these spoiler attacks will be increasingly ineffective for the Pakistani military and its non-state allies”.

One reason for this, he argues, is that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s nationalist stance ensures that “no national party can make a politically potent case against [Prime Minister Narendra] Modi as being too soft on Pakistan. His domestic room to manoeuvre would be the envy of past PMs”. As a result, Modi will be free to pursue a rapprochement with Pakistan if he so wishes.

The temptation to slot the BJP, the Indian National Congress and other parties as hawkish or dovish is understandable, but it conceals as much as it reveals. For one, even though the BJP’s rhetoric tends to be more hardline than the Congress’, at the present time it is under attack from the Congress party and others as being excessively soft on Pakistan.

More to the point, the hawk-dove continuum exists within each political party, and places limits on how accommodating their leaders can be. Consider two examples:

  1. During a six-day visit to Pakistan in 2005, then BJP President Lal Krishna Advani praised Pakistan’s founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah and described him as a “secular” leader. This caused a furore in the BJP, forcing him to resign, and leading to his replacement as president by Rajnath Singh later that year.
  2. In July 2009, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh signed a joint statement with his Pakistani counterpart Yousaf Raza Gilani in Sharm el-Sheikh that delinked progress in other areas with terrorism and seemed to acknowledge Pakistani claims of Indian interference in Balochistan. Coming only eight months after the deadly Mumbai attacks, the statement appeared to undermine India’s earlier stance. Many Congress party members were outraged and refused to defend their own prime minister against public criticism. With no support visible in his party, Singh backtracked and the bilateral dialogue languished for the remainder of his term.

The point is that nationalist attitudes permeate many Indian parties and impose limits on how far and fast their leaderships can move. I have no doubt that Modi, like Advani, would discover those limits pretty quickly if he bent too far backwards in accommodating Pakistani concerns.

Bihar may be an uphill battle for the BJP

An average of three recent opinion polls (here, here and here) shows that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)- and Janata Dal (United)(JD(U))-led alliances are locked in a statistical dead heat in the 2015 Bihar state election.

Screen Shot 2015-09-13 at 1.02.02 pm

This is a very creditable performance for the BJP. The party was long overshadowed by its partner of two decades, Nitish Kumar’s JD(U), even though it played a crucial supporting role in bringing upper caste votes to the alliance. Today, it appears to have fought Bihar’s two dominant parties to a standstill, and could yet form a government with its political allies. Indeed, the formation of a “grand coalition” (महागठबंधन) by the JD(U), Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and Indian National Congress (INC) could ironically elevate the BJP to political primacy in Bihar, as Yogendra Yadav argued in a recent TV interview.

But it won’t be easy for the BJP to overcome the grand coalition’s raw arithmetic power. At the height of the Modi wave in the 2014 general election, the BJP and its allies outpolled the combined votes of these three parties in only 85 of 243 assembly segments. Most of these lay within 11 Lok Sabha constituencies where heavyweight BJP alliance candidates were contesting. The corollary: the then-hypothetical grand coalition “won” 158 assembly segments.

The big change since then is that the RJD and INC are now in alliance with the JD(U). So why does the race appear to be so tight? One theory is that disaffection with the RJD and Lalu Yadav will encourage many JD(U) supporters who might otherwise have voted for Nitish to switch to the the BJP. Furthermore younger and more educated Yadavs are also said to be weighing support for the BJP, which means that the RJD could also lose votes to the BJP.

Who knows, right? Well, not quite. We have a test of this theory in ten state by-elections fought in August 2014, only three months after the general election. The main difference was that the RJD+INC and JD(U) fought separately in the general election, but presented a unified front in the by-elections. A comparison of vote shares in the two elections gives us an opportunity to gauge the effect of the grand coalition.

So what happened? There was a swing of 2.1% towards the JD(U)-led front and a swing of 6.2% away from the BJP alliance (using simple averages). The BJP and its allies won four assembly seats and the JD(U) alliance took six. This would seem to show that the unification of the RJD, JD(U) and INC had a (weak) positive effect, while the BJP lost substantial vote share compared with the general election, only three months later. If this is a foretaste of how the grand coalition might fare against the BJP, the latter has much to be concerned about.

There are, as usual, caveats. This measure is imperfect because (1) issues and candidates differ between national and state elections and (2) ruling parties tend to win by-elections about two-thirds of the time because voters like their constituencies to receive favourable treatment. This means that any alliance effect — political contradictions that forced some RJD and JD(U) voters into the arms of the BJP — could have been hidden in the by-elections by such an incumbent effect. Furthermore, ten is admittedly a small sample in a state that has 243 assembly constituencies, although as the map below shows they were reasonably diversified in geographical terms (156-Bhagalpur in the southeast seems to not have been properly highlighted).

Screen Shot 2015-09-13 at 11.04.31 am

Most importantly, of course, there was no chance that the by-elections would result in a change in government, whereas the BJP and its partners present a credible alternative in the state election. So a BJP wave or the move of key swing constituencies towards it (be they Mahadalits or Yadavs) could still produce victory for the BJP. However, the recent historical record and the sheer quantum of votes available to the JD(U) and RJD suggest this won’t be so easy.

Why the BJP should worry about Rajasthan’s local election results

Both the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Indian National Congress (INC) claimed victory in the August 17 urban local body elections in Rajasthan.

Both sides seem to have a point: the BJP won decisively while the INC strongly improved its performance in comparison with the 2013 state and the 2014 general elections.

But it also seems true that the BJP hasn’t done as well as it might have hoped in urban constituencies that have long been its stronghold (as pointed out here and here). The fact of the BJP’s victory tell us little: the party has been so dominant in urban Rajasthan that it even outperformed the then-ruling INC in 2010 by a single percentage point.

So how to evaluate these election results? Direct comparisons with state and general elections are a bit crude because local elections are driven considerably by local issues and candidates. Indeed the BJP’s winning margin in 2015 over the INC (3.4 percentage points) was pretty much the same as in 2005 (3.3 percentage points), the previous time it was in power. The results, in this context, are unremarkable and at best mark the return of “normal” politics to Rajasthan.

Yet things aren’t quite that simple. The separation of urban local elections into two phases since 1994 provides us with a “natural experiment” that allows us to compare changes in urban support for the BJP between 2014 and 2015. In November 2014, 1,696 wards in 46 urban local bodies had elections, while the August 2015 elections covered 3,351 wards in 129 municipal bodies.

Screen Shot 2015-08-23 at 11.12.42 pm

The chart above shows that, in November 2014, the BJP gained a sizeable vote swing of 6.8 percentage points in comparison with 2009, and the INC experienced a corresponding negative swing of of 7.2 percentage points. In August 2015, the swing towards the BJP compared with 2010 was only 0.8 percentage points, and the swing away from the INC 1.6 percentage points. Differences in absolute levels of support between the two phases don’t matter here: we are concerned only with vote swings.

This isn’t a perfect measure because it assumes that, as of 2014-15, the choice of whether a ward had elections in November or August was essentially random (any evidence, for or against, would be welcome). Plus some of the candidate qualification rules changed prior to the August election and many INC and BJP candidates run as independents in municipal elections.

Even so, this is us the closest we have to a yardstick of the change in urban support for the BJP between November 2014 and August 2015. Another way to think about this is in terms of the vote foregone by the BJP between the two rounds: a hefty 6 percentage points.

Something seems to have changed between November 2014 and August 2015. Rajasthan, long a swing state, is back in play.

Too early to proclaim a revival in the BJP’s Kerala fortunes

In a previous blog post, we considered the possibility that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s strong performance in the Aruvikkara assembly constituency by-election marked the beginning of its revival in the state of Kerala. A closer examination of BJP leader O Rajagopal’s previous election record suggests that this by-election result is a one-off, rather than the beginning of the BJP’s statewide ascent.

Recall that the BJP’s vote share in Aruvikkara doubled from 12% in the 2014 general election to 24% now, which eroded the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPM)’s vote share and helped the Indian National Congress (INC) retain the seat with 40% of the vote.

This is similar to what occurred three years ago in the Neyyattinkara assembly constituency (that lies within the Thiruvananthapuram parliamentary constituency), where the BJP’s Athiyannoor Sreekumar had won 6% of the votes cast in the April 2011 state election (pdf). When the victorious CPM candidate R Selvaraj resigned and switched over to the INC, the BJP decided to field its veteran Rajagopal in the ensuing June 2012 by-election (xls). As a result, the BJP’s vote share soared to 23%, the LDF’s fell 14 percentage points to 35% and the UDF won despite a drop in its tally from 43% to 40%.

Sound familiar? Clearly, it would be premature to proclaim the beginning of the BJP’s ascent in Kerala.

Note also that national politics appear to have had no discernible effect in this assembly constituency: the vote shares of the three party blocs were substantially unchanged in the 2014 general election, two full years later.

The Congress should thank the BJP for its Aruvikkara assembly win

Shortly before the counting of votes in Kerala’s Aruvikkara assembly by-election, Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPM) state secretary Kodiyeri Balakrishnan make the startling claim that the entry into the contest of veteran Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader O Rajagopalan had made it difficult for his party to unseat the incumbent Indian National Congress (INC).

He was right. The INC (or rather, the INC-led United Democratic Front) won 40% of votes cast, the same percentage as it had in the 2014 general election. The CPM-led Left Democratic Front that had won 43% of the vote in 2014 got only 33% this time. The BJP’s tally however doubled from 12% to 24%, with most of the gains coming from the CPM, which ensured the INC’s victory. Had the voting pattern of the general election been repeated, the CPM would have triumphed over the INC.

BJP supporters were naturally jubilant.

Still, it may be a bit early to pop the gau-champagne. The BJP’s Rajagopalan is one of a handful of credible leaders in the party’s state unit, and had previously given a tough fight to the INC’s Shashi Tharoor in Thiruvananthapuram in 2014. It remains to be seen whether this result is a flash in the pan, or the start of a bigger shift in votes towards the BJP.

A real shift could well facilitate the UDF’s reelection in 2016, as the BJP’s rise divides the opposition vote statewide. As the following chart shows, Hindu voters have long leaned towards the LDF in Kerala, while Muslim and Christian voters have coalesced around the UDF.

If the BJP continues to gain support among, for instance, Ezhava voters, it could fragment the LDF’s vote base even as the latter attempts to take advantage of any anti-incumbency against the UDF. In both Kerala and West Bengal, the rise of the BJP is posing a severe challenge for the CPM and its allies.

Update on Jul 1

On reflection, it would appear that the Aruvikkara result has little to say about the BJP’s wider prospects in Kerala. Click here for why.

Gassing about LPG

In a recent interview, Prime Minister Narendra Modi claimed full credit for transferring LPG subsidies directly to consumers. He also took a potshot at the Congress Party, saying that “the so-called pro-poor have been just repeating that there is leakage in subsidy”, implying that his government had done all the heavy lifting here.

The Modi government’s achievements with the Direct Benefits Transfer for LPG (DBTL) scheme, now christened the PAHAL Yojana, certainly seem impressive:

But, once again, Modi has misspoken. The Congress Party-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government launched the DBTL scheme in pilot form on 1 June 2013 and expanded it to 291 (of 676) districts on 1 January 2014, when it covered 96 million consumers. Between 1 June 2013 and 8 March 2014, the scheme disbursed Rs 54 billion (US$900 million) in subsidies to 28 million consumers.

Modi’s National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government relaunched a rejigged DBTL on 15 November 2014 in 54 districts, and expanded it nationwide on 1 January 2015. The scheme now has enrolled 129 million LPG consumers and disbursed a total of Rs 122 billion (US$1.9 billion) in fuel subsidies (though we don’t know how many consumers have actually benefited).

In short, the UPA enrolled 74% of all DBTL consumers, and the NDA has distributed about the same amount of cash to LPG consumers (albeit in a shorter period). Frankly, it’s a little silly to compare the records of two successive governments regarding a single scheme, since the second is obviously building on the work of the first, which in this case designed and rolled out the programme.

Is the Modi Effect waning? (What Jammu and Jharkhand tell us)

The recent state elections in Jammu & Kashmir and Jharkhand went well for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), but the results have also sparked speculation as to whether the Narendra Modi effect is beginning to wane. Congress Party MP Rajeev Satav seems to think so (and was retweeted by Aam Aadmi Party leader Arvind Kejriwal):

If only things were so simple.

Take Jharkhand. As Satav says the BJP’s vote share dropped about 9 percentage points between the general election in April-May 2014 and the state assembly election in November-December 2014. But that’s not unexpected: the chart below shows the BJP has lost 7-9 percentage points in vote share between national and state elections held in close succession since 2004.

Screen Shot 2014-12-28 at 7.52.10 pm

 

This is also true of state assembly constituencies won (see chart below). In both 2009 and 2014, the BJP in Jharkhand won 19-20 more state assembly segments in national elections than it did in the state elections that followed a few months later. Note that 2004/05 is an exception partly because the BJP stood alone in the 2004 parliamentary election but allied with the Janata Dal-United in 2005 for the state election.

Screen Shot 2014-12-26 at 8.53.44 am

This pattern occurs presumably because many Jharkand voters chose to vote for the BJP in national elections but switched to a regional party such as the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha that seemed a more viable option in state politics.

The BJP’s position in Jammu appears unchanged between the national and state elections. While it’s true that the party’s overall vote tally in Jammu and Kashmir has fallen, its grip on Jammu hasn’t really weakened. The BJP won 24 assembly segments (in the Jammu and Udhampur parliamentary constituencies) in the general election, and won 25 assembly seats in Jammu in the subsequent state election.

There is therefore no real evidence to suggest that the Modi effect (or anti-Congress sentiment) has waned either in Jammu or Jharkhand.