What state elections in India have in common with Istanbul and Budapest

Strongman leaders are not immune to a dip in electoral support, as was made clear by the loss of seats for nationalist parties the world over

epa07945303 Placards showing Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Maharashtra Chief Miinster Devendra Fadnavis placed on chairs during celebration of Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP) lead in the Maharashtra state elections outside BJP head office in Mumbai, India, 24 October 2019. Party supporters and media gathered outside the BJP headquarters to know the results of the legislative elections held on 21 October 2019.  EPA/DIVYAKANT SOLANKI
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The results of recent elections in two Indian states – Haryana and Maharashtra – have come as a surprise to prime minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party as well as its opponents. The BJP’s vote share in Haryana, which borders the Indian capital Delhi, fell by 22 per cent, in contrast to its triumphal performance in the national election in May. Six short of a majority in the Haryana legislative assembly, the BJP will now govern the state with the help of another, smaller party.

In the western state of Maharashtra too, the BJP won fewer seats than five years ago, leaving it more dependent than before on its troublesome regional ally, the Shiv Sena.

It's a comedown for the BJP and all the more crushing because Mr Modi and his party seemed invincible after the general election. Just five months ago, the BJP secured its second consecutive single-party national parliamentary majority, and Mr Modi assumed a position of political strength not commanded by any politician since Jawaharlal Nehru, independent India's first prime minister, and later, by his daughter Indira Gandhi, who also led the country. But then in the same year of that massive win, there are these election results from Haryana and Maharashtra. How to explain the BJP's changing fortunes?

Analysts say the BJP's poor performance is the result of two factors. First, India is in the throes of an economic slowdown. Second, the BJP didn't focus on local factors in its election campaign. Instead, it ran a highly charged, nationalist campaign that concentrated on Article 370, the recently discarded special constitutional status given to Kashmir. To the incomprehension of voters in Haryana and Maharashtra, Mr Modi and his party tried to take a victory lap on the issue of Kashmir.

Additionally, the BJP employed election rhetoric that even its supporters acknowledged was “hypernationalist”. The Hindu nationalist party singled out India’s large minority Muslim community and stoked divisiveness. Again, voters in Haryana and Maharashtra seemed to find the message alternately overdone and underwhelming. They didn’t buy it and certainly not wholesale.

Nationalist parties often, at their peril, push a populist, election-tested message, tone-deaf to local concerns

But there is much more than that to be read from these two Indian state elections. It is possible to extrapolate something far broader. Haryana and Maharashtra show that a muscular nationalist political force is not immune from defeat. Crucially, they also show how it can be done. In a sense, these two state elections are for India's opposition what Budapest's recent mayoral poll was for Hungary and Istanbul's June mayoral election was for Turkey.

Rewind to Budapest earlier this month. Gergely Karacsony, candidate of a largely united opposition, defeated the incumbent backed by Hungarian strongman Viktor Orban’s party Fidesz. It was a decisive victory. Mr Karacsony got 51 per cent of the vote; his rival 44 per cent.

Go still further back to Istanbul in June when the main opposition candidate, Ekrem Imamoglu, delivered a stinging defeat to his rival who belonged to Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s AK Party. In the process, Mr Imamoglu ended 25 years of AKP rule in Istanbul.

Municipal elections might be considered minor democratic events compared to the high-wattage drama of national contests but the results in Istanbul and Budapest are hugely significant. Istanbul, Turkey’s largest city, accounts for just under a third of the country’s GDP. Mr Erdogan once said that "whoever wins Istanbul, wins Turkey”, a reference perhaps to the fact that his political career started there when he served as the city’s mayor from 1994 to 1998.

As for Budapest, Hungary’s most populous city and one of the ten largest in the European Union, its choice of mayor has huge political ramifications. The opposition victory in Budapest and some other Hungarian cities was the first electoral setback for Mr Orban in more than a decade. It came about despite the ruling party’s stranglehold on much of Hungary’s media landscape.

The two Indian state elections continue the received narrative of the mayoral elections in Budapest and Istanbul. Simple but robust, it is as follows: strongman nationalist leaders and their parties are not invulnerable to the waxing and waning of electoral support, even if democratic debate and processes have been increasingly re-purposed to a narrow cause. Second, successful nationalist parties often, at their peril, push a populist, election-tested message regardless of the context. In Haryana, Maharashtra, Budapest and Istanbul, the message was too broad and too tone-deaf to local concerns. In Istanbul, for instance, Mr Imamoglu got the city listening when he alleged that public money had been squandered by the AKP. In Budapest, Mr Karacsony was buoyed by popular opposition to the so-called “slave law”, legislation backed by Mr Orban that raises the number of weekly hours employers can seek from workers. In Haryana and Maharashtra, voters were concerned about pocketbook issues rather than the feel-good nationalist prescriptions offered by the BJP.

Not too long ago, Indian author Gurcharan Das commented on the BJP trumpeting its takeover of Kashmir and attempting to push Hindu nationalism as the panacea for all ills: “The job of the Indian state is crucial to create predictability through good governance, ensure everyone is equal before the law, give people choice to change their rulers, provide opportunity for education and health, and craft conditions for prosperity.” He said it was “the only real ‘consent’ in a world where nations are invented and nationalism is fictional”. That is a reasonable summing up of not just the Haryana and Maharashtra elections but Budapest and Istanbul too.