Expert Speak India Matters
Published on Dec 14, 2018
Assembly polls verdict signals to equal and open battle in general elections

The recent Assembly elections in five States – three in Hindi heartland – seem to have set the tone for the general elections in early next year, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his party BJP would seek votes to govern the country once again. The results signal to a possible equal and open fight between the NDA, led by the BJP, and the opposition parties which are trying hard to come together to take on the ruling alliance.

Message from five Sates that elects 83 MPs to the Lok Sabha is loud and clear that the BJP, and its prime leader Modi is no more invincible, as it looked few years ago, after coming to power. The results points out that the ruling alliance could be overcome by strengthening the opposition alliance.

In fact, the verdicts were mixed blessings for both the national parties, the BJP and the Congress. Voters in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh have neither fully endorsed the Congress nor completely rejected the ruling BJP, levelling the ground for both the ruling combine as well as for the Congress-led opposition for the coming general elections. However, in Telangana in south India and Mizoram in North East, regional parties trounced the national parties.

The Congress, led by its one-year old chief Rahul Gandhi, has emerged as the fulcrum of the alliance that is going to challenge the BJP-led NDA whose main icon were and continue to be Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his aide Amit Shah. The Modi-Shah duo, who would be under pressure to deliver in challenging times after the BJP’s ouster from power in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, would need to recalibrate its strategy, change the narrative and invent new issues capable of igniting the popular mind to wrest the initiative from the remerging Congress. In order to make the picture clear, let us have a close look at the performance of the winning and losing parties and their leaders.

In Madhya Pradesh (MP), that elects 230 MLAs and 29 MPs, the BJP’s tally came down to 109 from 165 seats that it had won in 2013 with its vote share reducing from 44.9 percent to 41.3 percent. The Congress’s tally went up to 114 from 58 that it had in its bag in 2013 with tis vote share going up from 36.4 percent in 2013 to 41.0 percent.

It is interesting to note here that the BSP, that decided to contest all seats with its leader Mayawati complaining that the Congress was not prepared to accommodate its valid political interest and was not ready to offer her respectable number of seats in MP, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, failed to increase its seats in the State Assembly. Its strength in the MP Assembly went down to two from four that it had won in 2013. Its vote share also fell down from 6.3 percent to 4.9 percent.

In Rajasthan, that elects 200 MLAs and 25 MPs to the Lok Sabha, the ruling BJP’s tally came down from 163 in 2013 to 73, with its vote share reducing to 38.8 percent from 45.2 percent. The Congress won 99 seats, gaining 78 seats and stepping up its vote share to 39.3 percent from 33.1 percent in 2013.

Other parties cornered almost 22 percent votes. Here, the BSP has been able to increase its vote share to 4.3 percent from 3.4 percent in 2013 and its seat tally also went up to six from the three in 2013. Independents won 19 seats, gaining six more than in 2013. In short, Rajasthan is much more divided and confused than it was in 2013.

In Chhattisgarh, the Congress won 68 seats, with a gain of 29 seats. The incumbent Chief Minister, Raman Singh (BJP), even lost his assembly seat of Rajnandgaon by a margin of 16096 votes to Congress candidate, Karuna Shukla, niece of former Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, who had crossed to the country’s oldest party sometimes back. The Congress increased its vote share to 43.2 percent from the 40.3 percent in 2013.

The BJP lost heavily, winning just 16 seats. Its vote share came down from 41.0 percent in 2013 to 32.9 percent. The BSP and Chhattisgarh Janta Congress of former Chief Minister Ajit Jogi, which formed an electoral alliance before the elections, seems to have damaged the BJP more. The alliance gained both seats and votes share. In fact, the BSP vote share, compared to 2013, came down from 4.27 percent to 3.4 percent, but both parties combined won seven seats.

The Congress met a setback in the northeastern State of Mizoram where it lost to Mizo National Front (MNF). The BJP opened its account here, winning one seat.

In Telangana, the opposition alliance led by the Congress failed to defeat incumbent Chief Minister K Chandra Shekhar Rao’s Telangana Rashtriyha Samiti (TRS). The TRS added about two dozen more seats than last time, making the Congress, the Telugu Desam Party, the CPI and the TJS big losers. The BJP too lost some ground in the State as its tally came down by three seats.

The results are a setback to the TDP whose leader Andhra Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu is leading the campaign to unite the opposition parties to take on the NDA in the next general elections.

One definite outcome of the five assembly elections is that the Congress is gaining traction and its chief Rahul Gandhi is emerging as a credible leader, particularly in the background of the country’s oldest party fighting the battle in one of the most adverse conditions. The Congress did not have enough funds while its main rival BJP was overflowing with resources and funds.

Rahul Gandhi, who was elected the Congress chief exactly one year back, was leading a faction-ridden party in three Hindi-speaking States with two or more leaders being claimant for the chief ministerial post. Gandhi had to do a tight-rope walk, balancing factional interests. Now that he is gaining strength, his power to assert and make hard decisions is expected to go up.

While anti-incumbency was the dominant factor that went against the ruling parties in different States with Telangana being an exception, there were State specific issues that influenced voters’ choices in exercising their votes. Price rise was a strong factor across all the five States.

Beginning from Chhattisgarh, where the BJP ruled government of Chief Minister Raman Singh has been in power for the last 15 years, anti-incumbency was the biggest factor as people of the State had begun to feel bored with same faces and same rhetoric and were looking for a change. Obviously apart from the ennui that the electorate was having from the long-serving BJP government, farmer suicides in the wake of rising agriculture distress went against the ruling establishment. Agriculturists were expecting a much higher remunerative minimum support prices for the farm products. Unemployment or joblessness was yet another factor that went against the ruling dispensation. Poverty, left wing extremism also known as Maoism or Naxalism and corruption were some other issues that agitated the minds of the electorate. Castes and religions also played a role.

In the tribal dominated State, electoral alliance between two former chief ministers’ led parties Janata Congress Chhattisgarh of Ajit Jogi and Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) of Mayawati was a crucial determinant of the final tallies of the different parties in the fray though it failed to achieve its objective of being kingmakers.

In Mizoram, while anti-establishment feeling against the Congress government of Chief Minister Lal Thanhawala ran high, unemployment and lack of progress in completion of some infrastructure projects also exercised the voters’ choices.

Election in Madhya Pradesh had host of issues that decided the course of the election campaign, narrowing the choice options of the electorate. Agriculture distress, farmer agitation and structural crisis in the farming sector was one of the most significant factor. Police firing on agitating farmers in Mandsaur district last year in which six farmers were killed rankled agriculture class across the state and determined the outcome of the election. Death of seven persons including six Dalits in Gwalior-Chambal during the Bharat Bandh had added oil to the simmering fire.

Dalit organisations had called a Bharat Bandh on April2 this year to protest against what they saw as dilution of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act by a March 20 order of the Supreme Court that blocked the automatic arrest of any person charged under the law and denial of anticipatory bail. Killing of seven protestors sharpened caste fault lines- a powerful factor that adversely affected the ruling party’s electoral chances.

Hasty implementation of Goods and Services Tax (GST) became an issue in cities where small and medium traders dominate business. Demonetisation of 2016 had already hit farmers and rural traders hard and had brought down employment opportunities in the countryside. Persisting corruption at the lower administrative levels was a popular talking point among the electorate. It went against the ruling BJP because Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s promise of rooting out the corruption from daily life.

In Rajasthan, where the anti-incumbency was only five years old unlike in other two BJP ruled Hindi-speaking states, a perception had overpowered the popular mind that the Chief Minister was inaccessible and even her own ministers could not approach her. She suffered from an image that she was the captive of few bureaucrats who were calling shots.

Deteriorating law and order, farmer distress, youth unemployment, water scarcity were some other factors that agitated the electorate. Running feud between Raje and the local bosses of the RSS that had the support of Modi-Shah duo that went on for almost her entire reign weighed heavy on the minds of the party cadres dividing them on factional lines.

Telangana is yet another interesting story electoral gamble where incumbent Chief Minister K Chandra Shekhar Rao preponed elections by six months in the hope that he would catch his opponent with pants down paid rich dividends. Rao thought of beating the anti-incumbency by holding early elections and he succeeded. His welfare schemes gave his good political returns.

The BJP tried to counter the anti-incumbency by its outreach organizing rallies, public meetings, roadshows and door-to- door contacts by leaders and candidates. High pitched advertising through, newspapers, radio and TV and large hoardings was employed to reduce the popular disillusionment.

In full knowledge that outcome of assembly elections would set the tune of the coming Lok Sabha polls, Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressed over two dozen rallies in five States and party chief Amit Shah held scores of roadshows apart from detailed planning of elections by which many sitting MLAs were denied tickets.

The Congress that had heavy stakes in all the five states though tried to put its best show but it seriously lacked from chief ministerial faces in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Telangana. It also suffered from factional rivalry that was most visible in Rajasthan and MP. While the BJP and the Congress had direct fight in three Hindi speaking States, other parties like the BSP and SP too tried to gain at the cost of the two national parties. Both the UP based parties have national ambitions and had the advantage of exploiting local issues but could not achieve their intended goals.

For the coming general elections in the next few months, there are enough lessons for the ruling BJP. Electorate has clearly conveyed that hubris does not pay in political field. Hate and Hinduatva politics that expresses itself in demand for a Ram temple at Ayodhya and killings of Dalits and Muslims in the name of cow protection are no more vote catching cards.

The countdown for the 2019 battle has begun and five assembly elections have given lessons to the political class. The outcome of the general elections would depend upon which party has learnt the popular message the best.

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Satish Misra

Satish Misra

Satish Misra was Senior Fellow at ORF. He has been a journalist for many years. He has a PhD in International Affairs from Humboldt University ...

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