Politics

Assembly Elections 2018: It’s King Cong for Today, But 2019 is Another Beast

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

The assembly election results in MP, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Telangana, and Mizoram mark a significant dent in the BJP’s fortunes ahead of 2019. At a time when perceptions matter more than reality, the perception that Prime Minister Narendra Modi is no longer the vote catcher he once was, seems to be concrete.

A

comfortable win in Rajasthan. A shock defeat for the BJP in Chhattisgarh. And a tiny lead in Madhya Pradesh. Finally, there is something for the Congress to cheer about.

It has been a difficult five years for the grand old party, with multiple defeats at the hustings since 2014. Yet, the question whether December 11, 2018, marks a definitive upswing in the party’s fortunes in the run-up to the 2019 Lok Sabha polls has no clear answer.

However, there is little doubt that the assembly poll results in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Telangana, and Mizoram do mark a significant dent in the BJP’s fortunes ahead of 2019. Especially at a time where perceptions matter more than reality, the perception that Prime Minister Narendra Modi is no longer the vote catcher he was even a year ago: His many campaign visits to Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh in particular, failed to attract crowds or influence voter sentiment, something which cannot be ignored by BJP strategists. And in the wake of today’s drubbing, the party’s strategy of polarisation – star campaigner Yogi Adityanath addressed 70+ rallies for the polls, demanding that Hyderabad be renamed, claiming Lord Hanuman was a Dalit, and emphasising that he prefers Bajrang Bali to Ali – needs serious introspection.

As for the Congress, “Chowkidar Chor” Rahul Gandhi’s words accusing this government of favouring the Ambanis, Nirav Modi, the Rafale deal and other scams, might not have had great resonance with the electorate. But his constant reference to rising unemployment, lack of job creation, and the distress caused to farmers despite the government’s tall claims and much-publicised central welfare schemes probably did – especially the promise of loan waiver for farmers within 10 days of the Congress being voted to power.

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As for the Congress, “Chowkidar Chor” Rahul Gandhi’s words accusing this government of favouring the Ambanis, Nirav Modi, the Rafale deal and other scams, might not have had great resonance with the electorate.

In Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, the Congress has had comfortable victories. In Madhya Pradesh, it’s in the lead with media reports suggesting that the party is already in touch with Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party for a post-poll alliance. Yet, the BJP losing around 60+ seats that they had won in 2013 in MP and Rajasthan represents a significant shift in voter preference, especially among groups considered their strongest supporters – the upper castes, who felt that the party was ignoring their interests and wooing the Dalit vote bank instead. Not only did they alienate the Brahmins but the Dalit anger against the BJP for changes to the SC-ST Act, which they had then hastily amended, was visible in both states. What made matters worse for the BJP in the two states, is the party’s perceived indifference towards farmers, especially in Rajasthan, where farmer suicides were unheard of. The close fight in Madhya Pradesh can entirely be credited to CM Shivraj Singh Chouhan’s personal emotional connect with voters… a feat of personality that Vasundhara Raje was unable to achieve in Rajasthan.

In contrast, what worked for the Congress is the fact that the party was able to put up a united face in all the three states, without hyping anyone as its CM candidate and bringing together its old forces and its young turks. In Rajasthan, Rahul Gandhi formed an A-team with chief minister Ashok Gehlot and Sachin Pilot, who was made state party president. And in Madhya Pradesh, Jyotiraditya Scindia and Kamal Nath put up a cohesive fight.

In Chhattisgarh, at the frontlines was senior Congress leader TS Singh Deo, but given the scale of its victory, anti-incumbency had a huge role to play. The electorate ousted the 15-year-old Raman Singh government and reduced the BJP’s tally to 18 seats from 49 in 2013.

Exactly, a year after he was elevated to the post of party president, Rahul Gandhi has managed to save face.

Subhankar Chakraborty/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

However, one thing that both the BJP and the Congress need to worry about after today’s results is their relationship status with regional parties. Though in the Hindi heartland, the regional parties did not make a significant impact; the Ajit Jogi-Mayawati alliance cut into the BJP vote, but its final tally would suggest that Jogi is a spent force. In Mizoram and Telangana, the two states that have powerful regional parties, both BJP and Congress have failed miserably.

In Mizoram, Zoramthanga’s Mizo National Front gained a clear majority. The voters’ rejection of these two key parties in the Northeastern state is a clear indication that the BJP and Congress’s will have to work on forging regional alliances in 2019. And perhaps there are lessons to be learned from the loss in Telangana: The big win for TRS, despite its lesser vote share in urban areas as compared to rural areas, is largely because of the many rural schemes KCR promised, such as subsidy to farmers, an increase in the pension scheme for farmers, pregnancy kits to women, as well as the classic promise bijli-ghar-pani.

That said, this assembly election has been a big boost for the Congress and the next few days will see the Congress taking some tough calls, which it has avoided so far. Will it be Sachin Pilot or Ashok Gehlot for CM in Rajasthan? And in case it wins in Madhya Pradesh, whom will the party pick – Kamal Nath, Digvijaya Singh, or Jyotiraditya Scindia? Will it finally give responsibility to the young guns or will the old guard continue to hold fort?

For the BJP, which will need to put on its thinking cap, one thing is for certain that its trump card – the Ram Mandir – has failed to fire. And cow vigilantism did not do the party any good, especially in Rajasthan.

The close fight in Madhya Pradesh can entirely be credited to CM Shivraj Singh Chouhan’s personal emotional connect with voters… a feat of personality that Vasundhara Raje was unable to achieve in Rajasthan.

And now for the big question: Can we finally say Pappu paas ho gaya? Exactly, a year after he was elevated to the post of party president, Rahul Gandhi has managed to save face. Haters might as well say it was anti-incumbency that worked in his favour, but he needs to be given credit for lifting the spirits of a beaten party. The soft Hindutva card seemed to have worked for him and where the BJP failed the Congress delivered with generous promises to distressed farmers. In the absence of chief ministerial candidates, Rahul took the Congress fight forward with some hard campaigning and he will no doubt be called upon to do so ahead of the Lok Sabha elections.

But… let’s not get ahead of ourselves. The road to 2019 is a long and winding one. The only certainty in the Great Indian Democracy Tamasha is that there are absolutely no certainties. The BJP surprised us in 2014 – it no doubt will save its best tricks for the final countdown.