December 11, 2018 could turn out to be a watershed day in India’s electoral history. Six months down the line when a new central government takes over in Delhi, we could reminisce to say – “hey, that day was pretty damn important!" These state elections are significant for both the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Congress and for their leaders, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi, respectively. Together these states account for 83 of the 543 Lok Sabha seats that go to polls next year and may give a hint of the nation’s mood.
The exit polls released on Friday have only added to the intrigue with close contest seen between BJP and Congress in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. While the Congress has a clear advantage in Rajasthan as per a majority of exit polls and the state’s past record of voting out the incumbent government, the Rahul Gandhi-led Congress could lose Mizoram. The Congress could also fail to lead a diverse coalition of regional and sub-regional outfits to the halfway mark of 61 seats in Telangana’s 119-member assembly as well, if exit polls are to be believed.
In key heartland states, the pre-election trends pointed that Rajasthan chief minister Vasundhara Raje could face the voter’s ire, captured most vividly in a slogan ‘Modi tere se bair nahin, Vasundhara teri khair nahin’ (We have no enmity with Modi, but wont spare Vasundhara). Trends also indicated that while Madhya Pradesh chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan and Chhattisgarh chief minister Raman Singh continue to remain popular, a lot of voter angst could channel against them due to farm distress and due to demonetisation and the poor implementation of the goods and services tax (GST).
Not surprisingly, the state elections verdict will be seen as a test of the 'Modi magic' or Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ability to do heavy lifting for his party in polls. Along with BJP president Amit Shah’s strong organisational skills and election management, the Modi magic has got better of the Congress in every major state polls since 2014 where the two parties were in a direct contest.
BJP’s performance in Rajasthan will be a key test for this theory as both the PM and Shah were seen aggressively campaigning in the state till the Election Commission’s 5pm deadline for the end of all campaigning on December 5. PM Modi was able to draw large crowds in his campaign rallies and focused to attack the Congress on dynasty politics and corruption. Weeks before official campaign began, the top leadership of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) was seen traveling across Rajasthan to boost and activate its cadre, a key source of BJP's organizational structure and electioneering.
A win in Rajasthan despite all odds and history could reinforce the ‘Modi magic,’ beyond any doubt. BJP retaining both Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan will give the party a huge morale boost and confidence as both incumbent chief ministers are seeking their fourth term in the states.
A loss in all three for BJP, particularly Madhya Pradesh where farm distress became a key campaign focus of the Congress party against Shivraj government, could set the political discourse on the way to the 2019 General Elections. The three states also have a large number of rural voters. The Rahul Gandhi-led Congress has promised farm loan waivers and remunerative pricing for crops in all states in its manifesto.
For BJP, state election results in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh will have a strong impact on its electoral strategy for 2019 General Elections as well. In 2014, the party won 62 of the 65 Lok Sabha seats at stake with the Congress winning just 3. BJP won all 25 seats in Rajasthan, 27 out of 29 in Madhya Pradesh and 10 out of 11 in Chhattisgarh.
Together with BJP’s 71 seats in Uttar Pradesh in the 2014 General Elections (a total of 135 of the 283 seats), the resounding victory in these heartland states handed the saffron party its first government with full majority since it was formed in 1980. The party’s dominating performance in these states was significant, as the Congress was reduced to below 50 Lok Sabha seats, something which didn’t happen even during the 1977 General Elections post emergency.
The loss of the three key states – Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh – will put significant pressure on Modi-Shah combine ahead of the Lok Sabha elections. The BJPs Lok Sabha strength has reduced from 283 to 269, with the party losing most by-polls since 2014, including in Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan.
For the Congress party, a win beyond Rajasthan, and more particularly in Telangana will help boost perceptions about Rahul Gandhi’s leadership skills and ability to knit together a diverse coalition. The alliance between the Telugu Desam Party and the Congress in Telangana is a case in point. In the past, Chandrababu Naidu-led TDP has never supported the Congress. Within Congress, the party is once again giving its state leaders more autonomy in decision-making although not declaring chief ministerial candidates in Rajasthan, MP and Chhattisgarh could have a negative impact.
Nationally, it could the Congress expand United Progressive Alliance and bring more parties in its fold against the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance. It could seed a doubt in the mind of Janata Dal (United) leader and Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar about his alliance with the BJP.
In Odhisha, the Biju Janata Dal’s Naveen Patanaik could look at the Congress to counter the saffron challenge. In down south, the two Dravidian parties – AIADMK and DMK, the latter in particular, could consider entering into a formal alliance with the Congress.
First Published: IST