What Congress comeback in state elections means for India’s Modi

C. Uday Bhaskar
C. Uday Bhaskar
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The keenly awaited results of elections in five Indian states that were formally announced on Wednesday (Dec 12) point to two significant patterns – one, the innate unpredictability and sagacity of the Indian voter who defied all conventional wisdom; and the resurrection of the Congress party from the near irrelevance it was reduced to in the 2014 general election.

The latter strand has also given a fillip to the leadership of Congress party president Rahul Gandhi, who till this victory was seen as an inexperienced and bumbling political novice, pitch-forked into a pivotal position due to the accident of family/dynasty.

The related strand is the manner in which the ruling BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and party president Amit Shah had to face defeat in three key states from the Hindi heartland, namely Rajasthan, Chattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh.

In these three states the electoral contest was between the ruling BJP (which has been in power for periods ranging up-to 15 years) and the Congress party.

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In the other two states, Telangana and Mizoram, the major regional party won the election and neither the BJP nor the Congress had any significant success. This is yet another feature of Indian politics, where certain states are dominated by regional parties and the national parties form alliances for mutual electoral advantage.

Indian states have varying demography, with the smallest Sikkim (620,000) to the gigantic Uttar Pradesh (200 million) and this determines the number of legislators sent by an individual state to the crucial lower house – the 543 elected member Lok Sabha in the general election.

India’s bewildering diversity – of ethnicity, religion, language and caste – have been given equal status in the Constitution but the BJP has sought to prioritize and impose a Hindu template and this strikes at the very basis of the idea and identity of India

C. Uday Bhaskar

Hindi heartland

In the current state elections, Mizoram is the smallest (1.2 million) while Madhya Pradesh is the largest (74 million); and Rajasthan (70 million) and Chattisgarh (26 million) fall in between in the Hindi speaking heartland.

Telangana, India’s most recently formed state was earlier part of the composite Andhra Pradesh and has a population of 36 million. The local TRS (Telangana Rashtriya Samithi) won a decisive victory and the political dynamic of this state is distinctive.

Mizoram in the Indian north-east saw the MNF (Mizo National Front), a local party wrest power from the Congress party which has been governing the state for 10 years.

What is relevant about the Mizoram outcome is that the Congress as a party now has no presence in the Indian north-east, for the BJP is governing the other six states either independently or in alliance with a local party.

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The key determinant in the current election is the outcome in the three heartland or “cow-belt” states (Chattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan) and the degree to which this trend can be extrapolated to the general election of 2019.

Between them these three states account for 65 Lok Sabha seats and in the 2014 general election, the BJP won 62 of these seats. The core Hindi speaking belt of India is the UP-Bihar combine that accounts for 120 seats between them and cumulatively, the total number of seats from the Hindi-speaking states is 225 of the 543 Lok Sabha seats.

As a thumb-rule, any party seeking a majority in the Lok Sabha must have a strong victory in the cow-belt. For instance, in 2014 the BJP won 203 seats from this region.

Thus the question that will engage the poll strategists preparing for the 2019 election is to objectively analyze the results of the state election and assess the degree to which the current result will influence the voter-choice in the 2019 election.

Electoral strategy

The BJP electoral strategy led by PM Modi and party President Amit Shah focused more on the divisive sectarian identity of the Hindu majority in India.

Hence issues such as the Ram temple in Ayodhya, cow vigilantism, minority intimidation et al – broadly classified as the Hindutva element in Indian politics were the dominant themes.

While lip service was paid to issues such as socio-economic development and employment generation, the tangible benefits to the common man were elusive.

India’s bewildering diversity – of ethnicity, religion, language and caste – have been given equal status in the Constitution but the BJP has sought to prioritize and impose a Hindu template and this strikes at the very basis of the idea and identity of India.

The results from the three Hindi-speaking states would suggest that one faction among the voter is disenchanted with the politics of Hindutva and has rejected the BJP and here the anti-incumbency factor must also be noted.

Whether the Congress will be able to realize the alternate vision of India – one where there is real progress by way of development indicators and employment generation remains moot. The photo-finish in Madhya Pradesh would indicate that the BJP has a faithful flock and this can be energized for 2019.

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The Telangana result is instructive. The ruling TRS party chose to call for a snap poll to capitalize on its current buoyancy and entered into an arrangement with the local AIMIM (All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen ) and between them swept the poll winning a total of 95 (88 plus 7 respectively ) out of 119 seats.

Giving the local Muslim party the necessary space has been beneficial to the TRS, even while respecting the spirit of diversity in the state eco-system. However critics aver that the TRS leadership has followed a policy of appeasement through untenable welfare schemes and that these would not only be unsustainable in the long term but would adversely impact the growth of the state.
In summary, the current five-state election in India has led to a significant churn and many of the assumptions about the way in which Indian politics is evolving will have to be re-examined. On current balance, it is not evident that the Modi led BJP can repeat the emphatic victory of 2014.
Chitrapu Uday Bhaskar, a retired Commodore who served in the Indian Navy, is one of India's leading experts and outspoken critics on security and strategic affairs. Commodore Bhaskar is currently the Director of the Society for Policy Studies (SPS), an independent think-tank based in New Delhi, India. He has the rare distinction of being the head of three think tanks during his career - the earlier two being the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA) and the National Maritime Foundation (NMF). He is a columnist, editor, and contributor of numerous research-articles on nuclear and international security issues to reputed journals in India and abroad. Bhaskar has an abiding interest in the visual arts, film and theater. He tweets.@theUdayB.

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