The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) cannot have asked for more from the voters of the Hindi belt, where it unseated two Congress governments and not just overcame 20 years of incumbency in Madhya Pradesh, but also bettered its past performance.
The Congress extended its foothold in the south by winning Telangana convincingly, but victory here cannot erase the bitter taste of a big failure in the Hindi belt.
Put simply, the 2024 Lok Sabha elections are now the BJP’s to lose, with the Hindi belt — which, including Delhi and Jharkhand, sends 225 members to the Lok Sabha — now almost firmly in the party’s grasp.
Add strong 100 per cent BJP states like Gujarat, workable alliances in Maharashtra, Bihar and Karnataka, and reasonable solo performances in Odisha and West Bengal, and it is difficult to see the BJP not getting a majority on its own.
While one cannot completely rule out the BJP falling short of 272 if the opposition I.N.D.I. Alliance actually manages to put up one combined candidate against the BJP in over 400 seats, it is difficult to imagine the possibility of the party not retaining power in Delhi in May 2024 with the support of allies.
The one thing this round of assembly elections proved is that the BJP can now find allies in the south, where the Congress is the rising power and hence a threat to regional parties.
A few things swung the assembly elections decisively in the BJP’s favour.
First, of course, is the Modi factor, which always works in the Hindi belt, especially when combined with popular leaders like Shivraj Chouhan or Yogi Adityanath.
Second, the party’s cadre-based strength and its strong last-mile connect with voters, brings in the last few percentages of swing voters who make all the difference between victory and defeat in closely fought elections.
Unlike the Congress, which was over-confident about winning Chhattisgarh and possibly Madhya Pradesh, the BJP left nothing to chance. This extra effort over the last six months paid off in spades.
Even in Rajasthan, where the party’s central leadership sought to sideline Vasundhara Raje till the last few weeks of campaigning, the party scored big. In Chhattisgarh, where the party was not expected to win at all, it romped home by focusing on local anti-incumbency issues and solid ground work.
Third, in Telangana, the BJP is now in a position to mount a challenge to the Congress even in the Lok Sabha, for a weakened Bharatiya Rashtra Samiti will either be seeking a tieup, or see some erosion in its leadership ranks to the BJP.
Fourth, the Muslim vote is clearly splintering in Telangana. The All India Majlis-E-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM), an Islamist party with strongholds in Hyderabad and some Muslim pockets, ceded ground to the Congress. But the BJP too made some gains in Hindu pockets.
In states where the Muslim vote is not that important, the Congress party’s anti-Hindu or pro-minority stance — including its wishy-washy counter to ally DMK’s diatribes against Sanatana Dharma — worked against it.
Clearly, the minoritarianism of the Congress party cannot help it recoup losses in the north. Its weak attempt adopting a soft Hindutva line does not work against the BJP’s entrenched perceptions of being a pro-Hindu party.
Fifth, freebies are going to remain important in cliff-hanger elections. But freebies make sense only when they are believable.
In Madhya Pradesh, where Shivraj Chouhan has wooed the women’s vote with his 'Ladli Laxmi' and 'Ladli Behna' schemes for many years now, his promises were believed for he had already delivered. In Rajasthan, where Ashok Gehlot promised many things to many people in the last six to nine months, the freebies were seen as pie-in-the-sky.
For the BJP, the important thing is to focus on maintaining the momentum till May 2024. This means the following:
One, it must not assume, like the Congress did in Chhattisgarh, that it is home and dry in the north. It must continue to work hard, and ensure that it does not take the Hindi belt for granted.
Two, it must make renewed efforts in the south and east, especially West Bengal, where it can regain the momentum it lost in the 2021 elections.
It got over-confident after winning 18 Lok Sabha seats in 2019 and Mamata Banerjee trounced it in the assembly elections.
In both Karnataka and Telangana, it is in with a chance, and in Tamil Nadu it must rebuild its alliance with the AIADMK and other regional parties for the Lok Sabha polls.
BJP leader K Annamalai, who has begun to rattle the DMK, needs to be built up more for the 2026 assembly elections, and asked to focus on bringing in four or five Lok Sabha seats for the BJP from the state.
In Kerala, the BJP must focus on winning at least one seat (Thiruvananthapuram, possibly) and try hard in at least one or two more. For this it needs an alliance with some of the Christian groups in some regions, especially since the church now sees Islamism as a major threat to it in the state.
Three, the BJP must ensure that north-south and caste-based rhetoric is not allowed to vitiate its path to victory in 2024. The Hindi belt assembly elections showed that broad-based economic growth combined with strong welfarist measures can trump caste.
This is the message it must take to the masses nationally, apart from the broader message of India’s rise and growth in jobs.
Four, while the BJP needs to groom a new generation of leaders in the Hindi belt, it would be unwise to rattle leaders like Shivraj Chouhan, who cannot be denied his contribution to the party's thumping win. He must remain Chief Minister and be asked to work on a successor for 2028.
Jagannathan is Editorial Director, Swarajya. He tweets at @TheJaggi.
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