The Congress slogan for the 2018 assembly election for Madhya Pradesh read – waqt hai badlav ka – it is time for change. The five states which voted in these elections have all stuck to that theme in different ways and to different degrees.
Chhattisgarh and Mizoram have gone in for a total rejection of the incumbent governments. Telangana voted for an outright rejection of the concept of badlav itself. Those were the boundary conditions. No exit poll truly captured the sentiment in these three states.
Rajasthan threw up an expected result, but not its extent. The Congress finally ended with one seat under the half way mark. Rajasthan was fought with the belief that the Congress was sweeping the state. Not just the Congress, but the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) also totally believed this. The prevalent view was that this will be a 150-50 election in favour of the Congress. That the Congress could barely touch half way in its strongest wave in two decades shows that the state remains a claw-back option for the BJP.
In the end, the Congress will need the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) support to keep the government stable, just like it did in 2008. The BJP probably lost to itself and its internal contradictions, unable to motivate its machinery early and strongly enough. Outside of Jaipur region and the northern part of the state, the party was neck and neck with the Congress.
Vasundhara Raje has been done in a second time by the same old Rajasthan BJP issues – the organisational apparatus not accepting Raje, but unable to replace her either. Was Rajasthan an election of badlav? Yes, it was – it was an election for the BJP party apparatus to change its view on Raje. It didn’t, and the Congress now emerges as the beneficiary.
The most fascinating election in this lot was indeed Madhya Pradesh. The eventual Congress government is likely to be unstable. The voters clearly have not rejected Shivraj Singh Chouhan outright. The message of badlav here manifested in various ways.
The first was for the BJP to embrace. The campaign was run on the past sins of Congress and future question mark on what happens if the BJP loses. Very little was said during the campaign about what next for the state. There is no doubt Chouhan has done phenomenal work as chief minister. He enjoys and will continue to enjoy high personal equity in Madhya Pradesh. His campaign could have focused more on his future agenda rather than an apparent lack of Congress one.
The second message was also for the BJP. There was extremely high hyper-local anti-incumbency against its MLAs. Several names in the party have been contesting since the 1990s when the party grew in stature in the state. Times have changed, voter profile has changed, but the representative face has not. Many old names got a scare, and many lost. The party changed only about 25 per cent of its sitting MLAs – this was not ruthless enough.
The third message, also for the BJP, was another one to introspect on. The party has not done as well as it traditionally does in Bhopal, Indore, Jabalpur, and Ujjain regions. Urban areas have been the mainstay of the party since 1989, when it first made its mark in the state. Coupled with the desertion it faced in cities in other states – Hyderabad, Jaipur, Raipur – to name prominent few, this is not a good sign for the future. The party needs to assuage its core base, the salaried classes, the middle-income office goer, the traders – and do that fast.
Obituaries will be quickly written about the central government schemes not getting votes. In MP, the BJP retained several seats in the Vindhya region, where it has been relatively weaker. This region voted for badlav too – it changed its old Congress MLAs. The BJP seemed to have attracted new voters here.
The last message of change was for the NOTA voters. Many individuals may have voted NOTA not because they wanted badlav, but because they wanted no one to represent them. In effect, BJP lost a few seats with margins lesser than the NOTA votes in the constituency. Those voters who did not want anyone to represent them, will most likely get a new Congress government. This is also true of Rajasthan.
So how did BJP lose Madhya Pradesh? The answer lies in three trends. The tribal belt in the west (Barwani, Dhar, Jhabua, Khargone and Ratlam) and in the east (Balaghat, Dindori, Mandala and Shahdol) voted against the party. Then there is the loss of urban seats – two Bhopal seats (Central, South West), three Indore seats (Depalpur, Indore-1, Sanwer), and one Jabalpur seat (East) – which all add up. Lastly, both Kamal Nath and Jyotiraditya Scindia seem to have convinced their own areas that they are set to be the next chief minister. Chhindwara and Narsingpur areas voted for Nath, while Scindia earned a virtual sweep in the Chambal region.
What Does This Result Mean For 2019?
Firstly, the Congress has for the first time since 2014 beaten the BJP in a direct contest, and did so in three states. This will embolden the party, which is now almost certain to project Rahul Gandhi as the main opponent for the 2019 Lok Sabha contest against Prime Minister Narendra Modi. He will have much more leverage than before to accommodate potential Mahagathbandhan allies or leave them out. Ironically, Rahul Gandhi’s ascendency may make other strong names wary as their relative personal clout decreases – Akhilesh Yadav, Mamata Banerjee and Mayawati – will have to decide if they are fine to accept second fiddle roles.
Secondly, the battle for 2019 is no longer linear. It is no longer sufficient to say that winning 75 odd assembly seats in Rajasthan will translate to a loss of only a few Lok Sabha seats. Congress will now employ the Donut offence against the Modi government. The Modi government opponents in the media, in the activist circuits, and in global networks working to ‘save the subalterns’, will all come together now that they have smelled blood. The Modi government must think non-linear – what top 2-3 issues will carry the campaign? The data soup on central programmes has served the narrative well till now, but it’s time for the BJP to work on another badlav.
Thirdly, and most importantly, the Modi government must decide whose votes it wants in the summer of 2019. A government has to constantly show it means everything to everyone in the country. But a party seeking reelection has to apply the standard segmentation, targeting and positioning concept to retain and attract its voters. The government has spoken, it is now time for the party to speak.
The 2019 Lok Sabha campaign is now open. And so is the election. The ball is squarely in BJP’s court.
Aashish Chandorkar is Counsellor at the Permanent Mission of India to the World Trade Organization in Geneva. He took up this role in September 2021. He writes on public policy in his personal capacity.
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