The Assembly elections to the five states of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Telangana and Mizoram, are over. After all the din and dust of the election battle, it is time to calmly draw a balance sheet, as to who are the gainers, and who the losers. Such balance sheets are not clear-cut. What appear as plusses, are not so emphatic, and what seem to be minuses, are not so dismal. The truth, mostly, lies somewhere between black and white endorsements or denouncements. A careful analysis shows that at least as far as the Congress and the BJP go each side has something to be happy about, and something to be less than happy about.
Let us take the Congress first. The party’s win in Chhattisgarh was definitive. It deserves full credit for it, even if part of the victory was based on hugely populist promises which it will find it difficult to fulfil. The win in Rajasthan was below expectation. As per most assessments, the Congress’ lead should have been much bigger, and the BJP was expected to be reduced to somewhere in the vicinity of just 50 seats. As it turned out, notwithstanding the vaunted unpopularity of chief minister Vasundhara Raje, the BJP gave a far more robust fight, and the Congress had to live with being one seat short of even the halfway mark.
In Madhya Pradesh the fight went down to the wire, a see-saw battle where sometimes the BJP was ahead and sometimes the Congress. In the end, the Congress nosed ahead, but with the narrowest of margins, where in over a dozen seats the margin of its win over the BJP was by just a couple of hundred votes. For BJP chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan to show such a spirited fight-back, even after 15 years of anti-incumbency, is no mean performance. One analysis shows that in the millions of votes polled, the BJP lost only by a sum total of some 4,300 votes. The Congress won, but it cannot really be said that the BJP lost.
In Telangana, the Telangana Rashtra Samithi swept the polls. The Congress paid the price of having entered into a wrong alliance with Telugu Desam Party leader N. Chandrababu Naidu. It was obvious to most observers that Mr Naidu, against whose party there is considerable animosity in Telangana, would be a liability for the Congress. Mr Naidu, in fact, will in all probability also lose in his home turf of Andhra Pradesh to Y.S. Jaganmohan Reddy of the YSR Congress. The Congress may have its reasons for aligning with him, but what these reasons could be remains opaque. Finally, in Mizoram, the local party, the Mizo National Front, won a majority, and put an end to the Congress rule in the only state in the Northeast where it still was in power.
If the results are a mixed bag for the Congress, the BJP too has much to ponder about. Whatever the below expectations margin of the Congress’ win in Rajasthan and MP, the hard reality is that the BJP is out of power in three major Hindi heartland states. This will have consequences on its aspirations to replicate a 2014 kind of victory in the national elections due in 2019. The party will have to do considerable introspection on the transparent rural distress, the disillusionment in the middle class over the insufficient creation of jobs, and the reduced swing of the Modi magic wand. It will also have to think on whether the aggressive “Hindutva” card is paying any real dividends. Indian voters are not, the party must realise, mindless puppets who will invariably twitch on order to the tug of communal politics.
The takeaways are, therefore, clear: the BJP has got an important wake-up call, and it is to be seen what damage control it can do in the few months left before the 2019 elections. The Congress, on its part, must realise that premature euphoria is not in order. The project of Opposition unity is still far from credible fruition. Periodic photo-ops is not a substitute for the rigorous micro-detailing that goes into making a “Mahagathbandhan” that promises cohesive functioning and effective governance. In spite, of these successes, it is still to be seen what is the level of Rahul Gandhi’s acceptability as the leader or pivot for other Opposition parties. The Congress has also to focus on what are obvious shortcomings: lack of cadre, grassroots organisation, strategic planning, alliance building capacities and communication skills. The party has to understand that, ultimately, it cannot bank only on the “negative” vote that accrues to it as a result of anti-incumbency against the BJP. It must be able to also attract a “positive” vote that is the result of being able to communicate a vision for the future, and an agenda for action.
A hotly debated issue among poll pundits is whether people may vote differently in Assembly and in parliamentary elections. Some people are of the view that when Assembly elections are held so close to the national elections, the momentum of current victories will spill over into the battle for the Centre. There is also another view that the issues and parameters — including that of leadership or the lack of it — are different in parliamentary elections. My own view is that in those states where the contest has been close, the voter may decide to vote differently in parliamentary elections, where the angst against local leadership and local issues is replaced by larger considerations about which party or coalition is best equipped to rule at the Centre. If the Opposition does not put its act together, the voter may decide to go with the known entity — whatever are its perceived inadequacies — than unknown chaos. This would certainly give an advantage to the NDA.
In any case, exciting days lie ahead. The political climate is likely to remain surcharged, because for all practical purposes the countdown to the next parliamentary elections has begun. May the best side win, and may the country benefit from whatever the voters in their wisdom decide. Ultimately, voter sab janta hai!