Parsa Venkateshwar Rao Jr | Local factors led to BJP’s Hindi belt poll triumph

The Asian Age.  | Parsa Venkateshwar Rao Jr

Opinion, Columnists

The hard reality is that the Modi factor was absent in all the four states.

Prime Minister and senior BJP leader Narendra Modi with BJP National President J.P. Nadda, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh and Union Home Minister Amit Shah during celebrations after party's victory in elections to the Legislative Assemblies of Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, at BJP headquarters, in New Delhi, Sunday, Dec. 3, 2023. (PTI Photo)

The BJP has won three of the states north of the Vindhyas -- Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh -- with clear margins. The Congress has scored an emphatic victory in Telangana for the first time since the state was formed a decade ago. There are three ways of interpreting these results. First, that the BJP retains its hold in the Hindi heartland. Second, it can be seen as a clear anti-incumbency vote in the four states. Though the BJP came to power after the Congress lost its majority due to the defection of Jyotiraditya Scindia in Madhya Pradesh, the Congress had won the 2019 election. So, the 2023 verdict marks the electoral return of the BJP in the state. The third way is to see it as a disaster staring the Congress in the face, and how these results in the Hindi-speaking states weakens its position in the INDIA formation for the 2024 Lok Sabha elections. Of the three, the second one, of anti-incumbency, seems to be the realistic interpretation.

The BJP is in a curious position as it stands on the victory stand. There are enough internal problems in the party in Rajasthan and in Madhya Pradesh. But the victory pushes the cracks under the carpet, as it were. But this is a testing time for Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Union home minister Amit Shah because there are enough challenges to the leadership in the two states. And it will be difficult for either of them or their supporters in the party high command to claim that these electoral victories are an endorsement of Prime Minister Narendra Modi as the leader of the party and of the nation. The hard reality is that the Modi factor was absent in all the four states. It is the local factors that were behind the Assembly election results, and they cannot very easily be enumerated or outlined.

But the BJP would want to refurbish Mr Modi’s image through these results, which is a legitimate political tactic. The Modi image has frayed in the last nine years, and though the party and the leader hang on to the charisma of the leader idea, they know that it is not so. The party’s victory then remains a puzzle, and as long as they are winning there is no need for them to dig out the facts of the case.

An interesting aspect of these Assembly elections is that despite headline numbers of Assembly seats won and lost, the vote share tells a different story. It shows that the Opposition in these states has not been wiped out as suggested by the majorities, and that is a good sign. In Madhya Pradesh, the BJP has nearly 50 per cent of the vote -- 48.50 per cent to be exact -- to the Congress’ 40.37 per cent, though the figures suggest that the margin of difference in the vote share should be greater going by the fact that BJP has double the number of seats of the Congress – 150-plus to 71-plus. Similarly, in Rajasthan, though the victory margin is less compared to that in Madhya Pradesh, with the BJP getting 110-plus seats to the Congress’ 65-plus, the vote share is comparatively narrower: 42 per cent-plus for the BJP and 39 per cent-plus for the Congress. In Chhattisgarh, the BJP’s lead is past the halfway mark of 45 in a House of 90, and the Congress is hovering at 35-plus, but the vote share is closer, the BJP’s 45.84 per cent to the Congress’ 41.82 per cent. The imbalance in the number of seats compared to vote share is quite clear, but that is the discrepancy we have to learn to live with.

Also, it has been a battle between two dominant parties in each state, but it remains to be seen what the role of the local leader is. In Rajasthan and in Chhattisgarh, the Congress had a clear position as to who the leader is: Ashok Gehlot and Bhupesh Baghel respectively. In Madhya Pradesh, there was no clarity though Shivraj Singh Chouhan and Kamal Nath have remained the nominal leaders of their respective parties in the state. The BJP went into the polls in Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh without a local leader in the forefront. It was clear at the same time that Prime Minister Modi was not the reason the party had won in these states. So, people vote in a way that stumps the best-laid plans of parties and their leaders. The people’s choice remains inscrutable even as politicians and pundits look for the reasons of their victories and losses. In many ways, it is good for democracy that people in their unplanned and collective exercise of the vote, manage to keep everyone guessing, or even on tenterhooks.

It is but natural that the BJP will get into campaign mode enthused by the victories in the three states and with greater confidence. The BJP leaders, including Prime Minister Modi and home minister Amit Shah, have always been boastful in victory as well as in defeat. But the victories in the three states will increase their boastfulness. The Congress faces an uphill task of trying to make out how to regain its foothold in North India, which is the clinching factor in the 2024 Lok Sabha elections. But the vote share shows that the Congress regains a quite bit of the ground, and it need not sink into despair. It remains a party to reckon with where it is a fight between the BJP and the Congress.

Though the BJP would want to shout from rooftops that the victories are an endorsement of its Hindu-first programme, and that the Ram Mandir in Ayodhya has swayed the sentiments of the people in its favour, the reasons are more mundane, if also more complicated. But the usual game in politics is details be damned, it is victory that matters and once victory is achieved, one can give it any name one wants to. Now that the BJP has won in the three Hindi-speaking states, it can attribute it to the Ram Mandir factor, which it may not have been.

The results in these Assembly elections cannot in any way be considered a precursor to the 2024 Lok Sabha elections. Even if the BJP wins, and going by today’s reckoning it looks a winner, it will not certainly be due to its victories in these Assembly elections. The Congress and INDIA, the Opposition conglomerate, have to look at the 2024 contest as a fresh round.