By Our Correspondent
NEW DELHI – The Bharatiya Janata Party has emerged as the dominant political force in the Hindi heartland states of Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh in the results for Assembly elections announced on December 3, while the Congress could win only in the southern state of Telangana, where it unseated the Bharat Rashtra Samithi (BRS). The BJP was relegated to third position in Telangana.
In Mizoram, where the Assembly election results were announced on December 4, a regional party, Zoram People’s Movement (ZPM), has wrested power from the Mizo National Front (MNF), an ally of the BJP at the Centre. The ZPM has won 27 seats, six more than the majority mark in the 40-member Mizoram Assembly. Led by Lalduhoma, an ex-IPS officer, the ZPM made it a single-party show. The MNF bagged 10, Congress one and BJP two seats.
The electoral outcome has put the BJP ahead of the Opposition in the run-up to the 2024 general elections. With these results, the BJP now has 12 Chief Ministers in the country and the Congress has only three. The BJP had lost all the three northern states in 2018, but it toppled the Congress government in Madhya Pradesh, to return to power in 2020. The BJP leaders have credited Prime Minister Narendra Modi for the party’s victory, as he extensively toured the poll-bound states for addressing the election rallies.
The Congress suffered a humiliating defeat in Madhya Pradesh where it hoped to gain from anti-incumbency sentiments, which turned out to be non-existent. In Chhattisgarh, the Congress’s social engineering and welfare politics could not challenge the storm of corruption allegations along with religious symbolism which the BJP had unleashed.
In Rajasthan, Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot’s election campaign fell short in the face of a strong anti-incumbency trend against Congress MLAs. The state followed its tradition of voting out the incumbent government in every election during the last three decades. The results depicted an influence of the BJP’s identity politics on the voters as well as the acceptance of Modi’s “guarantee of delivering on guarantees” during a series of rallies he addressed in the state during the election campaign.
The BJP has won 163 seats and Congress 66 in Madhya Pradesh. In Rajasthan, the BJP has emerged victorious on 115 seats and Congress on 69 seats. The BJP won 54 seats in Chhattisgarh, followed by Congress, which won 35 seats. In Telangana, Congress won 64 seats and BRS 39 seats, while the BJP won 8 seats and All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen won 7 seats.
The severe setback to Congress in the Assembly elections and its inability to defeat the BJP in a direct contest on the plank of social justice and welfare politics may force the party to rethink on its strategies for the 2024 general elections. Congress leader Rahul Gandhi, who is said to be working on the next edition of the Bharat Jodo Yatra from East to West, had championed the social justice plank by demanding a caste-based census and argued for a higher share for other backward classes in jobs.
Together with Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge, Gandhi, in a departure from the earlier stance on the women’s reservation law, had also argued for quota within quota for OBC women. But the demand for a separate caste census and the OBC outreach did not make an impact on the voters of the Hindi heartland. The Congress had highlighted OBC credentials of outgoing Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel and his Rajasthan counterpart, Ashok Gehlot, but it did not impress the voters.
In Chhattisgarh, where OBCs and tribals make up bulk of the population, an emphasis on OBC groups has apparently pushed the tribals towards the BJP. In Madhya Pradesh too, where OBC groups are supposed in overwhelming numbers, voters were not swayed by the Congress promises. The disconnect between expectations and ground realities, especially in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, was more than obvious in public statements by the party’s top leadership about comfortably winning these states.
A key focus of the Congress campaign was to project the guarantees that its governments were offering. In Rajasthan, universal health insurance of up to Rs. 25 lakh, providing relief from inflation by offering LPG cylinders at Rs. 500 and the Old Pension Scheme (OPS) for the government employees were highlighted. In Chhattisgarh, the party had showcased higher procurement price and cash assistance to farmers.
After the Congress won Karnataka, the guarantee politics had gained such momentum that even Modi had started talking about his own guarantees and announced the Centre’s decision to extend its scheme of providing free ration to 81.3 crore poor beneficiaries by five years at his election rallies. The effectiveness of Modi’s guarantees also may have adversely affected the Congress and the Opposition’s plans to frame the polls as a contest between people-centric guarantees and the BJP’s identity politics.
The BJP has been pitching on Modi’s promises as a counter to the Congress’s plank of schemes for the beneficiaries. Other issues raised by the BJP, such as crimes against women and Dalits, corruption rampant in the government departments, paper leaks in the government recruitment exams and the alleged appeasement of Muslims made an impact in the constituencies where the polling percentage was recorded high in Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh.
The victory in Telangana may be seen as a consolation prize for the embattled Congress, as it continues to find support in the southern states. After the impressive win in Karnataka, the Congress and the INDIA alliance have tried to consolidate their position in the southern states of Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Telangana, Andhra Pradesh and Kerala which together elect over 130 Lok Sabha members. A revival in Telangana will boost the morale of the party workers in neighbouring Andhra Pradesh as well.
Congress faces an uphill task of regaining support in the Hindi-speaking states in time for the 2024 elections. The overall electoral map now suggests a divergence between the BJP strongholds in the north and the west, and southern states where non-BJP parties are in power. But the party’s performance in Telangana where it won eight seats compared to just one last time is notable.
While the decisive victory will give the BJP’s central leadership the authority to have its way in government formation in three northern states, the credit for the impressive show will go to Modi, who will be seeking a third straight term in the next general elections. The Congress will also realise that the planks of social justice and welfare schemes are essential but not sufficient tools for victory.
The BJP’s communal approach in the election campaign and Hindutva politics seems to have impressed all caste groups of the majority community in the Hindi heartland. The caste politics as a counter to communalism is not effective in the present circumstances, as the BJP has made conscious efforts to be seen as anti-Muslim devoid of any religious inclusivity. To counter the BJP, the Congress will need to do an introspection with a greater ideological clarity.