State elections in India: Bellwether for 2019?

The importance of the “semi-finals” lies, therefore, in the distinct possibility of the prevailing political assumptions being overturned, especially about the BJP’s invincibility, writes Amulya Ganguli for South Asia Monitor   
By Amulya Ganguli Dec 4, 2018
Since all elections in India – in village panchayats (councils), urban municipalities, student unions – are seen as bellwether events indicating the direction of the political wind, it is not surprising that the ongoing assembly polls in the five states are being seen as the semi-finals ahead of the big final of next year’s national election.
As in the final, the two main contenders in four of the five states - Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chattisgarh and Telangana - are the BJP and the Congress, thereby promising to provide a clear indication of where the two parties stand with respect to one another.
The comparison has been made all the more intriguing by the fact that five years ago the BJP had severely mauled the Congress, leaving it with a mere 44 seats in the Lok Sabha - Parliament’s lower house - its lowest ever tally.
But what is significant is the dramatic change in the scene in the last four and a half years with the Congress getting up from the floor and posing a credible challenge to its main adversary, so much so that its victory is almost certain in Rajasthan while it is expected to run a close race with the BJP in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh and oust the ruling Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) from power in Telangana in the company of its new ally, the Telugu Desam.
The Congress may find it difficult, however, to retain power in Mizoram at a time when the BJP is making inroads in other north-eastern states.
Whatever the results, there is no denying that the Congress has succeeded in leaving behind its ignominious defeat of 2014 – which made one of its major leaders, Jairam Ramesh, say that the party is facing an “existential crisis” – and is ready to give the BJP a run for its money.
The importance of the “semi-finals” lies, therefore, in the distinct possibility of the prevailing political assumptions being overturned, especially about the BJP’s invincibility. Few will now believe in BJP president Amit Shah’s prediction of a “50-year reign” for his party or the National Security Adviser, Ajit Doval’s advice about the need for a decade of stable governance under the present dispensation.
Instead, the country will appear to be entering a new phase of politics where the main players will be the BJP and the Akali Dal on one side and the Congress and some of the regional parties like the Telugu Desam, Trinamool Congress, Nationalist Congress Party, the Samajwadi Party and the DMK on the other.
There is a superficial similarity between these two opposing line-ups and the 1977 scenario, when the Congress was pitted against a range of other parties. Not surprisingly, the BJP today has been deriding the opposition combine as a motley group which will be unable to hold together because of the ego tussles between the top leaders.
However, the difference between 1977 and 2018-19 is that the BJP is not quite what the Congress was in the earlier year when the halo worn by Indira Gandhi as the liberator of Bangladesh had not been irretrievably damaged by her draconian Emergency rule (June 1975-March 1977).
This was the reason why she was able to storm back into power in 1980, especially after she refurbished her leadership credentials by riding an elephant through muddy and waterlogged fields to reach a Dalit village in Bihar which had experienced a savage attack by upper-caste goons.
There are other surface similarities between then and now. Like Indira, Modi is perceived as a “strong” leader. Like Indira, people believe that he cares for the poor.
But unlike Indira, Modi cannot boast of any memorable achievement, like breaking Pakistan in two by defeating the Pakistan army in the East Pakistan in 1971 and taking 90,000 soldiers as prisoners.
Nor has Modi been able to fulfil his pre-poll promises of revving up the economy and ensuring job creation or bringing back unaccounted “black money” stashed in Swiss banks. It is his series of failures on this front, particularly with regard to employment, which are believed to be hurting the BJP in the state elections.
Moreover, these failures have combined with the almost inevitable anti-incumbency sentiments suffered by the three BJP- run state governments in the three heartland states of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, where the party has been in power for 15 years.
Will the Congress be able to take advantage of the twin effects of Modi’s inadequacies at the national level and the BJP’s anti-incumbency in the states? The Congress’s advantage is that it can take on the BJP virtually on its own because it is the first among the opposition parties with a considerable presence in these states and leaders with a base.
That the other parties are minor players in the three states is evident from the fact that the vote share of the BJP and the Congress is about 80 per cent, leaving other parties such as the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) with a minuscule base.
In Rajasthan, for instance, the voting percentage of the BJP in the last assembly election in 2013 was 46.03 and the Congress’s 33.7; in Madhya Pradesh, the BJP percentage was 44.8 and the Congress’s 36.3; and in Chhattisgarh, the BJP’s percentage was 41.06 and the Congress’s 40.2.
Except for Chhattisgarh, the difference in the vote share between the BJP and the Congress can seem too wide to be easily crossed by the latter. But one has to remember that much has changed in the political landscape since 2013.
In that year, the BJP’s tide was rising because of the Manmohan Singh government’s perceived entanglement in multiple scandals and a so-called policy paralysis because of the differences over the economic direction between the prime minister’s pro-market approach and Congress president Sonia Gandhi’s populism.
The scene now is different. While the BJP is experiencing an ebb tide, the Congress’s prospects have changed in a manner which few could have anticipated in 2014-15. As its victories in the by-elections to the Alwar and Ajmer Lok Sabha seats and in Mandalgarh assembly seat in Rajasthan, and in the Mungaoli and Kolaras assembly seats in Madhya Pradesh showed, the party has bounced back.
Among the factors which have helped the Congress to claw its way back into reckoning is Rahul Gandhi’s curious transformation from a diffident, dilettantish, seemingly part-time politician who once vanished from the scene for nearly two months into a combative leader who is effectively interacting with big guns in the other parties.
One fallout of this interaction is the Congress’s alliance with its erstwhile inveterate enemy, the Telugu Desam, the ruling party in Andhra Pradesh for the assembly elections in neighbouring Telangana, where a survey has predicted the victory of the two parties over the ruling TRS with the BJP trailing way behind.  
Why is Modi stumbling? The people may have forgiven him for his perceived economic bloomers – demonetization, shambolic implementation of the goods and services tax – if he had been able to, first, keep the virulently anti-Muslim Hindu zealots under control and, secondly, as if to make up for this lapse, try to control the various autonomous institutions, leading to the implosion in the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) and a running fracas with the Reserve Bank. BJP chief Amit Shah’s dream, therefore, of a 50-year reign by the BJP is looking unlikely to come true.
(The author is a political analyst. He can be contacted at

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