The Bharatiya Janata Party won the 2023 Madhya Pradesh election with a decisive majority of 164 seats, while the Congress lost 48 of the 114 seats it had won in 2018. While the Congress maintained its 2018 vote share at 40%, the BJP made an impressive gain of 7.5% at 48.6%, which explains the variation in seats distribution between the two parties.
Historical data shows that both the Congress and the BJP have been gaining vote share in the recent elections, as they attract votes that used to go to other parties and independent candidates. This year, most of these third parties’ votes went to the BJP, which accounts for the gap between the two parties.
In fact, the cumulative vote share of the Congress and the BJP in 2023 is the highest it has ever been, at 89%. This raises the bar of vote share required to win seats, which explains why the Congress lost so much even though it repeated its previous performance.
This is a significant development because an increasingly bipolar party system requires parties to adopt different mobilisation strategies that target voters well beyond their own traditional bases. The capacity to attract new voters and expand one’s electoral base is the first key difference between the Congress and the BJP at present.
The lack of fragmentation of the party system also tends to produce a large disproportionality in the conversion of votes into seats. The BJP gets 71% of the seats with 48.5% of the votes, while the Congress gets 28.7% of the seats with 40.4% of the votes. Past election results show that this disproportionality is a regular feature of Madhya Pradesh politics, to the advantage of the BJP since 2003.
A comparison of the 2018 and 2023 maps shows how the BJP expanded its presence across the state, more so in the Bhopal, Bundelkhand and Vindhya regions.
The Congress retained a few clusters of seats, notably in the Gwalior region, but lost ground across the state, which makes for a comprehensive defeat rather than a localised one.
The vote share maps of both parties show some marked regional variations in performance, with the BJP scoring higher in the centre of the state, while the Congress did better in its southern periphery.
The Congress did particularly poorly in Bundelkhand and in the Vindhya in the east. Greater variations in performance translated into greater losses as the BJP’s vote share distribution was not only at a higher level, but also more consistent.
Madhya Pradesh can be divided into six large sub-regions, all of which have distinct political histories and social contexts. Five years ago, the Congress increased its presence in the Malwa region, riding on the coattails of the protest by farmers in that area. Bundelkhand is adjacent to Uttar Pradesh and used to have some Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party presence, which has now disappeared. Many of the defectors that precipitated the fall of Kamal Nath-led Congress government in 2019 came from the Gwalior region, the seat of power of the Scindia family.
Breaking the BJP’s vote share by sub-region reveals that it made gains across the state in equal measure. This favors transversal explanations for its victory, rather than a sum of regional or local contexts.
Similarly, the Congress has maintained its presence across sub-regions and has not declined or gained significantly in any particular region.
The BJP’s gains were most impressive in Bundelkhand, where it gained nearly 10% of the votes, and in the Gwalior region, where it gained 9% of the votes. The fact that Congress also gained votes in Bundelkhand (3.4%) indicates that the BJP’s growth was not caused by an erosion of the Congress’s support in that region, but by a differentiated ability to attract new voters. In other words, this data does not indicate that the BJP converted many Congress supporters. It did a much better job at getting the votes of people who were voting for neither of the two parties in the past.
Strike rates offer a more precise measure of performance across sub-regions. The BJP won more than 80% of the seats in three of the state’s six sub-regions: Bhopal-Naramadapuram, Bundelkhand and the Vindhya region. The Congress remained competitive in the Gwalior region, something that Jyotiraditya Scindia and the BJP will not fail to notice.
High seat retention
Ninety-nine seats changed hands in this election, which is a relatively low number in a state whose politics has been characterised by high local volatility. Unsurprisingly, the BJP won most of those seats, at 76. The Congress managed to grab only 22 of those seats.
On the other hand, seat retention was high. The BJP retained 89 of the 109 seats it won in 2018 – before all the defections that took place subsequently. The Congress retained only 42 of the 114 seats it won in 2018, again before the defections. The map reveals that the retention capacities of both parties are located in distinct parts of the state.
There are 35 seats reserved for Scheduled Caste candidates and 47 Scheduled Tribe seats. In 2018, the BJP performed better in general and Scheduled Caste seats, compared to Scheduled Tribe seats. In 2023, it gained vote share across the three categories of seats, but more so in reserved seats.
The Congress also did better, relatively speaking, in Scheduled Tribe seats, and declined by 3% in SC seats.
Many close contests
The performance gap between the BJP and Congress hides the fact that many races were close. Sixty-three seats were won with a victory margin of less than 5%. The BJP won 32 of those seats, against 30 for the Congress. In Shajapur, the newly elected BJP legislator won by 28 votes and in Waraseoni by 46 votes. Seventeen seats were won with extremely small margins (less than 2%).
This is not to say that the overall result of the election might have been completely different. But very small differences in votes might have attenuated the amplitude of Congress’ defeat.
Overall, the BJP has an edge in terms of average victory margins, but this data is quite distributed. It also had far more heavy hitters. Of the 23 candidates who won with margins over 25%, 21 were from the BJP. The lone two Congress heavy hitters were Kailash Kushwaha in Pohari (25.6%), and Surendra Singh “Honey” Baghel in Kurshi (26.7%). The BJP’s highest victory margins were won by incumbent Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan in Budhni and Ramesh Mendole in the second constituency of Indore. Both won with a considerable 45% victory margin.
A sub-regional breakdown of victory margins shows that they were well distributed for the BJP, but less so for the Congress.
A participation bump
At 76.2%, participation in the 2023 election is the highest ever recorded in the state. Madhya Pradesh is one of the rare states where female participation has not overtaken male participation. Data to assess this for 2023 was not available.
Despite the bipolar character of the state’s politics, 108 parties contested, slightly less than in 2018, when the number of contesting parties – excluding independent candidates – was 119. Only three parties, however, found their way to the assembly – the Bharat Adivasi Party won its first and only seat in Sailana. This is the lowest number of parties represented in the Madhya Pradesh Vidhan Sabha since 1977.
An assembly of newcomers
Despite the BJP’s seat retention, the new assembly has 92 newcomers and only 49 MLAs were re-elected or elected for a second term. Eighty-nine MLAs have been elected more than twice, bringing their experience to the Assembly. This is a higher proportion than in most other north Indian states, where power tends to be more concentrated in the hands of a tiny elite of professional politicians. This higher presence of experienced politicians comes from the fact that the BJP has been a dominant force in Madhya Pradesh having been in power for the past 20 years – excluding Kamal Nath’s short interlude in 2018. Seventy-two of these 89 longstanding politicians belong to the BJP, against only 17 for the Congress.
The share of first-time MLAs has been in a sharp decline in Madhya Pradesh. Again, this is a function of the level of dominance of the BJP. But the chart below shows that the decline started earlier, in the early 1990s.
Dominance alone does not necessarily produce an experienced political class. The situation in Madhya Pradesh contrasts with Gujarat, where the BJP, under Narendra Modi, deliberately organised a high turnover of its political personnel. This shows that there are variations in terms of political culture and practices between the state branches of the BJP. While the party leadership in Gujarat fought against its own local barons, the BJP in Madhya Pradesh tends to cultivate them more.
More sitting MLAs contested this election, higher than in the previous four elections. A total of 185 sitting MLAs – accounting for defections and by-elections – contested again. Of them, 100 were elected again, which is a high ratio compared to previous elections and compared to most other states, where the strike rate of re-running incumbent candidates tends to be lower.
Fifty-four percent of incumbent candidates who contested were re-elected, a higher proportion for BJP incumbent candidates.
Slow growth of women’s representation
This time, 248 women contested the Madhya Pradesh election, just one more than in 2018. The lower number of total candidates (2,534 as against 2,899 in 2018) creates an artificial perception of growth. The assembly counts 28 women MLAs, seven more than five years ago. Twenty-one of them have been elected on a BJP ticket. Fifteen of them have been elected for the first time.
A comparison of the Congress’s and BJP’s records indicate that both parties are to blame for the low representation of women in Madhya Pradesh politics. The Congress used to do better than the BJP in the 1980s and 1990s. The BJP then caught up and increased the number of tickets distributed to women candidates, but never really did better than its opponent. In fact, the Congress nominated four more women than the BJP this year.
In terms of geography, 98 constituencies did not have a single woman candidate. Sixty-six constituencies had only one woman candidate, 38 had two. Twenty-seven constituencies had three women candidates or more. Rehli in Bundelkhand had eight women candidates. But the winner was a man, Gopal Bhargava.
In fact, only eight of the 27 constituencies that had more than three women candidates ended up electing a woman. This illustrates that nomination by strong parties is necessary for inclusion of women. It is striking that parties that committed themselves to the Women Reservation Bill are not showing any inclination to improve women’s representation before being constrained to do so. It is also revealing that parties that seek to actively mobilise women voters are not doing so through the provision of representation.
Muslims representation on the verge of extinction
Finally, Madhya Pradesh displays a trend already observed in Rajasthan, which is the nearly complete exclusion of Muslims from political representation. While the overall number of Muslim candidates is stable at around 4%, they make up less than 1% of the assembly. The BJP did not nominate a single Muslim candidate, in a state where they make 6.6% of the population, according to the 2011 Census.
The Congress nominated only two Muslim candidates, both in Bhopal who incidentally got elected. The fact that Congress too excludes Muslims from its lists is significant in a state where communal politics plays a defining role.
Upon his return to power, Shivraj Singh Chouhan sought to reinvent himself under the garb of “Bulldozer Mama”, emulating the repressive politics of neighbouring Uttar Pradesh and Chief Minister Adityanath.
Madhya Pradesh was also witness to protests against the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act in late 2019 and early 2020, which catalyzed the will of many Muslims to participate in their state and nation’s public life. The fact is that neither the BJP nor the Congress are willing to create a space for minority representation in that state.
This data exploration of the 2023 election in Madhya Pradesh does not cast any doubt or shadow over the performance of the BJP. The BJP succeeded in gaining more votes while the Congress succeeded in maintaining its presence.
But there is a larger process at work in state politics in the Hindi belt, which is an increasing bipolarisation of the competition. This has the effect of raising the bar to win seats. The level of performance that was sufficient to win an election is not enough. For a party like the Congress, raising the performance above 40% is a serious challenge, as it does not possess the tools and resources that BJP has in terms of money, ground force, media impact and so forth.
There is also a deficit of imagination against an adversary that mobilises voters on a multiplicity of themes. When the Congress attempts to fight the BJP on similar terms, be it welfare policy or Hindutva, it fails to differentiate itself from its opponent, which does not help with the task of winning new voters.
A third observation and another parallel with Rajasthan, is factionalism. Ever since the defection of Jyotiraditya Scindia and his followers in 2018, the Congress has been a divided house. Kamal Nath failed to establish his authority within the party. He also does not have the organisational talent and acumen displayed by Congress leaders in Karnataka.
The fact that the BJP’s performance cuts across sub-regions pushes towards transversal explanations of the outcome. As usual, the BJP wins by mobilising on multiple factors, welfare schemes being only one of them. These, however, seem to have been crucial in mobilising support from women across groups and communities.
Gilles Verniers is Senior Fellow at the Centre for Policy Research and Karl Loewenstein Fellow at Amherst College. Views are personal. The author expresses thanks to Abhishek Jha and Roshan Kishore for providing raw election data.