Not Rahul versus Modi: Any challenge to the BJP in 2019 will come from state parties

That’s obvious from India’s recent election history.

In the Gujarat Assembly elections, the results of which were declared on Monday, the Congress lost to the Bharatiya Janata Party. Yet, there are number of commentators who see a ray of hope in even this loss. This perception is driven by the fact that the Congress saw both its votes and seats increase. In terms of seats, this was the Congress’ best performance in 35 years.

The Congress president, Rahul Gandhi, in fact, even went so far as to call the election a “massive jolt” to the BJP. Other political watchers predicted that the 2019 Lok Sabha election will now see a face-off between BJP leader Narendra Modi and Congree chief Rahul Gandhi.

Congress underperformed in Gujarat

How valid is this analysis? While the Congress did manage to increase the number of seats it had in the Gujarat Assembly by 14, this was underwritten by a fairly small escalation in vote share: 2.6 percentage points. How impressive is this, given the factors that were helping the Congress? The BJP had to battle protests over the past few months by the state’s most powerful caste, the Patidars. It also had to face rural address and was blamed for harming business with the back-to-back blows of demonetisation and the Goods and Services Tax. In a state like Gujarat, where traders are a powerful lobby, this should have been a significiant disadvantage.

Yet, with such an impressive hand, all the Congress could do was increase its vote share by 2.6 percentage points. In fact, even the BJP saw its vote share rise by 1.2 percentage points.

Outside help

Even this small increase in the Congress’ vote share owes itself substantially to work done by non-Congress leaders in Gujarat. The anti-BJP campaign was spearheaded by Hardik Patel, the young Patidar leader. Under Hardik Patel, the influential Patidars have been mobilising against the ruling BJP for a couple of years now. Jignesh Mewani, a left-wing Dalit leader provided the Dalit voice against the BJP. He fought the election as independent with help from the Congress. Alpesh Thakor, a prominent Other Backward Caste leader, joined the Congress just ahead of the election. Both Mewani and Thakor won the seats they contested.

Even as outsiders buoyed up the Congress, most of the party leadership in Gujarat found themselves losing. Senior leaders Shaktisinh Gohil, Arjun Modhvadia, Siddharth Patel and Tushar Chaudhary were defeated by BJP candidates.

Downward trajectory

Gujarat, of course, is hardly an exception. The Congress is losing across India. Right now, the party has chief ministers in only two large states, Karnataka and Punjab. There is little hope of that changing in the near future. Given this trend, projections of the Congress stepping up to seriously challenge the BJP in the 2019 general election border on the optimistic. Instead, as is evident from the rise of Hardik Patel, the real challenge to the BJP will come not from the Congress High Command but from within the states.

This point is amply backed up by the historical data.

There have been 23 Assembly elections since the Lok Sabha elections in 2014 that elected Narendra Modi to the prime minister’s office (this inlcudes five which were held concurrently with the Lok Sabha election). Only two saw the Congress form governments. One in Punjab and the other in the Union territory of Puducherry – neither of which had the BJP as a direct competitor. Wherever there has been a direct Congress and BJP face off in a major state since 2014, the saffron party has won. Since Modi became prime minister, the BJP has ousted Congress governments from Maharashtra, Haryana, Jharkhand, Assam and Uttarakhand.

State parties fight on

On the other hand, the parties that have managed to keep the BJP at bay have been state parties. In the Bihar and Delhi Assembly elections – both of which the BJP was a major player – the saffron party crashed to a defeat. In 2015, in Bihar, it was defeated by a Grand Alliance of the Rashtriya Janata Dal, Janata Dal (United) and the Congress. The Congress was the smallest party in the alliance, getting only a third of the votes the RJD pulled in. In Delhi, in the same year, the BJP won only 4% of the seats in the Assembly with the Aam Aadmi Party sweeping the city-state.

Moreover, the states in which the BJP is weak are those in which strong regional parties dominate. In West Bengal, it is the Trinamool Congress and in Tamil Nadu, the two Dravidian parties.

The only state in which a Congress-BJP face-off is not an academic matter is Karnataka, which goes to the polls in 2018. However, even that is solely because of the presence of a strong state leader in Chief Minister Siddaramaiah, rather than the Congress high command in Delhi.

History repeats itself

That one major national party is getting challenged not by another national party but by multiple contenders in the states is not new. This is exactly how the Congress itself was cut down to size in the first place. It took strong state parties in places such as Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh and Bihar to severely challenge the Congress in the 1990s. Even the BJP at the time was driven bottom-up with the presence of powerful state satraps, the most prominent of which was Narendra Modi himself.

To counter the BJP’s pitch of Hindu nationalism, state parties have latched on to issues like linguistic nationalism and state pride. Even the Congress is now relying on Siddaramaiah’s Kannada nationalism to fend off a strong challenge from the BJP in 2018. Siddaramaiah has emphasised on the need for a Karnataka flag and strongly countered attempts to impose Hindi on the state.

The suggestion that 2019 election will be a straight fight between Rahul Gandhi and Narendra Modi is a neat formulation. But given India’s electoral history, it is far more probable that the BJP will be challenged more vigorously by power centres in various states.

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