As results for five Indian state elections began to come in on Tuesday, many observers said they were the semi-final before the final test that will be the Lok Sabha polls, due in May 2019. But they have turned out to be more like the mock exams that students take before board exams: The results are instructive and in some cases quite surprising. But they tell us only a little bit about how prepared all players are for the big test, while making it clear that there are rough edges all around.
As of 1 pm, the Congress was set to take back Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh and has lost to the Mizo National Front in Mizoram, while the Telangana Rashtra Samiti looked on course to register a historic victory in Telangana. Madhya Pradesh remained a neck-and-neck battle between the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party. As the final results are awaited, here are a few quick takeaways:
No Congress-mukt North India
It is inevitable that Tuesday’s results are going to be interpreted in light of the General Elections due in 2019. But even presuming for a moment that they have no bearing on those polls at all, this verdict is still massive. Many expected that under Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Bharatiya Janata Party President Amit Shah, the saffron party would be the hegemonic party of the north. But suddenly significant portions of the Hindi belt are returning to Congress rule. Just the presence of Congress chief ministers in Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh is enough to offer a counter-point to BJP rule, at least at the state level, and to undermine the Modi-Shah aim of achieving a Congress-mukt Bharat – an India that is free of Congress rule. The same may hold true for Madhya Pradesh, where as of 1 pm, the results are still neck and neck. If indeed, the Congress is able to win all three North Indian states, it suggests at the least that there is a path towards a national revival for the party, even if it is one based entirely on leveraging the anti-incumbency sentiment against the BJP.
That does not mean North India, which went overwhelmingly saffron in the 2014 election, will suddenly be fully in play for the upcoming Lok Sabha elections. But the victories put wind in the sails of those who until now might have been concerned about the invincibility of the Modi-Shah combine, particularly in what is known as the Hindi heartland. The Congress’s manoeuvre in May to prevent the BJP from forming the government in Karnataka sent one message about halting the saffron party in South India. But managing to take back North Indian states means that the BJP’s path back to more than 272 Lok Sabha seats in 2019 suddenly becomes more complicated.
Congress-mukt North East?
Another result that needs examining without thinking about its impact on the 2019 general elections is the decisive verdict in favour of the Mizo National Front in Mizoram. The MNF is on course to win 22 seats in the 40-strong assembly, which would mean the Congress will not be in power in any of India’s North East states, a region that it once dominated. The Congress washout in the region has often been explained away by the argument that the North East states depend heavily on whoever is in charge in New Delhi. But the defections, internal squabbles and general allegations of corruption and nepotism should also concern the party. The BJP-run North East Democratic Alliance is now firmly in charge across the region, and will undoubtedly build on efforts to increase the direct presence of the saffron party itself, which also looks set to open its account in Mizoram for the very first time with one seat in the state.
KCR’s whopping victory
Telangana brought up two questions: could Chief Minister K Chandrasekhar Rao convert his popularity as a leader of the statehood movement into enduring political success? And can the unusual grand alliance, the mahakutami between the Congress, former arch-rival the Telugu Desam Party and a few others, create a template for what might work state to state in 2019? Both seem to have been answered decisively. Rao and his Telangana Rashtra Samiti are immensely popular. As of noon, the TRS had picked up 48% of all the votes in the state, compared to a little over 32% for the Congress-TDP alliance. Rao’s party is on track to win 88 of the 119 seats, giving him a landslide victory in a state where some expected the results to be close.
It seems evident that the TDP-Congress combine, which should have been competitive based on the arithmetic from the last election, has either not managed to transfer votes to each other or lost the popularity they had five years ago. Either way, Rao seems to be in an even stronger place than before. He has fully vindicated his decision to call for early elections in the state and will be well placed to play a part in the national stage if coalition questions come up.
Congress infighting remains a problem
Rajasthan was supposed to offer up the story of severe anti-incumbency against Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje, whom even those within the Bharatiya Janata Party were unhappy with. The state is also known to see-saw between the Congress and the BJP, as it has done for the last two decades. That trend seems like it will hold. As of noon, the Congress was leading and potentially in place to form the government with the support of a few independents. But it the expectation was that this would be a simple victory in Rajasthan because of how little support there was for Raje. Instead, it has ended up being a much closer election than expected, and many will put this down to infighting within the Congress, where power is split between two camps. Former Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot and the younger leader Sachin Pilot seemed to have set aside some of their differences as part of the effort to take on the BJP, but on ground the fact that the Congress has not pulled off a comfortable victory suggests it will have to take a close look at what went wrong.
The same question may also come up in Madhya Pradesh, where Congress state unit president Kamal Nath and the younger leader Jyotiraditya Scindia were seen as competing power centers, with the added wild card of former chief minister Digvijaya Singh. Would the party have done better if it had just one face? Or would having to anoint one face have led to rebellion? Even though this infighting issue is unlikely to come up ahead of 2019, with Congress President Rahul Gandhi unchallenged, it remains a serious drawback in the overall approach the party takes in the states.
Will 2019 be more presidential?
The 2014 election was unusual in being the first election since Indira Gandhi that revolved almost entirely around one personality. There was tremendous unhappiness with the Congress, a strong narrative of corruption and the aftermath of an economic crash to deal with, but the BJP managed to weave those strands into a message to sell the idea of Narendra Modi as the strong leader India needs. Once that worked, one of the questions that came up as Modi and BJP President Amit Shah engineered victory after victory in state elections thanks to the popularity of the prime minister, was whether they would be able to broaden the idea of the new BJP era beyond just that of Modi Sarkar or Modi rule. Initially, the party chose relatively less influential chief ministers in states like Haryana and Gujarat, and focused only on the idea of Congress-mukt Bharat, an India free of Congress rule.
But in the largest state, Uttar Pradesh, after using Modi’s popularity to win, the BJP picked as chief minister the firebrand Hindutva leader Adityanath – known as Yogi to his supporters because he is also a Hindu leader. Adityanath has been campaigning around the country on the BJP’s Hindutva platform, rather than the development mantra that Modi leaned on heavily in 2013 and 2014. Yet there is no sign of this working.
Rajasthan Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje, Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan and Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Raman Singh also all offer very different leadership styles in comparison to Modi. But since all of them are on shaky territory, it now looks likely that the BJP will have to lean even more heavily on the idea of Modi vs whoever-else. In this, he is aided by the fact that Congress President Rahul Gandhi is not nearly as popular as he is, and the Opposition has numerous other claimants to the leadership role. Still, with little positive to show for his time in power, the BJP might find that relying entirely on Modi to draw in votes will be harder this time around.