THE voters’ verdict in the five states that recently went to polls is out. They have voted for change. In the three major states of the Hindi heartland – Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh – it has meant a revival of the Congress, which had been losing ground. Rahul Gandhi’s personality has gained seriousness and weight with the success of his party in the three major states. It is no more a wake-up call for Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP president Amit Shah; it is an alarm for them; for the elections in these three states were pitched as a semifinal before the final, that is, the Lok Sabha elections expected five months later. The BJP can hardly draw much satisfaction from the Congress loss to the Mizo National Front in Mizoram or the Congress inability to defeat the Telangana Rashtra Samiti in Telangana. For, though regional parties won in these two smaller states, the Congress came second and the BJP remained on the margin.
Losses in the Hindi heartland should unnerve the BJP as the party’s greatest strength comes from North India. What should worry the party more is the sign of Modi’s magic being on the wane. Modi emerged as a tremendously popular vote swinger for the BJP in 2014. Even as recently as in the Assembly elections in Karnataka, his campaign during the last few days turned the pitch in BJP favour, despite strong popular support for the Congress. Many poll pandits had mentioned a change in voters’ perception in favour of the BJP in Rajasthan, where everyone predicted the party government’s fall, in the last few days of his election campaign. However, the results reveal that his speeches failed to swing the vote in BJP’s favour in the three major states of Hindi heartland. It should be a matter of great worry for the Modi-Shah duo as the voters in the three states had elected 62 BJP candidates to the Lok Sabha in 2014. Losses in the Assembly elections, if projected on to the Lok Sabha elections, could mean loss of many of these seats to the Congress.
The Congress seems to be on a comeback trail. The party has been losing state after state since the 2014 elections. Of the 22 states that went to polls after 2014 the Congress won only two – Puducherry in 2016 and Punjab in 2017. After its strong show in the three major states of the Hindi heartland, Prime Minister Narendra Modi will have to think twice before talking about his self-given mission of ‘Congress-mukt Bharat.’ Even if he continues with his rhetoric, people might not take him seriously. For with the performance in the three major states the Congress can legitimately hope for a significant increase in the number of its MPs in the next Lok Sabha. In 2014, only 44 Congressmen could keep standing on their feet in the Modi storm. In 2019 there are likely to be many more.
There are many lessons for the BJP to learn from the results. First, people cannot be won over by just making promises. Those in power need to deliver on the promises they make. The BJP failed to deliver on its promises in the three states where it enjoyed power. The resentment ran deep in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh. The second lesson for the BJP is: deal with the farmers realistically and rationally. Anger of farmers against the government was a big factor in tilting the vote against the BJP in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan. The governments tried to win over farmers by announcing loan waiver, but that was not enough. The farmers needed assurance of a good profit – like in all businesses – as return on their investment. That is an issue that is not resolved by minimum support price. The third lesson for the BJP is that they should not try to capitalize on religious emotions to win elections. The Sangh parivar might need to switch off their orchestra on the Ram temple for the time being.
The results of the state elections will have a positive bearing on the efforts to forge opposition unity for the 2019 elections. The performance of the Congress will boost the morale of its workers in other states. As the party has done well, Rahul Gandhi can lay a legitimate claim to the leadership of the anti-BJP front. The results could lead to rearrangement of political alliances. Some of the allies of the National Democratic Alliance might switch over to the opposition front, as the Rashtriya Lok Samata Party headed by Upendra Kushwaha has done. To sum it up, the Lok Sabha elections of 2019 are going to be a close fight.