New Delhi: Assembly elections in five states – Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Telangana, Chhattisgarh, and Mizoram – kick off today November 7, with 20 out of the 90 seats in Chhattisgarh and Mizoram going to polls in the first phase of the state elections.
Mizoram will see polling in the backdrop of the communal Meitei-Kuki-Zo conflict in the neighbouring Manipur, the impact of which could be sensed even among the Mizo people, many of whom are closely related to the Kuki tribe. Chhattisgarh’s 20 seats going to polls are in the Adivasi-dominated Bastar, also one of the poorest regions in India.
The regions which go to polls first reflect the predominance of issues related to the poor and the marginalised communities. And thus, these issues are foregrounded like never before.
Political parties in the fray, across all the five states, have centred their canvassing around issues that directly impact the lives of the poor and those on the margins of the Indian socio-economic make up.
Earlier this year, the Karnataka assembly elections showed how the poor could swing the elections and upstage a state government. They consolidated behind the Congress to drive out what they believed was a corrupt and anti-poor administration. Frequent complaints like back-breaking price rise, especially the hike in LPG cylinder’s prices, poorly-managed social welfare programmes, a weakening public distribution system in the state could be heard across the state among sections of the rural poor. These, combined with perceptible investment in development work that benefited only the big businesses, were believed to be primary factors behind the impoverishment of the state’s rural population. A series of corruption scandals that made news quite frequently topped up as further insults to injuries of a majority of people.
The incumbent BJP government had to pay the price, while the Congress which emerged as the biggest opposition force registered almost an absolute majority in the assembly, mopping off even the Janata Dal (Secular). This party too had been in the thick of amplifying the political narrative against the B.S. Bommai-led government.
As the year will now end with new governments in five different states, the results will once again reflect the political will of the poor.
The outcome will be deemed significant as the Prime Minister Narendra Modi will seek a third consecutive term for his government early next year. Various surveys have pointed out that the assembly polls do not necessarily reflect the mood of the nation, which will come into play in the Lok Sabha polls. However, since the assembly results will also sharpen the evolving, but glaring, ideological differences between the saffron camp and the opposition forces, they will likely have a much bigger impact on the Lok Sabha polls than what is being imagined by commentators currently.
The emerging political binary
Over the last decade, the Modi-led BJP has emerged as a symbolic force behind large-scale infrastructure development and Hindutva-driven cultural renaissance in India. All the decisions taken by the prime minister in favour of the poor – like Ujjwala LPG scheme, PM Awas Yojana, or even the Gareeb Kalyan Yojana which provides free ration – pale in front of his government’s big infrastructure work. Of course, these schemes have done wonders for the BJP electorally in the short-term but the prime minister’s biggest draw among his supporters is that of a futuristic, visionary leader who can help India become a developed nation by 2047. In other words, big infrastructure development is Brand Modi’s biggest USP.
In contrast, BJP’s principal rivals, namely the Congress, other Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance partners, and even those on the fence like Biju Janata Dal, Bharat Rashtra Samithi, or even YSR Congress have decidedly moved towards charting a long-term social welfare agenda. The Congress campaign in Karnataka hinged upon material promises to the poor, and so has been its tilt in the upcoming assembly polls. At the same time, by demanding a caste census, the opposition parties have expanded the idea of social justice as part of its social welfare-driven political vision.
The binary between these two development models will likely be played up much beyond the assembly elections, and could be perceived as the sole difference between the BJP and the Congress-led opposition in the Lok Sabha polls. This will help the electorate decide their votes in what appears to be moving towards an increasingly bi-polar 2024 parliamentary elections.
The electorate of five states where assembly polls are being held will get to exercise this choice in the month of November. The BJP’s campaign in all the states have been a distant reflection of Modi’s 2014 campaign, as the saffron party has been driven to address the more immediate issues of people. The Congress campaign in all these states have successfully driven home the point that an overdose of Hindutva and big business development, often leading up to cronyism, under the BJP’s regime at the Centre have resulted in a neglect of issues like farming crisis, unemployment, inflation, and poor public health and education infrastructure.
Dominance of agrarian issues in the upcoming polls
In Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan, where Bhupesh Baghel and Ashok Gehlot are seeking another term, Congress has anchored its campaign around support to farmers and social security measures. If Baghel has advertised his government as one that gives the best minimum support price to farmers for their crop, Gehlot has been talking about measures like ‘Chiranjeevi’ which supports health care up to Rs 25 lakh, subsidy on LPG cylinders, and the implementation of the Old Pension Scheme for retired government employees. Baghel has gone ahead and promised even better MSP rates, loan waivers for farmers and self-help groups, and financial support to school and college-going children. Gehlot, too, has promised similar schemes like unemployment allowance, better wage rates, education and health infrastructure.
The stories of Madhya Pradesh and Telangana are also similar. Congress has led an aggressive campaign by promising several benefits to the poor, and has attempted to gain traction by amplifying the prevailing anti-incumbency sentiment against BJP’s Shivraj Singh Chouhan and BRS’s K. Chandrasekhar Rao-led state governments.
In all these four states, agrarian issues have emerged as the biggest grievance among the electorate.
There could be poor rates for the crop, drought-related complaints, water crisis in the absence of insufficient planned irrigation, high electricity prices, corruption in administrative offices, high debt level faced by farmers, stagnant wages, and multiple other problems that have emerged as a result of a failing agrarian economy.
To its credit, the Congress has drawn attention to these problems, forcing the BJP to address these issues in the run-up to the campaign. For instance, under pressure from Congress’s social welfare-driven campaign, the four-term chief minister Chouhan introduced a new ‘Ladli Behna’ scheme that gives Rs 1,250 per month to women, as a measure to consolidate women voters. BJP has promised similar schemes for women in the other poll-bound states too.
After Karnataka, the campaigns in the poll-bound states makes one wonder why and when agrarian issues stopped getting so much limelight in the elections. The year-long farmer’s movement against Modi government’s farm laws, and then a section of opposition parties picking up threads from the agitation, have now jolted a substantial section of the population to talk about agriculture-related issues with hope that governments will renew their efforts to address those problems.
Election-related media reports have shown that voters are beginning to articulate a degree of fatigue against Hindu-Muslim polarisation on which BJP has depended a lot politically, even as they speak increasingly about older development issues like agrarian crisis, social welfare, and social justice.
The prime minister’s silence on the ongoing conflict between Meiteis and Kuki-Zo communities is being questioned by voters in Mizoram, even as he chose not to campaign in Mizoram. His speeches in the other heartland states have been received as lacklustre, carrying barely the weight they used to in his first tenure. Following his unsuccessful, but aggressive, canvassing in Karnataka, the BJP may have been tactical in partially withdrawing him from the state-level campaigns. The move could also be intended to save him for his own prime ministerial run in 2024.
Factors like religious polarisation, until now, appear to be muted, as Congress leaders Kamal Nath, Baghel, and Gehlot have seen to it that they are not perceived as anti-Hindu and have systematically trained their attention to picking holes in the BJP administration at the Union government.
The Congress has also not been defensive over the frequent raids on their leaders ahead of the polls, and has attacked the BJP for allegedly misusing the central investigation agencies for political gains. BJP, on the other hand, has dismissed such claims and attacked the Congress by harping mostly on its usual criticisms – pointing out prevalence of dynastic politics, alleged corruption, and “freebie culture” in the grand-old party.
The run-up to the latest round of assembly elections indicate that issues of social justice and welfare, especially those surrounding the agrarian economy, are likely to dominate even the Lok Sabha polls. BJP can no more run away from it, as even religious polarisation as an electoral factor – the saffron party’s most-effective instrument – appears to be getting weaker than before. As people decide to vote within the emerging political binary in the upcoming state polls, they will also be readying the stage for the big political battle in 2024.