A dominant and assertive victory has been claimed by the national ruling Bharatiya Janata Party across three crucial state assemblies: Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, and Chhattisgarh.
The Congress may have managed a comprehensive electoral win in Telangana to comfort themselves for now, consolidating their position in the south (a space where the BJP remains less visible) after winning Karnataka, but a lot of questions are going to be asked of the Grand Old Party. Its future role in the national opposition alliance, INDIA, six months before the 2024 Lok Sabha polls is key among them.
Things cannot look darker for any opposition alliance hoping to stand against the BJP at this point. The state assembly poll results are a hard wake-up call for all the INDIA alliance members.
We do see how people across and within states vote differently for assembly elections versus national elections, but, if the current victories for the BJP say anything, it would be that an aggressive push for Hindutva politics, BJP’s own model of poor-centred welfarism, and a new aspirational idea for ‘developing India’ pitched under a hyper-nationalist wave, helps the national ruling party score over any other contesting party, especially in the northern Hindi-speaking states.
There are still some key lessons emerging from the polls that warrant a closer look.
Constituency-wise party-voter share details
A closer look at party-wise vote shares (and breaking these down across communities), will help one understand what happened across constituencies for each party’s vote share base this time around.
The difference in percentage of vote share between the BJP and the Congress may not appear to be very high at this point, but, even a few points’ difference is enough for a party to have a considerable margin of victory or defeat in terms of seat-wise victory against the other.
Observing seat-wise vote share and relating it to each party’s previous strike rates there is a must before drawing any serious analysis for any given election result. This will help each party understand and comprehend where their ground efforts may have faltered.
For example, it is being increasingly observed now how the majority of the OBC vote bank, based on different caste-based electoral arithmetic, is pivoting in favour for the BJP, especially in the northern states, even if, the vote share of the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribe goes for the Congress or a regional opposition party.
This needs further scrutiny. Till the time any opposition party can get the Other Backward Classes, the SC and the ST voter bases together, they cannot win comprehensively. In the south too, the OBC vote, on the other hand, has closely pivoted in favour for the Congress. We saw this in Karnataka too.
Another point to observe is the preference amongst the electorate for a decisive mandate in the recent Indian elections. While political pundits and exit pollsters predicted a tough, close contest between the BJP and the Congress in electorally vital states of MP, Rajasthan, and Chhattisgarh, none of the close margin vote-base contesting seats turned away from the early leads established by either of the parties today. People on the ground seem quite clear about what or who they want – more than what those who are observing or interpreting the numbers and framing fictional narratives from newsrooms may think.
After the Karnataka victory for the Congress, it was apparent how that victory had a lot more to do with the way the grassroots-level leadership and cadre their had united (rather than stay divided) against the BJP under the local Congress leadership. The Telangana victory for the Congress under Reddy underscores a similar set of observatory points, keeping aside context-dependent factors that enabled it to counter the BRS and KCR’s incumbent leadership in this case.
Southern states have also been seen opting against the BJP-Hindutva model to prefer whatever that comes against that – whether in terms of the Congress or other regional party-based networks.
In creating an Access (In)Equality Index, measuring for state-wise access to pillars of basic amenities, healthcare, education, social security, finance, and legal recourse through 58 indicators, we saw how southern states like Telangana, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Karnataka, have all performed remarkably better across all pillars of performative evaluation than the northern states, where the BJP electorally does well.
A socio-cultural history of localised economic and social movements safeguarding basic public goods, and capability-enhancing opportunities has made most southern states position themselves distinctly, and perform better in almost all key development indices.
This explains why BJP’s ‘poor-centreed welfarism’ in its own model of governance vision does not appear to work here, compared to some of the other, northern states (from UP to MP to Rajasthan) where the proportion of poor, low-income voting electorate is substantively higher.
A Mukhya Mantri Ladli-Behna Yojana in MP can help galvanise a lot more women votes in favour of the BJP as against a similar scheme-based electoral pivot happening in southern states where the electorate is more educated and has electoral preferences shaped a lot more around upward-mobility enhancing factors. Anyone studying the history of the two-party contests between DMK and AIDMK in Tamil Nadu will see how each of these competed strongly against each other for decades while almost never compromising on pursuing welfare models safeguarding upward mobility for the state-citizenry.
It’s not just about competing models of welfarism at stake in the south-north divide that separate a BJP’s northern stronghold compared to its electoral weakness in the south.
An aggressive, non-compromising push of Hindutva, while pursuing a hegemonic policy of ethno-linguistic cohesion around Hindi-speaking dominance does not work for the double engine Modi-anchored BJP in the south at all.
The BJP in this respect is both socio-linguistically limited or circumscribed in its local cadre and communication strategy across southern state assemblies, where sub-regional diasporas have remained dominant and embedded in a more complex ethno-linguistic fragmentation.
Even if national parties like the Congress come to power in some of these southern states (say, Congress emerging victorious in Telangana and Karnataka) it’s where there is a strong anti-incumbency factor developed against the regional or existing party in power (KCR’s BRS in Telangana and the BJP in Karnataka).
The Grand Old Party also has a relatively better organisational cohort on the ground in the southern states, due to the party’s older networks and historical links with solidarity networks and social movements, as compared to the BJP, but this gain may only remain temporal in nature.
In a recent interview Prashant Kishor gave to Shoma Chaudhary, he spoke at length about how resilient Indian electoral democracy is at its roots, from a bottom up, village to city perspective, which the state assembly poll results reflect. He also spoke of how people from one village to another often evaluate a complex layer of social, economic, and political factors before voting for one party against another. It’s not as binarily linked as it may seem from outside.
Still, any major party, that aspires to bring real change, needs to do so from that level too, while providing not just a cohesive but a persistent vision to uproot any dominant party or narrative.
Leaving all the granulations of arithmetic aside, BJP got decisive mandates in three states.
What appears clear is that the Grand Old Party, whether at a national or state level, is failing to provide any coherent vision for the electorate against its counterpart. The Bharat Jodo Yatra, as argued earlier, may have helped the grassroots-level Congress party workers and the larger party cadre to find some solidarity and share a common sense of optimism, but to equate that ‘good feeling’ with the fact of becoming the ‘main reason’ for resounding state-level electoral victories is committing a huge disservice to both, the party’s own internal electoral machinery anchored by Siddaramaiah and D.K. Shivakumar, the role of other socio-economic factors such as price rise, unemployment, high corruption that mobilised a protest vote against the BJP.
Now, in much of the news room discussions around Congress’ Telangana victory, the same narrative – the Bharat Jodo Yatra working in favour of Congress due to Rahul Gandhi, is being echoed all over again, instead of credit to the local leadership and cadre for mobilising the protest vote against KCR’s BRS.
The Congress, particularly in context to the role of the Gandhi family, may very well continue to do what they have done so far, seen in the months ahead too and recognise what has worked for their party’s electoral appeal in Himachal Pradesh, Karnataka (and what worked for it in cases of Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh during their last assembly elections).
Unfortunately, the Gandhi-family has done little to ensure this in actual due process, which the current results show. The Party’s core decision making architecture remains deeply rooted within the family’s dynastical form of operational and functional politics which has only increased factionalism and disorganised the party’s core vision. The BJP is therefore happy to let the Gandhi-family silently anchor the party to ruin knowing very well on how well it does against the Congress in a one-on-one contest.
What to do? Well, Kishor made a revelation recently drawing upon the lessons offered by the applied and tested political practice of one of the oldest Congressmen, Mahatma Gandhi’s own ideals. He gave a template of what worked in mobilising the Indian nationalist protest vote against the British. There is value in envisioning an alternate course of political, socio-economic developmental vision.
In 2024, despite what electoral verdict India’s south might give for now, numbers from the Hindi heartland, which would also matter in deciding the 2024 polls, show how the BJP’s ruthlessly pragmatic vision is still accepted without contest because of a feeble opposition. Unfortunately, everyone, except the Congress, rusting under a confused leadership of the Gandhi family, have realised this.
Deepanshu Mohan is associate professor of economics and director, Centre for New Economics Studies, Jindal School of Liberal Arts and Humanities, O.P. Jindal Global University.