As last of the ballot machines are counted impacting contours of national politics, there are already some conclusions being drawn in television debates about the nature of the election results today, most lazily called the semi-final to 2019. Is the Modi wave over? Has Rahul Gandhi finally arrived? Would it help unite the opposition? Has agrarian distress begun to hurt? A spring in the steps of Congressmen is already discernible, as also a spark in the larger opposition against the BJP. While the BJP’s loss to Congress in Hindi heartland states of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, and Chattisgarh fits the anti-incumbency narrative, and must prompt the party to recalibrate its electoral strategy, most of these inferences could prove to be premature.
By the incumbency logic it should have been a walkover for the Congress. Instead, except for Chattisgarh, where the BJP’s decimation is most complete, both Rajasthan and MP show the party made a good fight at the hustings, even turning the latter into a cliff-hanger. Reports suggest leadership tussle already shaping up in both the state capitals. While BJP is not present in Telangana, Congress failed again to own the birthing of the infant state despite Sonia Gandhi’s only campaign appearance. Losing to Mizo National Front in Mizoram ends last of Congress presence in the North East.
This election did show a sharp learning curve by the principal opposition party, running a tight campaign, borrowing a lot of ideas from the BJP from the use of social media to Amit Shah’s celebrated booth management. The temple-run politics succeeded in projecting Congress as an equally Hindu party minus Hindutva vis-à-vis the BJP, washing off minority appeasement tag at the same time. The experiment – begun in Gujarat last year and perfected in Karnataka – has seen its maturation in this campaign.
The results also clearly show Congress’ populism trumping BJP’s smug belief that Modi government’s central schemes would see it through. Farm loan waivers in all its manifestoes seem to have played a clear role with the predominantly rural electorates in the three states. Ground reports from Chattisgarh suggest farmers withholding selling their paddy crop as Congress promised a 20% higher MSP than the BJP. In Madhya Pradesh, farmers have withheld repaying their outstanding loans anticipating a Congress government. It is perplexing why the BJP did not respond to this populist measure with one of its own, given its governments in Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh, and Rajasthan have already implemented waivers in some measure. The cliff-hanger in MP shows Shivraj Singh Chauhan held strongly against incumbency and might have been hit more by voter fatigue - even boredom - among BJP’s core constituents. While Rajasthan fits in with its general trend since 1993 of alternating the ruling party, the BJP might need a greater dissection in case of Chattisgarh where its failure to benefit from the divide in opposition vote with Ajit Jogi’s third front with Mayawati suggests a mass discontent among all sections of the populace.
Does that translate into Congress becoming a sheet anchor for opposition unity heading into 2019? Yes, with the caveat that it does not necessarily mean leadership of opposition alliance for Rahul Gandhi. Far from it, this might make regional parties even more sceptical of Congress as we have seen in the case of BSP and TRS. Even TDP has not gained anything from its coming together with the Congress in Telangana, and Chandrababu Naidu might realise at some expense the cost of fishing in the same electoral pond with the Congress party in his own State.
Finally, it would be a mistake to see in today’s verdict any referendum on Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his government at the centre. As explained above, BJP has held on to its vote share despite not giving in to the temptation to be populist. Modi’s big strike rate in constituencies where he campaigned with his rallies remains intact. This despite a considerable drawdown in the number of rallies addressed by the Prime Minister. There are lessons of course. For one, there seems to be a visible absence of second rung of leadership in the States. In Gujarat the party has struggled to find a leader of some stature to fill in the shoes of Modi in Gujarat. Similar picture emerges in the case of Raman Singh, Shivraj Singh Chauhan, and Vasundhara Raje in respective states. While running a tight ship, BJP central leadership could have given more freedom to the respective state leaderships to work on their manifestoes. The challenge for the BJP would be to draw all lessons and devise a strategy to take on a resurgent Congress.
(Abhishek Kapoor is Republic TV's Executive Editor)