BJP secures dominant 3-2 victory in Assembly elections, amplifies Congress’ 2024 challenges

Congress’ heartland debacle raises questions about the efficacy of Rahul Gandhi’s OBC pitch and demands for a caste census.

Published : Dec 03, 2023 20:16 IST - 15 MINS READ

Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) supporters celebrate the party’s lead in the Rajasthan Assembly elections in Ajmer on December 03.

Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) supporters celebrate the party’s lead in the Rajasthan Assembly elections in Ajmer on December 03. | Photo Credit: ANI

The 3-1 victory of the BJP in the Assembly elections for four States—Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Telangana and Chhattisgarh—whose results were announced on Sunday, has highlighted the mounting challenge before the Congress ahead of 2024 polls, though it can take solace from its victory in Southern State Telangana, where it snatched power from a powerful regional player, BRS.

In Mizoram, whose results will be announced tomorrow, pollsters have projected a victory for the ruling Mizo National Front with the Congress closely following as the second lead. Traditionally, the Congress has found it difficult to oust regional parties to which it lost in an election There has been no Congress government in Tamil Nadu since 1967, in UP since 1989 Bihar since 1990 and Odisha since 2000.

Wresting Telangana from the BRS after the latter’s two terms in power has revived hopes in the Congress for trying a similar feat in Odisha in 2024, which an ageing Naveen Patnaik-led BJD continues to rule without a break since 2000. While the Telangana victory is indeed big for the Congress, coming six months after it ousted the BJP from power in its gateway to South—Karnataka, the heart-break in Hindi heartland States—two of which it was in power- Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, will rankle in its memory in the months to come before the big bang Lok Sabha election.

The results indicate that Rahul Gandhi’s fierce OBC pitch and demand for a nationwide caste census has had little impact in Hindi belt States. Contrary to the expected gains, it seems to have led to a counter-polarisation, especially in the tribal-dominated Chhattisgarh, where the BJP has won most of the tribal seats. In contrast, the passage of the Women Reservation Bill, seeking to provide 33 per cent reservation for women in Parliament and Assemblies, seemed giving the BJP a cushion of women votes, particularly the Ladli Behna Yojana in Madhya Pradesh.

Also Read | High-stakes battles in five States to decide Congress’ fate ahead of 2024

The Congress’ decision to project Chief Ministerial face: incumbent Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel in Chhattisgarh and former CM Kamal Nath in Madhya Pradesh or giving an upper hand to its Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot did not cut ice with the voters.

In contrast, the BJP won all three States despite not clearly projecting its key faces- Shivraj Singh Chouhan (Chief Minister), Raman Singh and Vasundhara Raje (former Chief Minister) in the three States and focussing instead on ‘Modi ki guarantee’. The BJP credited the victory to “trust in Prime Minister’s leadership and delivery”.

This round of election Hindi belt was a BJP versus Congress affair and such a defeat will allow the regional parties, which are part of the Opposition alliance INDIA, a greater say vis-à-vis the Congress in 2024 election alliance planning.

In 2018, the Congress had won Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh after a gap of 15 years. The Congress’ inability to retain power in both the States (losing MP within one and half years after Jyotiraditya Scindia walked out of the Congress in 2020) and losing Chhattisgarh after one term, is in contrast to the BJP holding on to power for nearly two decades in MP and coming back to power in both Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan. Neither the old guards—Kamal Nath and Digivijay Singh combo in Madhya Pradesh, Ashok Gehlot in Rajasthan and a relatively younger Bhupesh Baghel in Chhattisgarh could deliver for the Congress.

While regional parties—Trinamool Congress in West Bengal, Jharkhand Mukti Morcha in Jharkhand and BJD in Odisha have managed to stop the Narendra Modi juggernaut, the Congress has this time miserably failed in a direct fight against the BJP.

Putting up a brave face, the Congress communication chief Jairam Ramesh, however, said, “Exactly 20 years ago, the Congress had lost the State elections in Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, while winning only Delhi. But within a few months, the party bounced back and went on to emerge as the single largest party in the Lok Sabha election and formed the government at the Centre.” Rahul Gandhi said the battle of ideology will continue.

While the introspection in the Congress will continue for days, the BJP’s strategy of fielding many of its senior central leaders and Parliamentarians as candidates, sewing up a larger social coalition and minute planning at the booth level, seem to have clinched the deal in its favour in Hindi heartland.

Congress makes a triumphant comeback in Telangana

The people of Telangana have voted for a change. The resurgent Congress made an incredible comeback in the Telangana Assembly elections (64 leading out of 119). The results delivered a blow to K. Chandrashekar Rao’s Bharat Rashtra Samithi (BRS) hopes to strike a hat-trick. The BRS was leading in 39 constituencies. The Congress’ consistent and aggressive campaign against the BRS, spearheaded by its chief Revanth Reddy, has delivered the results. The Congress resurgence in Telangana began after the Karnataka results. The significant number of defections from other parties boosted the party’s prospects in Telangana.

Over the past few months, the Congress worked on capitalising on the anti-incumbency and discontentment with BRS, especially of the youth. Analysts say that several factors that favoured the Congress are its six guarantees, Rahul Gandhi’s improved image, and BRS’s failures in fulfilling promises made in the previous elections. Unemployment, primarily the failure to fulfill government jobs, and the sinking of a portion of the Medigadda (Lakshmi) barrage nudged public perception toward the Congress in the past few weeks.

Analysts say that keeping the Congress’ infighting quiet boosted the party’s prospects. The Congress also enjoyed the support of civil society organisations (Jaago Telangana inspired by Eddelu Karnataka), which actively campaigned against the BRS and the BJP.

Congress supporters celebrate their party’s victory in Telangana State Assembly election in Hyderabad on December 3, 2023.

Congress supporters celebrate their party’s victory in Telangana State Assembly election in Hyderabad on December 3, 2023. | Photo Credit: NOAH SEELAM

There are structural, tactical, and governance-related mistakes behind BRS’s loss in Telangana, said Harathi Vageeshan, a political science professor at Hyderabad’s NALSAR University of Law. KCR’s inability to include others in his decision-making is one of the primary structural issues, says Vageeshan. BRS’s decision to retain most of the sitting MLAs, which was earlier perceived as a move to project confidence, has cost the party dearly and is being touted as a tactical mistake. The Congress’ assertions that the BJP and the BRS are the same team dented BRS’s prospects. Vageeshan believes that another key reason is the welfare model, which excludes several deserved beneficiary groups. Further, some groups were left out of the BRS policies.

For instance, the BRS ignored the age group between 18 and 40, according to Vageeshan. The disconnect between the BRS and the people is also credited for the victory. Towards the last few weeks of the campaign, the Congress drove home that KCR and the Chief Minister’s Office haven’t been accessible to the people of Telangana. Even as the BJP remains a distant third (leading in 7 and winning 2) in Telangana, its representation in the State Assembly has increased. This reaffirms the party’s claims that it has made significant inroads in the State.

Also Read | ‘BRS has looted the people of Telangana’: Mallu Bhatti Vikramarka

In a substantial victory for the party, both BRS’s KCR and the Congress chief Revanth Reddy lost to the BJP’s Katipally Venkata Ramana Reddy in Kamareddy. However, some of its star candidates, including Bandi Sanjay and Eatala Rajender lost. All India Majlis-E-Ittehadul Muslimeen is on its way to retaining its seven seats in Hyderabad. The people of Telangana have voted for a change while keeping a strong opposition in the Assembly, Vageeshan noted.

Hindutva, welfare trump anti-incumbency in Madhya Pradesh

Defying popular public perceptions of deep-rooted anti-incumbency and fatigue with the Shivraj Singh Chouhan Government, the BJP put up a stunning performance in the central State, leading in 165 seats out of 230. The Congress, which had won 114 seats in the 2018 elections, ahead of the BJP’s 108, was reduced to 64 seats. The numbers indicate that the farmers’ rage against the BJP, seen in 2018, has substantially reduced, and that the party’s excessive dole-out politics is acting as a magnet for a cross-section of the people. This is also helped by an aggressive Hindutva campaign—Chouhan was seen transitioning his image from a moderate Chief Minister to a Hindutva hawk, earning the sobriquet “Bulldozer mama”.

In the past couple of years, Madhya Pradesh had been in the news for bulldozing off houses of Muslim accused persons, in what seemed to be an imitation of the overt majoritarian politics of Uttar Pradesh under Yogi Adityanath. The results are likely to encourage more BJP chief ministers to incline towards divisive nationalist politics while generating a greater sense of impunity amongst Hindutva foot-soldiers.

Also Read | Caste, economy, OBC politics top agenda as five States head for elections in November

Chouhan, known for his economic populism, has been ramping up welfare schemes in the lead-up to the election and that politicking seems to have tided over voter fatigue with what is a nearly two-decade-old Government save the 15-month Kamal Nath regime from December 2018 to March 2020. In the run-up to the elections, Chouhan increased the incentive under his flagship Ladli Behna scheme from Rs. 1,000 to Rs. 1,250 per month and promised to raise it to Rs. 3,000 if re-elected. He also announced that beneficiaries of the Prime Minister’s Ujjwala Yojana and the Chief Minister’s Ladli Behna Yojana would receive one LPG refill at Rs. 450 every month.

Anoop Dubaulia, a Bhopal-based political observer, feels that these sops have the effect of a tranquilliser on the otherwise enraged rural households.

Bharatiya Janata Party supporters celebrate as the party leads in Madhya Pradesh Assembly elections, in Bhopal on December 03, 2023

Bharatiya Janata Party supporters celebrate as the party leads in Madhya Pradesh Assembly elections, in Bhopal on December 03, 2023 | Photo Credit: ANI

The results today also indicate that Rahul Gandhi’s emphasis on the OBC card, demanding that a caste census be held nationally and the upper ceiling on reservation be removed, has not been able to fragment the BJP’s standing with that section. The Congress has also failed to repeat its stellar performance in the farmers’ belts of Malwa-Nimar. This is alarming for the party which is increasingly limning its image as an anti-corporate, pro-poor entity.

The numbers underscore that Modi’s sway over the poor voters and the working class is here to stay. The BJP’s good showing is also being attributed to Chouhan’s astute social engineering. Jyotiraditya Scindia’s departure proved costly as the Congress which had swept the Gwalior-Chambal region in 2018 suffered significant reverses in that belt. The Congress had been iterating that Scindia’s absence would not affect them, citing its victories in local elections. But ultimately the damage was done. The Congress had performed well in byelections held in Gwalior-Chambal. In Gwalior, it was after 58 years that someone from Congress became the Mayor. The Mayor of Morena was also elected from the Congress.

Anti-incumbency, Adivasi support prove decisive in Chhattisgarh

The BJP reclaimed power in Chhattisgarh with a thumping majority after almost five years, proving all the political pundits and exit polls wrong. Though the party contested elections without a chief ministerial candidate, political observers view the election outcome as a direct result of the BJP’s revival in States tribal areas and an undercurrent of anti-incumbency against the Bhupesh Baghel government due to several allegations of corruption and scams.

The high-stakes bipolar contest between the incumbent Congress and the BJP saw fierce competition between the Congress and the BJP to woo low-income groups. Interestingly, the Congress had made more attractive promises targeting a significant population of farmers and tribals. “The public of Chhattisgarh has rejected Bupesh Bhagel government’s offer of one lakh crore in the form of several welfare measures and direct cash transfer schemes,” said Sunil Kumar, a political analyst and Editor of Chhattisgarh, adding, “It seems that the outgoing Chief Minister Baghel’s media management and publicity stunts haven’t worked. His government seems to be a victim of its own (misleading) public perception management. Had the BJP fought the election with an aggression that it is known for, it would have wiped out the Congress completely.”

Also Read | Battle for the margins: The high-pitched campaign for tribal votes in Hindi heartland

Kumar underscored that the Congress won the Karnataka State Assembly election because of corruption allegations against the BJP government. “But in Chhattisgarh, Congress leaders had ruled out that corruption is an (election) issue,” he said, adding, “The results demonstrate that corruption indeed was an important issues whether it was allegations of coal levy scam against Congress MLAs, Mahadev App betting scam, production and distribution of spurious liquor or the alleged involvement of senior bureaucrats in allegedly illegal liquor syndicate.”

BJP workers celebrating after winning the Chhattisgarh Assembly election at BJQ Office in Raipur on December 03, 2023.

BJP workers celebrating after winning the Chhattisgarh Assembly election at BJQ Office in Raipur on December 03, 2023. | Photo Credit: MOORTHY RV

While Bhagel as Chief Minister established himself as an OBC leader, he pursued the politics of soft Hindutva. Many political observers feel that it ultimately helped the BJP return to power. No wonder, the BJP leaders and party manifesto promised to take the people of the State on a visit to the Ram temple, which is being constructed in Ayodhya, if the party wrestles power from the Baghel-led government.

However, his tenure also saw tensions surfacing between him and his deputy TS Sing Deo time and again. In the run-up to the election, a major controversy involving State President Mohan Markam and State in-charge Kumari Selja is also believed to have dealt a blow to the Congress party, resulting in significant losses.

Shashank Tiwari, a Raipur-based political analyst, attributes the BJP’s success to its revival in the Adivasi areas such as Bastar and Sarguja divisions, which have largely been affected by left wing extremism. The two divisions that send 26 MLAs to the Chhattisgarh State Assembly hold the key to political power in the State. While the Congress had bagged 25 out of a total of 26 seats in the 2018 elections, the party could win only three seats this time.

The BJP had named its manifesto for Chhattisgarh Assembly election 2023 as ‘Modi’s Guarantee 2023 for Chhattisgarh’. “The young voters, the first and second-time voters, who are quite active on social media, seem enamoured of Narendra Modi,” said Tiwari, adding, “The election outcome is also a reflection of their resentment against government job recruitments. Modi clearly understood the gravity of the matter and announced in his election rallies that a probe committee would be constituted and action would be taken in the PSC scam.”

Incidentally, Modi during his rallies had touched upon the government job scams, alleging that the priority of the Congress was to distribute jobs to the leaders’ kin.

Anti-incumbency and internal strife defeat Congress in Rajasthan

Will the Congress government buck the three-decade-old trend and return to power was the big question in the run-up to the elections to the 16th Assembly in Rajasthan. The electorate stuck to “Riwaaz” or tradition and did not reelect the incumbent party to power.

As things stand, the Bharatiya Janata Party is set to form the government and the Congress will sit in the Opposition. Pending the final results, the BJP at present is leading on 116 seats and the Congress on 68. Smaller parties and independents together have leads on 15 seats. The only solace the Congress can take from these results is that the Congress has not done as badly as it did in 2013 when it was reduced to 21 seats.

A 2.45 per cent vote share difference separates the two parties; the BJP at 41.89 and the Congress at 39.44 per cent. The difference between the 2018 and present elections is that, unlike the Congress in 2018, the BJP seems to be emerging as the single largest party where it might not need the support of other smaller parties or independents to form the government.

Also Read | BJP’s Rajasthan election strategy: A micro-management model rooted in Hindutva

Whether this outcome was foretold is another question. The Congress under the stewardship of 72-year-old Ashok Gehlot went to the hustings with the full confidence that it would be handsomely rewarded with a comeback, thanks to the slew of welfare schemes like expanded health insurance, electricity and food subsidies and smartphones to young girls. It also promised the guarantee of a Minimum Support Price to farmers based on the Swaminathan Commission formula.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s cutout is seen as Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) supporters celebrate the party’s lead in the Rajasthan Assembly elections in Ajmer on Sunday.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s cutout is seen as Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) supporters celebrate the party’s lead in the Rajasthan Assembly elections in Ajmer on Sunday. | Photo Credit: ANI

What it did not factor in was the local anti-incumbency against its legislators, 101 of whom were re-nominated compared to the 59 by the BJP which in any case was in the Opposition. Local anti-incumbency, a late start to the campaign, poor candidate selection and open infighting in the Congress between the Gehlot and Sachin Pilot factions from day one of taking over government in 2018 are some of the reasons behind the outcome.

The elections were fought under Gehlot’s leadership and he alone had maximum control over ticket distribution. Almost a dozen Congress ministers are not going to be able to make it.

A look at the seats won by the BJP shows its almost complete sway in Western, Central and Southern Rajasthan. Barring a small presence by the Bharatiya Adivasi Party which is leading on two seats, almost the whole of Southern Rajasthan has gone to the BJP. One reason for this could be its polarising politics over the murder of a tailor in Udaipur. More than half a dozen BJP rebels have won.

The Congress has done well in Eastern Rajasthan despite apprehensions that the Gujjars might play spoilsport. It has made gains in Northern Rajasthan and the Shekhawati belt of Sikar, Jhunjhunu and Churu and in the South-West parts of the State. The party should have got into election mode early on and presented a united front to the electorate.

The Congress has always had a weaker organisational structure compared to the cadre-based BJP. It was able to reach out to the electorate relatively more effectively, with a focus more on local anti-incumbency and issues like law and order and the safety of women.

The BJP also played a huge gambit this time by not projecting Vasundhara Raje Scindia as its Chief Minister face. Its experiment with collective leadership can be said to have paid off though choosing a face from the half dozen or more aspirants is not going to be easy.

As the only BJP leader with a mass base, Raje cannot be written off; neither will the party find it easy to assuage her with a Deputy Chief Minister Post or the post of Speaker. Had it been a decisive or overwhelming majority like the figure of 163 that Raje secured for her party in 2013, the leadership question might have been easier to settle. Whether this victory will translate into a sweep in the Lok Sabha elections will remain to be seen.

ZPM emerges as new power in Mizoram, MNF loses grip

In Mizoram, whose election results were announced on Monday, the Zoram’s People’s Movement (ZPM) scored a spectacular victory with a two-third majority, clocking 27 of the 40 Assembly seats.

The ruling Mizo National Front, had to contend with just 10 seats while the BJP and the Congress won two and one seats respectively. Exit polls had largely predicted a hung House in Mizoram, though a few viewed ZPM as the leading force.

The ZPM, headed by a former IPS officer Lalduhoma, is the new kid on the block and its victory like that of AAP in Delhi and Punjab, is a negation of the long-entrenched political forces in the state.

From a tally of eight seats in 2018, this is a quantum jump for the regional outfit while for Congress, which once ruled the state, it is nadir as it has one just one of the 40 seats it contested. In last 36 years since Mizoram became a state in 1987, power has alternated between the Congress and the MNF. What will rankle the ruling party more there is that this time MNF chief and three term Chief Minister Zoramthanga himself lost his Assembly seat. Party’s key leaders including its Dy CM Tawanluia have also lost.

MNF was an NDA ally but the ZPM has announced to stay neutral and not be be party any alliance. ZPM’s victory is an indication of electorates rallying behind a regional identity as the run up to the campaign had seen repeated attack on MNF aligning with NDA. However, BJP will rejoice from the fact that it has doubled its tally to two from one seat it had won in 2018.

Inputs from Anand Mishra, Ayesha Minhaz, Ashutosh Sharma, Anando Bhakto and T.K. Rajalakshmi

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