In November, only a couple of weeks before polling for the Assembly election in Madhya Pradesh, Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan told The Hindu, “People sitting in Delhi talk about things like anti-incumbency. Come to Madhya Pradesh and you will find there is only pro-incumbency for the BJP.” He was right. The election result in the State, announced on December 3, was historic for several reasons, but it first showed how the BJP had become such a formidable election machine. Many pundits scoffed at the thought that the BJP would return to power after ruling the State for almost 20 years, but the party proved the naysayers wrong by registering a win that was by all accounts “massive”. Madhya Pradesh has now been added to the list of States—Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat—where the BJP is dominant and hard to challenge.
The surprise win in Chhattisgarh only strengthened the BJP’s grip over the Hindi heartland—the north and west of India. The States in this belt are all crucial to the 2024 Lok Sabha election. Up north, the Congress is in power only in Himachal Pradesh. The way things have stacked up, Narendra Modi seems to be in pole position to return as Prime Minister for a third term. This, however, does not mean the BJP is invincible, or that it faces no challenges. Indian politics is too complex to give any one party such a clean or unencumbered walkover.
Why vote share matters
As far as arithmetic goes, it becomes important to look at vote share. Though the Congress lost in three Hindi heartland States, it made bigger its vote share in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh by 1 per cent, losing out only in Chhattisgarh. Sanjay Kumar, Professor and Co-Director of Lokniti, a research programme run by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, said the BJP, in comparison, made bigger leaps: “In Madhya Pradesh, the Congress got almost 41 per cent of the vote, but the BJP got 49 per cent. The BJP has added 7-8 per cent more votes. That is the story even in Rajasthan.” In Chhattisgarh, the Congress’s vote share went down from 43 to 42 per cent, but votes for the BJP saw a 13 per cent jump in the State. The BJP, it is clear, is expanding at a time the Congress has found it cannot.
Given its thin electoral presence in several States, it becomes essential to ask if the Congress is a spent force in the north. “Yes, you can say the Congress is finished at the moment, but if you look at its vote share, you see that its support base has not been massively eroded in north India—40 per cent is not a small vote. The only difficulty is that the Congress’ strategy of mobilising voters has become dated. It has only got them these many votes in the last few elections, while the BJP has been able to pull more voters in its favour,” said Kumar.
In places where it is in direct contest with the Congress, the BJP has a clear advantage. There have been some Congress victories—Himachal Pradesh, Karnataka and Telangana—but these have been more exceptions than the rule. The map of India has transformed in the last 10 years. When the Modi government first came to power in 2014, the BJP had governments in seven States. In five States—Gujarat, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Goa—there was a BJP Chief Minister. By 2018, the BJP was in power in as many as 22 States, but Assembly elections that year again redrew the Indian map of allegiances.
Today, the BJP rules 12 States all on its own—Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Haryana, Gujarat, Goa, Assam, Tripura, Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh, and now Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh. The party is also part of the ruling coalition in four States—Maharashtra, Sikkim, Nagaland and Meghalaya. The Congress is in power in only three States, and the Aam Aadmi Party comes in third on the national footprint list with governments in Delhi and Punjab. The BJP faces a far greater challenge from regional parties—the Trinamool Congress, the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha, even Naveen Patnaik’s Biju Janata Dal in Odisha. The Congress is without a doubt its weakest challenger.
What BJP got right
There is much that the BJP has done right when it comes to issues and electoral strategy. For one, the focus on welfare and women has been a key determinant in the BJP’s success, both in the States and at the Centre. Shivraj Singh Chouhan, for instance, launched a series of women-centric schemes. ‘Ladli Behna Yojana’ gave financial support to women. By ensuring 50 per cent reservation for women in civic elections, and 30 per cent in police recruitment, Chouhan showed he had understood the power of women voters. Women have also been a crucial electorate for other parties across States, from Bihar to Karnataka.
Neelanjan Sircar, Senior Fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, believes the women demographic has become key to BJP’s successes: “Narendra Modi is incredibly popular among women voters in the Hindi belt, and these are places where the almost decade-long investment of the BJP is now really starting to pay off. It may have just started with gas cylinders, but that connection is now starting to yield results.”
Election Commission data show that 67.2 per cent of Indian women voted in the 2019 general election, as against 46.6 per cent in 1962. When compared to men, this was the first time more women had voted in a general election. The turnout of women voters is expected to go up even further in 2024. Since 2014, the Modi government has consistently targeted this bloc with schemes like Ujjwala, Mudra, and so on.
The Women’s Reservation Bill, passed in September, has given the BJP another edifice from where it can project itself as a champion of women’s welfare. It does not matter that 33 per cent reservation for women in Parliament and State legislatures may take over a decade to materialise. The Congress, too, tried catering to this bloc in Karnataka, where a monthly stipend for women was one of the five major guarantees it promised. Ashok Gehlot tried something similar in Rajasthan, but his announcement came only months before the election. The little he was giving also came too late.
Helped by the fact that it has most mainstream media—television channels, especially—on its side, the BJP has successfully created a positive narrative about itself. This was how “pro-incumbency” ideas recently gained ground in Madhya Pradesh. While the Congress has not retained a single State since 2014, the BJP has been re-elected in several—Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Assam, Uttarakhand, and Gujarat. Better at booth-level organisation, the BJP is constantly pushing the message of positive development through its schemes and also its trump card, Narendra Modi.
Sircar said it was this branding that fuelled the BJP’s return to power in several States. “What brand do you associate with the Congress? Brand Modi is very specific. It has a lot to do with ground-level cadre and their ability to advertise the Modi brand. They are very good at consistent messaging. Jagan [Mohan Reddy] does it in Andhra Pradesh, and Mamata [Banerjee] in West Bengal, but, no, this is certainly not a Congress trait.”
The BJP has been quick to counter the Congress’ welfare promises with what it calls the “Modi ki guarantee”. The Prime Minister is perhaps the most crucial factor working in the BJP’s favour. Recent State elections sidelined local leaders even more, making Modi the clear face of the party. It made clear to voters that a vote for the BJP was a vote for Modi.
Sanjay Kumar of Lokniti said, “If the BJP had decided to contest the elections with a chief-ministerial face, they would not have done as well. Our survey shows that 20 per cent of the BJP’s vote came in the name of Prime Minister Modi. People are appreciating the work of the Central government.” This is also why personal attacks on the Prime Minister and his credibility often fail. The Adani issue has gained very little traction with voters, much like the Rafale jet deal controversy in 2019.
The Hindutva factor
The Hindutva factor complicates matters. Some reports from States in the Hindi heartland suggest that controversies like the Sanatana Dharma row cost the Congress party. Kamal Nath constantly played the ‘Hindutva lite’ card in Madhya Pradesh, at one point even suggesting that India was a “Hindu Rashtra”. Amit Shah, too, promised voters a free darshan at the Ram mandir in his campaign speeches, but these entreaties, it eventually became clear, did not work in Telangana. One size never does fit all. Though heavy on Hindutva rhetoric, the BJP’s campaign in Karnataka failed. The extent of Hindutva’s influence on politics is sometimes difficult to gauge, but in an increasingly polarised environment, it has become clear that the space for centrist politics seems to be shrinking in large parts of the country.
Moment of reckoning
The Congress and the opposition have arrived at a moment of reckoning. Feeling overconfident after winning Karnataka, the Congress ignored its allies in the INDIA bloc for three months. Had it done well in State elections, the party could have pushed for a greater say in seat-sharing plans for next year’s general election, but it now seems certain it will not be able to dictate terms. The knives were out even on December 3, the day results for four States were announced. Parties like the JD(U), Shiv Sena, CPI(M) and National Conference, all took potshots at the Congress. As the only party in the opposition with a pan-India presence, the Congress is in a direct contest with the BJP in 180-odd Lok Sabha seats. For the opposition to do well, the Congress must do well, too.
Congress victories in Karnataka, Telangana and Himachal Pradesh show that when the party gives a free hand to local leaders, it truly challenges its opponent. The party managed factionalism more seamlessly in Karnataka than in Rajasthan, creating a successful narrative about corruption in the BJP government. In Telangana, despite murmurs, Revanth Reddy was given charge, along with Sunil Kanulgolu, the poll strategist responsible for Congress’ Karnataka campaign. It is perhaps telling that the Congress’ Madhya Pradesh leadership was averse to Kanugolu’s advice and had turned him away. The Congress leadership in Delhi appears to be plagued with bad advisers, many of whom have never won a Lok Sabha election.
The opposition, though, has yet more to worry about. The issue of a caste census seems to have failed among voters. In three States—Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh—OBCs have sided with the BJP in large numbers. “People will support a caste census but it won’t shape their voting decisions”, said Kumar. “They want to know how they will benefit from a caste census. Communication is very important, but the Congress fails in that regard. They need to explain how a caste census will impact education, prospects of a job, and so on. Having a caste census alone does not convey anything to the people.”
Going into 2024, the INDIA bloc lacks a credible leader who will take on Modi. The BJP’s success hinges on the Prime Minister, especially as elections become driven by personality. The BJP knows well the planks it is going to rest on in 2024—Modi, hyper-nationalism, Hindutva and welfare. To challenge this formidable strategy, the opposition needs to arrive at a narrative that feels equally persuasive. An increasingly aspirational India wants solutions and delivery. Meeting this demand will be the real challenge in 2024, and also beyond.
Nidhi Razdan is a journalist, formerly with NDTV. She is a columnist with Gulf News, and is a Professor of Practice at IILM University, Delhi.