Lessons from the Concluding Round of Polls in 2023
by Dipankar Bhattacharya

The outcome of the five Assembly elections held in November has proved almost all opinion polls and ground reports wrong. Even the few exit polls that predicted a thumping BJP victory in Madhya Pradesh gave the Congress a comfortable majority in neighbouring Chhattisgarh. The clean BJP sweep of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh has therefore come as a major surprise after the BJP's recent losses in Himachal Pradesh and Karnataka and given the signs of a popular yearning for change in Madhya Pradesh after eighteen years of BJP rule and no such visible anti-incumbency against the Congress governments of Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan. For the Congress, which was perceived to be on the ascendant after its Himachal and Karnataka victories, the only win has come in Telangana. The Telangana developments of course mark a significant change for this newly created state and also in the larger context of political balance in south India, but the Telangana victory of the Congress cannot but be overshadowed by the party's loss in the three big states in central and western India.

Before looking at the factors that led to this surprising outcome, let us take a closer look at the changes in vote share in Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan. It will appear that in terms of vote share, the Congress has not suffered any major decline - its vote share has decreased by 0.6% in Madhya Pradesh (41 to 40.4), 0.9% in Chhattisgarh (43.1 to 42.2) and even registered a very marginal increase of 0.2% in Rajasthan (39.3 to 39.5). What dramatically changed the outcome is a major increase in the BJP's vote share - by 7.45% in Madhya Pradesh (41.1 to 48.55), 13.27% in Chhattisgarh (33 to 46.27) and 2.9% in Rajasthan (38.8 to 41.7). On the face of it, the increase in the BJP's vote share has therefore happened not so much at the cost of the Congress as other non-BJP parties, but we clearly need to look beyond the figures at the actual social and electoral shifts on the ground.

Having suffered defeats in Himachal and Karnataka, the BJP was of course desperate to retain Madhya Pradesh and wrest Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh from the Congress. The elections witnessed brazen use of the ED all through the election period, double standards adopted by the EC in dealing with alleged violations of the model code of conduct and reported administrative manipulations at different levels and stages of the election process. But fair elections cannot really be expected in today's India. For non-BJP forces to succeed in elections, an election campaign must turn into a veritable people's movement full of energy, mass participation and meticulous booth-level mobilisation. The victorious Congress election campaigns in Karnataka and Telangana exhibited considerable mass dynamism and energy, but the campaigns in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and even Rajasthan, the best fought among the three, lacked this dynamism and energy.

In Karnataka, the Congress had won by exposing the corruption and all-round failure of the incumbent BJP government led by Bommai. But learning from Karnataka, the BJP in Madhya Pradesh tried to defuse the anti-incumbency factor by fielding several ministers and MPs as MLA candidates even as CM Shivraj Singh Chauhan ran a hectic personalised campaign focusing on the flagship schemes of his government. To counter the appeal of the promises made by the Congress, the BJP made similar offers and termed them 'Modi's Guarantee'. The fusion of the Modi cult and the model of targeted direct transfer-based 'welfare economics' aimed at converting 'beneficiaries' into bonded voters seems to have once again worked as a complement to communal polarisation and aggressive Hindutva. The BJP had successfully applied this formula earlier this year in UP elections and now once again in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan.

In the wake of its impressive Karnataka victory, the Congress centrally focused on two issues - the Adani-Modi nexus and caste census. For the Congress, which has never been a known votary of caste census and expanded reservation, the focus on OBC representation and caste census is a welcome new direction, but how far has the message percolated to the entire organisation and become an integral part of its political articulation? While the central leaders of Congress raised this issue, in Madhya Pradesh Kamal Nath was busy seeking the blessings of Hindu Rashtra champion Bageshwar Baba (Dhirendra Shastri). Similarly the issue of Adani-Modi nexus does not just represent institutionalised corruption, it represents the most brazen face of corporate aggression. The farmers' movement successfully challenged this arrogant corporate power and any effective political campaign against the Modi-Adani nexus will have to forge organic ties with the growing unity of farmers and workers for a reorientation of India's economic policy towards people's welfare and the rights of India's real producers.

Another major weakness of the Congress campaign in these elections was the complete absence of any will or plan to harness the potential of the INDIA alliance. On the contrary, we saw a totally unwarranted war of words between the Congress and Samajwadi Party in Madhya Pradesh. In Telangana, the Congress has effectively channelised the accumulated anti-incumbency against the BRS government into a significant victory for the Congress, but we must remember that the BJP too has succeeded in doubling its vote share from 7% to 13.9% and the seat tally from the lone seat in the outgoing Assembly to eight seats. Any serious attempt at seat adjustment with the Left, SP, the newly formed Bhartiya Adivasi Party and at harnessing the INDIA potential in the campaign could have made  significant differences in all states and even further improved the Congress tally in Telangana.

There has often been a North-South divide in India's electoral outcomes,  most notably we had witnessed a sharp contrast in the post-Emergency 1977 election when the Congress was wiped out from North India even as it did fairly well in the southern states. The doors being shut on the BJP in the south certainly marks a major blow to the BJP's ambitions to dominate India for decades, but the decisive defeat of the party in 2024 will have to be shaped north of the Vindhyas. In Mizoram, the ZPM has swept the polls dislodging the NDA-affiliated MNF from power, but here too the BJP has increased its tally from 1 to 2 while the Congress tally has gone down from 5 to 1.

The concluding round of 2023 elections has certainly been a big morale-booster for the BJP, and the Modi regime has already started talking of scoring a 'hat trick' in 2024. This is nothing but psychological warfare. The fact is if the Assembly results in the four states of Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan and Telangana are seen in Lok Sabha terms, the Congress actually improves its tally from its 2019 strength of 6 to 28 and BJP tally actually goes down from 65 to 46. The Assembly elections have certainly not settled the outcome of 2024 in the BJP's favour and if we draw proper lessons it is still perfectly possible to dislodge the BJP from power in 2024. The onus is of course on INDIA to get its act together without any further delay and launch an energetic mass campaign on the burning issues of the day to galvanise the people towards a decisive victory in 2024.

Lessons from the Concluding Round of Polls in 2023