These days, I am frequently asked what will happen in the 2019 general election. My simple answer is, I don’t know, but the forthcoming assembly polls may provide some clues. Indian voters have become far more inscrutable and discriminating than they once were, destroying many favourite theories of political pundits along the way. Anti-incumbency is one such, but while the theory seems to hold in Rajasthan, the current BJP chief ministers of Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh are fighting for their fourth terms. The good news is that performance seems to matter. The question whether the electorate votes differently in state and general elections is still open to debate as there are examples that point in either direction.
That said, there are still huge national implications shadowing the five states going to the polls this month. Elections in Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, MP, Telangana and Mizoram will be closely watched for various reasons. The results on December 11 will come less than six months before the Lok Sabha election. This is why they are being called the semi-finals. These five states represent 16 per cent of India’s electorate and are also a metaphor for India’s current political power equations—the BJP rules Rajasthan, MP and Chhattisgarh not only in the assemblies but also in the Lok Sabha and holds 62 of the 65 Lok Sabha seats in these three states; the Congress holds only Mizoram.
The three largest states going to the polls are also a study in contrasts. Rajasthan is the current home of anti-incumbency—it has not returned a government to power in 20 years. MP and Chhattisgarh have not voted for a party other than the BJP in 15 years. This is what makes the re-election campaigns of their chief ministers—Vasundhara Raje in Rajasthan, Raman Singh in Chhattisgarh and Shivraj Singh Chouhan in MP—so different.
Both the Congress and the BJP will go on to fight the finals, the Lok Sabha, but these results will decide how they fight it. If the BJP loses in more than one state, it will be forced to revisit its election strategy. A decline in the electoral goodwill in these states may cost the BJP heavily, and cause it to rethink its recent political adventurism in the east and south of India. But more than that, a BJP defeat will hand Congress president Rahul Gandhi a victory—at last—and set his party on the road to revival. The potential fractiousness of a mahagathbandhan is not an issue in these elections and the stakes are high for both the Congress and the BJP who will be engaged in straight fights in three of the five states where the saffron party is fighting a defensive battle.
This is a test for Amit Shah’s electoral juggernaut. Can he recreate the astonishing series of victories he has delivered for the party in recent years? Earlier this year, Shah boasted of a Congress-free northeast by the year-end. Which adds significance to the contest in Mizoram—it’s the only northeastern state where the BJP is not in power either on its own or in a coalition.
This is also a significant test for Rahul and the ‘soft Hindutva approach’ he’s taken of late as well as his party’s polemic on issues such as Rafale, rising prices and the government’s failings on the economy.
Our cover story, Do or Die, put together by our Jaipur, Raipur and Bhopal correspondents, tracks the trends on the ground. The criticality of these elections is not lost on anyone in these states. In fact, a lot of the strategising in the BJP and Congress camps is being done keeping 2019 in mind. In MP, for instance, the BJP is not raising issues like demonetisation and GST because it brings back painful memories. The party is, however, banking on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s crowd-pulling charisma to see it through in all these states. And that’s going to be the real test. Does Brand Modi still have the kind of currency it once did?
I believe charisma can only take you so far, specially the second time round. The results of these elections will reveal whether the plethora of schemes the NDA government had announced and claims to have implemented, both at the state and at the central level, have made a difference to the lives of people. As they say, the proof of the pudding is in the eating.