India Today - - FROM THE - (Aroon Purie)

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.

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