Alarm bells for BJP: Congress takes big strides, Modi magic waning but still formidable for 2019 polls

Illustration: Ajit Ninan
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The thrilling cliffhanger in MP notwithstanding, a few clear trends are emerging. First, like in Gujarat’s Saurashtra a year ago, Congress is on the upswing in rural India. In MP, Congress improved its tally from 56 rural seats in 2013 to 95 in 2018 while BJP went down from 122 to 82. In Rajasthan, Congress more than quadrupled from 18 to 83 rural seats while BJP collapsed from 131 to 57, and in Chhattisgarh it grew from 35 to 56 seats while BJP went down from 41 to 16.
It is important to stress that BJP has not been wiped out from rural areas, except in Chhattisgarh. It retains a strong rural presence but the direction of change is clear. In that sense, Rahul Gandhi’s messaging on agrarian distress and youth unemployment seems to have struck a chord as a template for the wider national poll battle ahead. All three BJP chief ministers followed similar welfare state models with a great number of schemes. These helped stem the tide only in MP, where Shivraj Singh Chouhan was more efficient in delivery.

Second, Congress is once again making inroads into the erstwhile impregnable BJP wall of saffron in urban areas and with the middle classes. In urban seats, Congress drew level with BJP in Rajasthan, made sharp inroads in MP and swept urban Chhattisgarh. This urban advance signals that a core constituency, including traders, that drove BJP to power in 2014 is now splintered down the middle.
BJP won a famous victory in Uttar Pradesh soon after demonetisation, couched at the time as a class war. But the cumulative labour pains over GST and lack of tangible benefits from demonetisation are now coming home to roost. In MP Congress went from 2 to 17 seats in urban areas, with BJP declining from 44 to 29. In Rajasthan Congress upped its tally from 3 to 17 seats, while BJP fell from 32 to 17. Urban Chhattisgarh, of course, saw a complete BJP rout, including in the capital Raipur.
Third, though Yogi Adityanath tried to reach out to Dalits on the campaign trail with his controversial remark that Ramayana’s Hanuman was a Dalit, there is a clear shift in SC seats across the Hindi heartland. Overall, BJP has gone from holding as many as 68 of the total 78 SC-reserved seats in the three Hindi states to just 32 SC seats. Conversely, Congress has gone up to 41 SC seats from just 5 in 2013.
This is a clear indicator that an important and numerically powerful social group is getting polarised and gravitating to other political parties. By not going with BSP, Congress took a risk but it’s a gamble that seems to be paying off.
Fourth, this round of elections can be seen as the making of Rahul Gandhi. Long decried as a reluctant politician, he clearly took on the bulk of the grunt work in the campaign. He did not budge on the demand for projecting CM faces, held 21 rallies in MP to Modi’s 11, 13 in Chhattisgarh to Modi’s 5, 8 in Telangana to Modi’s 3, and 15 in Rajasthan to Modi’s 13. His strike rate in areas he campaigned in was much better.
Rahul would certainly have been assigned the lion’s share of blame if Congress didn’t win in the Hindi heartland. It is only natural that he should be given the credit for these victories.
Fifth, Rahul was decried by both BJP as a “chunaavi Hindu” and by liberals who saw his temple hopping during the campaign as a cultural surrender to the right. Voters on the ground clearly did not see his Hindu turn as a problem. In fact, as we heard constantly on the campaign trail, it helped beat the BJP charge of Congress being ‘anti-Hindu’, removing the reluctance of many to switch sides. The ‘soft Hindutva’ debate excites drawing rooms in Lutyens’ Delhi but visiting temples may be smart poll strategy on the ground.

What next? The fact that we saw such close battles in Hindi heartland states despite years of incumbency by BJP means that it remains a formidable force. Its cadre and ground game remain fighting fit. Modi did not front these state polls as much as he did for the campaigns in Karnataka – where his late surge took BJP over the line as the single largest party – and in Gujarat, which was fought almost entirely on his persona. He remains the country’s pre-eminent vote catcher. But the sheen may be wearing off after close to five years in power.
We should be careful in extrapolating state election victories to direct Lok Sabha triumphs – especially when vote-share differences are so narrow in MP and Rajasthan. In 2008, BJP won MP and Chhattisgarh but went on to lose the Lok Sabha polls in these states. These polls may not predict the number of Lok Sabha seats each party will eventually get but they do set the wider political tone and atmosphere. Congress wins in north India give it more heft as the fulcrum of an anti-BJP alliance even as KCR’s huge victory in Telangana opens up additional coalition possibilities. Either way, it will be arithmetic versus personality politics in 2019.





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