Polls in 5 states: Decoding the stakes for Congress, BJP and India bloc
Congress leader Priyanka Gandhi flanked by Rajasthan CM Ashok Gehlot and Chhattisgarh CM Bhupesh Baghel at the Congress Working Committee meeting held at New Delhi on October 9, 2023. Karnataka CM Siddaramaiah and Himachal Pradesh CM Sukhvinder Singh Sukhu also seen. Pic: PTI

Polls in 5 states: Decoding the stakes for Congress, BJP and India bloc

Widely touted as a semi-final to 2024 Lok Sabha polls, the upcoming elections in the five states to be held in November may be favourable for Congress

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Widely touted as a semi-final to the 2024 Lok Sabha polls, elections to the state assemblies of Madhya Pradesh, Telangana, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Mizoram will be held between November 7 and November 30 and their results announced on December 3.

To suggest that electoral setbacks for the BJP in the ensuing polls would herald pan-India voter disenchantment against Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s party ahead of the next year’s General Election may be inaccurate.

The BJP had fared poorly in each of these five states in the last elections held in 2018 too, losing power in MP and Chhattisgarh to the Congress after 15 long years and also in Rajasthan. However, within four months, the BJP went on to register its strongest ever Lok Sabha performance in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, registering a clean sweep on all 25 seats of Rajasthan, winning 28 of 29 constituencies in MP and nine of 11 seats in Chhattisgarh.

Congress edge

Yet, what cannot be denied is that a largely favourable electoral outcome for the Congress in these assembly polls, three of which will witness a bipolar contest between the party and the BJP, would add buoyancy to ongoing efforts by the Opposition’s INDIA coalition to oust Modi from power next year. Several issues that the Congress party has identified as common pivots of its poll campaign in MP, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan and Telangana – key among them being farmer distress, unemployment, inflation and, most importantly, the promise of caste enumeration – will find resonance in the broader INDIA bloc’s anti-BJP campaign for the 2024 General Elections.

Multiple pre-poll surveys have suggested that the Congress has a definite edge over the BJP in Chhattisgarh and MP while in Rajasthan, known for voting out incumbent governments every electoral cycle, the two parties are bracing for a neck-to-neck fight. In K. Chandrasekhar Rao’s Bharat Rashtra Samithi (BRS) ruled Telangana, where the Congress had been wiped out in the aftermath of the state’s creation and had struggled to revive itself over the past decade, the Grand Old Party is reportedly gaining ground fast dashing hopes of the BJP to emerge as the principal rival of the BRS.

North-east politics

The contest for the 40-member Mizoram assembly, normally dismissed by the mainstream media as a footnote to the consolidated electoral result for the larger states it coincides with, would be interesting to watch out too as it would be the first election in the country’s north-eastern region since ethnic violence gripped BJP-ruled Manipur in May this year.

In 2018, the Congress had lost Mizoram, its last remaining electoral bastion in north-east India, to the Mizo National Front (MNF), which won 26 seats, and was humiliated further as its tally in the state assembly crashed to just five MLAs, lower than even the then newly-formed Zoram People’s Movement (ZPM) that emerged as the MNF’s main Opposition with eight legislators and a 23 per cent vote share. The BJP, in Mizoram, is a fringe player and its hopes of getting a share in the power pie would rest entirely on the performance of the MNF, a constituent of the NDA coalition.

BJP's collective leadership

The BJP has decided against projecting a chief ministerial candidate in all the poll-bound states. Instead, it has chosen to fight the polls under “collective leadership” – an aphorism the party invokes to indicate an over-reliance on Modi and, equally, to sideline strong state-level satraps. That the party’s poll campaign has been faltering in each of these states has been evident for some time now.

BJP leaders from MP, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan variously concede, off the record, that banking heavily on Modi’s charisma in elections wherein “local issues dominate over jingoistic and Hindutva sentiments” and the party’s “poorly-timed” strategy to use the polls for effecting an intra-party transition of power to a new crop of leaders by undermining electoral warhorses such as Shivraj Singh Chouhan, Raman Singh and Vasundhara Raje are a “recipe for disaster” that would “hand victory to the Congress on a platter”.

BJP in disarray

In MP, the BJP high command’s decision to field three Union ministers and four sitting Lok Sabha members as assembly candidates has been equated by the Congress and political observers in general as a sign of the party’s nervousness over its victory prospects. The BJP had lost power in MP in 2018 too but had, in March 2020, succeeded in regaining it by abetting mass defection of Congress MLAs close to Jyotiraditya Scindia. Three years later, the party’s attempts at accommodating Scindia supporters in its candidates’ list has triggered a wave of unrest among old timers of the saffron party, several of whom have quit or are currently threatening to quit the party and join hands with the Congress.

“Barring 15 months of the Congress’s Kamal Nath government, we have been in power in MP for 18 years since 2003; for nearly 16 of which Shivraj Chouhan has been our CM. There is bound to be anti-incumbency against us after such a long run in power but, with the right strategy, we could have still given the Congress a very tough fight, like we did in 2018 when we lost by just half a dozen seats (the BJP had won 109 seats against the Congress’s 114 in the 230-member MP Vidhan Sabha in 2018). What we are seeing unfold in MP now is total chaos. Our central leadership is refusing to see ground realities, we have no clear strategy and by undermining Shivraj as well as other influential state leaders just to satisfy the ego of some people sitting in Delhi, we have prepared the ground for a Congress sweep,” a senior minister in the Chouhan government told The Federal.

The situation isn’t very different for the BJP in Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan either where former CMs Raman Singh and Vasundhara Raje, respectively, find themselves out of favour with the party’s central leadership, which has tried – and seemingly failed – to promote alternative mass leaders in the two states to carry the party’s campaign of electoral recovery forward.

In Telangana too, where the BJP had made significant electoral gains in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls and showed promise of replacing the Congress as the BRS’s key opponent, the saffron party appears to be slipping again. The BJP central leadership’s decision to hastily bench state unit chief Bandi Sanjay, an aggressive critic of KCR with impressive skills of grassroots mobilisation, have further dented the party’s electoral prospects in Telangana, giving a Congress that was palpably on an upswing since Rahul Gandhi’s Bharat Jodo Yatra and the party’s resounding victory in neighbouring Karnataka new energy to rebuild itself.

Congress banks on local leaders

In stark contrast to the BJP, the Congress's campaign in the assembly polls is riding heavily on local state leaders. Rajasthan chief minister Ashok Gehlot, his Chhattisgarh counterpart Bhupesh Baghel, MP unit chief Kamal Nath and Telangana Congress president Revanth Reddy have each been given a considerable say in deciding candidates and various aspects of poll strategy.

The Congress’s poll strategy in at least four of these five states, Mizoram being an exception, is built on a combination of local and national issues, bolstered further by an atypically aggressive campaign led by state leaders and complimented by the central leadership of party president Mallikarjun Kharge, former Congress chief Rahul Gandhi and party general secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra.

While its poll guarantees of giving loan waivers, offering 100 units of free electricity to all households, cash incentives for women, among others are meant to tap into local aspirations, the party’s push for conducting a caste survey in the states and Caste Census nationally is intended to firm up a national electoral campaign, with support from its INDIA allies, against the BJP in the run up to the Lok Sabha polls.

It was not surprising, thus, that during his interaction with the press hours after the EC's announcement of the poll schedule, Rahul reiterated his party's unequivocal commitment for conducting a caste census if it is voted to power at the Centre (and caste surveys in states it rules presently or in those it hopes to win come December). In a break from Congress's tradition, it was Rahul and not the party's communication and organisation general secretaries who briefed the media on the deliberations of the Congress Working Committee (CWC) that had met for four hours earlier in the day.

Caste census push

The CWC, say sources, saw detailed discussions on the upcoming assembly polls but Rahul, in his interaction with journalists, focussed only on the committee's resolution to push for a caste census, calling it a "powerful step for the emancipation of the poor" and asserting that the Congress "will pressure the BJP to conduct it or to get out of the way so that we can get it done".

There is already a broad unanimity within the INDIA bloc in favour of a caste census. The palpably favourable public response to the Bihar government's recently published state-specific caste survey has also given a filip to the Opposition's increasingly vocal calls for conducting caste enumeration and a victory for Congress in the forthcoming assembly polls will further amplify the bloc's demand.

INDIA alliance

Though the elections would be the first contest since the Opposition’s anti-BJP coalition took shape, at least three key constituents of the alliance – the Congress, AAP and Samajwadi Party – will not be fighting the upcoming polls under the INDIA banner.

The individual campaigns mounted by the AAP and the SP are unlikely to have any direct consequence on the broader framework or stability of the INDIA coalition as the two parties are, at best, outliers in these five states. However, the two outfits, alongwith other regional parties that are part of the INDIA bloc, would be watching the Congress’s performance in these polls closely as the electoral outcome is likely to impact the stance that the Grand Old Party takes while negotiating the thorny issue of seat-sharing arrangements its alliance partners for the Lok Sabha polls.

Several regional parties in the INDIA bloc have a stronger base than the Congress in the respective states that form their electoral fief – for instance, the RJD and JD (U) in Bihar, the DMK in Tamil Nadu, the AAP in Delhi, the SP in UP and the Trinamool in Bengal.

So far, the Congress has taken a very conciliatory stand during talks with the INDIA partners and maintained that it is committed fully to ensure that seat-sharing arrangements are not derailed on count of individual electoral aspirations of the parties. However, this stand of the Congress, some INDIA allies believe, may change if the assembly polls throw up a resounding victory for the Grand Old Party.

“We all want the Congress to win in the upcoming assembly polls but it is also true that a comprehensive win may allow the party to push for a greater share of seats even in states where it has no real organisational presence and is surviving only on the strength of its allies like the RJD or the DMK. If that happens, then it would not bode well for INDIA... likewise, a BJP defeat in these elections should not push our alliance towards complacency; that is a real challenge because unlike the BJP several of us (in the INDIA bloc) and, particularly the Congress, have a tendency to take it easy when we are winning... if the BJP loses, it is sure to redouble its campaign – and that includes harassing Opposition leaders even more – and we have to be prepared to fight that with equal aggression,” a senior INDIA leader said.

The EC’s announcement of the poll schedule for the five assemblies, results to which will be declared on December 3, has, as such, also sounded the bugle for the battle for Raisina Hill that is due in April-May, 2024.

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