Key takeaways from #AssemblyElections2018

Key takeaways from #AssemblyElections2018

Despite addressing 32 public rallies in the poll-bound states, Modi could not swing the fortunes of the BJP.

By Vrinda Gopinath

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As the results of the just-concluded state Assembly elections play out in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chattisgarh, one thing is certain. The people of the heartland have speared the heart of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the RSS-BJP combine. People have rejected the Sangh’s divisive, hate-filled election campaign unleashed by Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath.

In these three states, the BJP is in a direct contest with the Congress. The winds of change—albeit gentle—should soar the spirits of the latter which, under its president Rahul Gandhi, was desperately looking for a significant victory to not only consolidate its position but also to establish itself as a critical player for the general election.

As for the southern state of Telangana, which also went to polls, incumbent chief minister K Chandrashekar Rao of the TRS, has punched a knockout at his main rival, the Congress-TDP combine, to race ahead with a resounding majority of 88 seats out of a total of 119 seats, even surpassing his earlier total of 63 seats in 2014, leaving his rival with barely 21 seats, and the BJP getting only one seat so far.

In the North-Eastern state of Mizoram, the incumbent chief minister who has held the position for a record five times, the 76-year-old Congress leader Lal Thanhwala lost miserably to the Mizo National Front (MNF). He not only lost both the Assembly constituencies he contested from but also lost his government to the MNF, which has won 26 seats out of 40 Assembly seats. The Congress could only win five seats, down from its earlier tally of 34 seats. The MNF is also an ally of the BJP at the Centre and has raced back after 10 years, to give the BJP yet another state in the North-East region. The BJP is pinning its hopes on the 26 Lok Sabha seats that come from the region in 2019, to compensate for probable losses in states where Modi swept to power in 2014, with an absolute majority.

Now, let’s look at the heartland states of MP, Rajasthan and Chattisgarh. The BJP has lost 183 seats in the four states, excluding Mizoram, where it won one seat—a gain for the party. On the other hand, the Congress made gains to revive itself in MP, Rajasthan and Chattisgarh, with as many as 164 seats where it is in direct contest with the BJP; but lost 45 seats in Telangana and Mizoram.

There could not be a worse message for Modi: despite addressing 32 public rallies in the poll-bound states–six in Chattisgarh, 12 in Rajasthan, 10 in MP, three in Telangana, and one in Mizoram
he could not swing the fortunes of the BJP. In fact, as Rajasthan’s Congress state president Sachin Pilot points out, his party won four of the five seats in Dausa where Modi campaigned.

Voters seem in fatigue with Modi’s speeches about himselffrom being a chaiwallah to kaamdar vs naamdar (workers vs dynast). If not talking about himself, then Modi was talking about jibes at his mother and father. The PM’s constant harangue against the Nehru-Gandhi family in all his public rallies rather than talking about his state governments’ achievements and welfare schemes, seems to have left the electorate cold.

Modi also failed to address farmers and the devastating agrarian crisis in the country, as well as the disastrous impact that demonetisation and GST have had on traders of small and medium enterprises. For instance, the BJP’s performance has plummeted in the heartland, indicating that both the devastating agrarian crisis and joblessness among youth has brought down its governments in all three states. In Chhattisgarh, the BJP’s rural vote share was only 17 per cent unlike when it got 52 per cent in 2013. In urban areas, it fell from 75 per cent in 2013, to 25 per cent today. Similarly, in Madhya Pradesh, the rural vote share came down from 67 per cent, to 42 per cent; and the urban vote from 90 per cent to 55 per cent.  

Instead, Modi drew on Sardar Patel to tell disbelieving farmers that had the Sangh’s resurrected statesman been the country’s first prime minister instead of Nehru, agriculture in the country would not have been in such dire straits. Those words must have surely reminded the distraught and impoverished farming community reeling with debt and bankruptcy of the exorbitant Rs 3,000-crore Patel statue built by Modi in Gujarat. 
The winner in the heartland is none other than Rahul Gandhi, who could not have got a better first-anniversary gift as party president. Gandhi took over the post on Dec 11, 2017.
It seems his timing could match Modi’s fantastic strike to jettison to centre stage in 2014. While the year began miserably for Gandhi: in February, the Congress handed over Tripura to the BJP; Meghalaya and Nagaland to BJP and allies. In May, its incumbent government in Karnataka was forced into an alliance with Janata Dal (Secular), giving the chief ministership to the JDS as well. The battle to fight incumbency in MP, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan could not be so hard–the BJP’s Shivraj Singh Chauhan has been in power for 14 years, Chhattisgarh’s Raman Singh has been in power for 15 years, and Rajasthan’s Vasundhara Raje who has always bowed out after every five years.

Commentators, anchors and Big Media have harshly mocked and jeered Rahul and his string of defeats, his incompetence and lack of talent, but Rahul seems to have finally learnt that hard work pays. Shedding his sense of entitlement and privilege, Rahul seems to have taken the five December polls seriously. Appointing Kamal Nath as party chief in MP, and calling a truce among top party leaders such as Nath, Jyotiraditya Scindia and Digvijay Singh; putting both Sachin Pilot and old warhorse Ashok Gehlot in the arena; and most importantly, fielding new leaders in Chhattisgarh like Bhupesh Bhagel and senior leader TS Singh Deo, who are now front-runners for the chief minister’s post; a feat achieved after its leadership was wiped out in the 2013 Naxal attack.

In Telangana, Gandhi seems to have made the same mistake that he made in Uttar Pradesh by going with incumbent Akhilesh Yadav of SP. Similarly, he tied an alliance with the TDP’s Chandrababu Naidu who was seen as the obstructionist to making Telangana into a separate state. In Mizoram, the Congress was a spent force having been in power for ten years.
The new charged and combatant Rahul Gandhi has been single-minded in his attack against Modi, calling him a thief in the Rafale deal (“Chowkidar chor hain”), calling him out for demonetisation while ignoring local issues in the states and christening GST as “Gabbar Singh Tax”.  His temple runs during his campaigns was a deliberate attempt to shrug the Congress Party’s image of being a pro-Muslim party, and though it may not have impacted the polls in a big way, it has indeed sent jitters to the BJP- and RSS-affiliate groups. However, the Congress president must introspect why he could not get decisive victories in Rajasthan, which was touted to be a cakewalk for the Congress; and in MP, where the party was taking on the incumbent Chauhan after 14 years. In the state, almost 30 seats were won and lost with a margin of less than 1000 votes; out of 78 seats that were lost and won by a margin of less than 2,000 votes. The Congress must analyse why the MP election was such a close contest, now that the Lok Sabha polls are around the corner.

It is not just Rahul Gandhi’s public display of his religiosity that has unnerved the RSS-BJP and its affiliates. It is the realisation that Hindutva and its hateful, divisive and communal politics cannot get votes, as the five elections have just revealed. And the message was delivered hard and fast, by the voters, to no one other than the Hindutva icon, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath. To the horror of Yogi and his Hindutva honchos, the BJP has barely managed to get 26 seats in the heartland, where he held rallies in 68 rallies—Rajasthan (26), Chhattisgarh (23), Madhya Pradesh (17)—and Telangana (8). In Chhattisgarh, Yogi’s impact was so dismal that despite spitting communal fire, the BJP is barely grasping at eight of those seats.

The heartland has restored faith that the country is not divided into two Indias–north and south. Also, Yogi’s anti-Muslim jibes, saying a BJP victory will send MIM’s Asaduddin Owaisi fleeing to Pakistan and that Hyderabad will be renamed Bhagyanagar, has exposed the hollowness of Hindutva and its majoritarian ideology. It has to be seen if the RSS and its Hindutva affiliates go slow on the Ayodhya-Ram temple movement, which has been unleashed in the country today.

In Chhattisgarh, for over two years, the BJP and its followers have been campaigning against “urban naxals” as traitors and murderers, several leading activists who have been championing tribal rights and working for their upliftment, have been rounded up and thrown into prison for conspiring to murder Modi, and for promoting violence and brutality. BJP sympathisers began tweeting early in the day how the Congress victory is going to bring back Naxalism terror to the state. More significantly, the Congress which refused to give in to BSP’s Mayawati handed over six seats to her (the BSP had just one seat in the last poll) and to her alliance partner, former Congressman Ajit Jogi. The Congress needs neither parties to form the government as it has an absolute majority.

So, what are the big takeaways from the election results in the five states? One, the Congress has been as fortunate as the BJP to wrest states that have been deluged by huge anti-incumbency waves, just like the BJP did in Maharashtra, Haryana, and Assam. The timing of the victories in Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, MP, could not have come at a better time for Rahul Gandhi, in the run-up to 2019 general election. The Amit Shah-Modi Jadu Jodi (magic duo) and their large election machine of big bucks, big data and mega teams, are vulnerable to electoral betrayal, disappointments, and anger. However, it must be conceded that Shah’s election machine gives the party the extra mile when the going is good, and cushions the party’s electoral losses, as Rajasthan and MP reveal.

Hindutva machismo and its murderous, divisive campaigns also fail in the face of unemployment, agrarian distress, hunger and poverty. But can Modi’s development mantra of 2014, which jettisoned him to the prime minister’s chair with a sensational, brute majority, work for him in 2019, as voters feel increasingly betrayed and let down, calling him out for his false promises and pledges?