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State elections are not the semi-finals to 2019 battle for Congress or BJP

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The 2019 elections will be starkly different from state assembly polls and a Modi versus Rahul battle.

The curtains will come down on the frenzied assembly polls across five states as campaigning for the last lap ends Wednesday, but despite a very acrid and aggressive contest, these state elections are not the semi-final to the grand 2019 Lok Sabha elections – either for the BJP or the Congress.

BJP and the Modi factor

For the ruling BJP, this has been a tough contest, to say the least. In three of the states – Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh – the party is fighting double anti-incumbency, defending its record in the states as well as a five-year term at the Centre.

A key reason the results of these polls are unlikely to reflect on the 2019 Lok Sabha election is the absence of Narendra Modi as a primary factor. The BJP’s state leaders – Shivraj Singh Chouhan, Raman Singh and Vasundhara Raje – are the dominant faces in their respective states and the pivots of these elections. Modi has had to play second fiddle to them.

For the voters in these states, the vote is not for Modi but for their regional leader. Unlike in other states – like Assam, Uttar Pradesh and Tripura – where the BJP’s sprint to power revolved entirely around the Modi card given the absence of regional faces, these states have their own established leaders whom the voter considers as the BJP’s face.

Given that this is not a vote for Modi, the outcome of these polls can, at best, be a hazy indicator of the BJP’s fortunes in 2019.

Also read: What Modi can teach maharani, mamaji and chawal wale baba this election season

The Lok Sabha polls will be aggressively and unapologetically fought by the BJP in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s name, thus, sharply differentiating its campaign, narrative and strategy from the current state polls.

While this is not the 2019 semi-finals, this is as final an examination as it can get for BJP’s three incumbent chief ministers. Madhya Pradesh CM Shivraj Singh Chouhan and Chhattisgarh CM Raman Singh have three full terms in their kitty, and despite being reasonably young for politics – 59 and 66 respectively – have emerged as strong regional leaders and near-giants in BJP’s state landscape.

However, while both of them were at the same level as Prime Minister Narendra Modi even five years ago, Modi has raced ahead and how, establishing his hegemony over the party. For both Singh and Chouhan, this election is crucial to reassert their importance in the BJP, to prove that unlike Modi, they may be limited to one state but continue to have the power to deliver these states for the BJP. Essentially, this is as much an intra-party battle for power for these two as an inter-party one.

For the third incumbent CM – Vasundhara Raje – this is a fight for relevance. She is the weakest among the three CMs and her massive unpopularity and questionable governance record in the state have meant this election is a trial by fire for her. Raje also shares a tense relationship with the BJP’s central leadership, particularly party president Amit Shah. A humiliating defeat, therefore, could well mean the end of an active political career.

Survival of the Congress

The Congress is fighting for survival. At this point, it is in power in only three states – Punjab, Karnataka and Mizoram, besides the Union Territory of Puducherry. Mizoram went to polls on 28 November and results are awaited. The party has been in shambles at a pan-India level, and its best bet for recuperation is a state-wise revival.

Its performance in these state elections, however, is not a determinant for its show in the 2019 election for two primary reasons. One, the Congress is basing these elections primarily on the high level of anti-incumbency against the BJP regimes in three states.

This, however, may not be the case in Lok Sabha, where the anti-incumbency sentiment against the Modi government could be more muted, and with the PM’s continued popularity, the big advantage the Congress has in these polls will not be on its side.

Two, the party may not have declared CM faces, but at least in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, its state leaders are adding weight to the party’s campaign. This election is not centred on party president Rahul Gandhi, and much like Modi, is not particularly a vote for or against him. The 2019 elections, however, will be starkly different. The BJP will do all it can to make it seem like a Modi versus Rahul battle, knowing fully well that in this face-off, the former has more than just an edge.

Also read: State elections are bad news for BJP and not good news for Congress either

To be sure, while these polls may not be a curtain raiser to 2019, they will have a bearing on the party cadre and workers’ morale and confidence level. They will also add or deduct from the ability to attract allies, especially for the Congress, which is attempting to be the fulcrum of an anti-BJP coalition.

For both the BJP and Congress, the current assembly polls are a final test in themselves. The 11th of December is unlikely to reveal the tarot card that would tell them their fortunes for 2019.

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  1. True, but some of the defining issues of these elections, agrarian distress and unemployment, will resonate in the general election as well. Loss of Madhya Pradesh would be a big blow for the party, in a way perhaps that Rajasthan would not be. If the BJP loses even half of the 62 out of 65 Lok Sabha seats to the Congress from these three states, the arithmetic would begin to change. One hundred seats moving from the BJP to the Congress nationally could change the game completely.

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