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Trends give Congress 3-0 lead in heartland but still offer consolation to BJP

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BJP got routed in Chhattisgarh, lost in Rajasthan & put up a spirited fight in MP. But there are still enough reasons for BJP to keep its hopes up for 2019.

New Delhi: Often touted as the great election juggernaut, the BJP had a gloomy day at the hustings Tuesday with trends giving the Congress party a 3-0 lead in the Hindi heartland. But they still offer a degree of consolation to the BJP with respect to the 2019 Lok Sabha polls.

The BJP got routed in Chhattisgarh, where the party had been in power for three straight terms and lost comprehensively in Rajasthan but put up a spirited fight in Madhya Pradesh in a nail-biter as trends showed a slim lead for the Congress.

The elections to these five state assemblies have come just months before the Lok Sabha polls and, therefore, carry more weight in terms of optics, perception and cadre morale than other state polls. For the BJP, in these defeats lie crucial lessons for the 2019 polls, but the fact that it didn’t turn out to be a one-sided contest in the Hindi heartland — except in Chhattisgarh — also offers the party enough reason to keep its hopes up.

Also read: BJP trailing in 59% of heartland seats Yogi Adityanath campaigned in


Electoral strategy, organisation & Modi not enough

The BJP under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and party president Amit Shah is known for its effective electoral strategy and solid organisational network which keeps it in good stead. Tuesday’s results, however, show these may not be enough.

The biggest shocker for the BJP has been Chhattisgarh, where its Chief Minister Raman Singh was fighting for a third term. This is a state where the Congress and BJP have had just a one per cent vote-share difference, and thus, the former managing to cover the gap riding on anti-incumbency would not have been unexpected. However, the vote-share gap increased to around 10 per cent in the Congress’ favour, thus giving it a massive jump in seats.

In Madhya Pradesh as well, while the party did hang on with all its life, it looks like it will eventually fall short, despite a popular incumbent CM in Shivraj Singh Chouhan. Its vote-share also came down from nearly 45 per cent to just above 41 per cent — bringing the Congress on a par with it.

Rajasthan, meanwhile, was being seen as the toughest challenge for the BJP given CM Vasundhara Raje’s massive unpopularity but was a state where Modi put in the most effort, carpet-bombing with rallies. In all these three states, the BJP has a deeply entrenched organisational network.

What the results in these states indicate is that mere smart electoral strategising and an effective organisation structure cannot be enough for the BJP. Factors such as anti-incumbency, the fading popularity of leaders and burning issues can get the better of it. More importantly, its rival parties can also do their groundwork well, proven most notably by the Congress in Chhattisgarh where mere anti-incumbency could not have wiped the BJP out in this manner.

In these elections, Modi mostly played second fiddle with the respective incumbent CMs being far more dominant. This also shows the BJP’s limitations of using Modi as its trump card in polls, where other issues and leaders can be the more influential factors. The PM addressed 26 rallies across Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh.

Rural distress can’t be dismissed

The BJP can no longer dismiss agrarian and rural distress as non-issues. It dented the party in Modi’s home state Gujarat and has affected the party’s fortunes in these state elections as well. The farmer agitation in all three states was a key issue in the run-up to the polls, which the opposition Congress exploited adequately.

The rural vote — which traditionally was a Congress stronghold — was key to the BJP’s success in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections as well as some assembly polls such as Uttar Pradesh and Tripura. The Modi government, which has tried hard to project a pro-rural, welfare image, now seems to be losing grip over this constituency, with policy decisions such as demonetisation further adding to its woes.

Inflammatory speeches don’t always work

The BJP went all out to push its brazen Hindutva agenda in these state polls, with party president Amit Shah leading from the front and Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath following suit. PM Modi, who started off his campaign on development issues, did lapse into a high-decibel nationalism stance towards the end.

Clearly, attempts at whipping up majoritarian sentiments and catering to the hardcore Hindutva vote bank don’t always reap dividends, and in fact, may prove to be counter-productive as far as the moderate voter is concerned.

Can’t bank on a splintered opposition

These are elections where the Congress did not manage to stitch together an alliance after the breakdown of talks with Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) — a fact that was expected to dent it at least in Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh. As the Samajwadi Party and BSP publicly attacked the Congress, the BJP rejoiced.

These elections, however, show the BJP cannot merely bank on lack of opposition unity to buttress its electoral performance, and a splintered opposition can also be as damaging if the winds are not blowing in its favour.

Also read: Amid heartland surge, Telangana dampens Congress enthusiasm for 2019 grand alliance

Consolation for BJP ahead of 2019?

However, even with a defeat in these polls, the BJP knows 2019 will be a different ballgame.

To begin with, in both Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan — where the party had done very well in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls — it has not been wiped out. In Madhya Pradesh, it put up an appreciable performance for a three-time incumbent with many factors going against it.

In Rajasthan, meanwhile, the BJP managed to not face an absolute drubbing given the extent of serious reverses it faced in bypolls in the state early this year. With this, the BJP senses the Congress isn’t making the most of opportunities, and that in 2019, these very states may not abandon it in a significant manner.

The biggest hope for the BJP, is that while these elections were more about local leaderships, it will try to portray 2019 as a Modi versus Rahul Gandhi contest. With Modi as its unequivocal face, the BJP hopes to be able to endear itself to the voter, over-riding several negative factors. The extent of anti-incumbency against Modi could be more muted in 2019 than it was against the BJP chief ministers.

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  1. When M S Oberoi bid an outrageous price for the Nariman Point plot on which the Trident and its sister hotel now stand, his son Bikky asked him, Why ? Location, location, location, the great man replied. Compared to that, the location of the Taj, its natural competitor, amidst the bylanes of Colaba, looks distinctly downmarket. Today’s results would have approximated those from five years ago if the party had focused on Performance, performance, performance.

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