2019 Indian elections—a referendum on Modi

Muhammad Zamir | Published: December 30, 2018 20:48:19

Assembly Elections 2018: Supporters of Congress party celebrate on December 11, 2018 at the party headquarters in New Delhi. — Photo courtesy: Indian Express

The middle of December has seen a robust performance by India's Congress Party in a few key State elections in India. The Congress ended up winning in the States of Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh and barely missed a majority in Madhya Pradesh in a neck-and-neck finish. Prime Minister Narendra Modi congratulated the opposition "for their victories", saying his party accepts "the people's mandate with humility". This response was indeed praiseworthy. It, however, left behind a serious question as to whether the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) needs to be worried about the evolving Indian political paradigm as the country approaches its next general elections in 2019. It has also raised the question not only as to whether Congress's robust performance has been a shot in the arm for the party but also whether Congress, India's Grand Old Party, is finally back in the reckoning?

The central states of Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh have for some time been widely regarded as BJP strongholds. To put the results in context, India's main opposition party has been consistently losing state elections since it was routed in the seismic 2014 elections which brought Mr Modi to power. It won less than 20 per cent of the popular votes and secured 44 of the 543 seats. It is currently in power in only two large states.

Amy Kazmin of the 'Financial Times' has made certain important observations in this regard -- "the elections in the northern States where the BJP won 61 of the combined 65 parliamentary seats in the 2014 national elections, are considered an important gauge of voter sentiment ahead of the 2019 elections." However "rather than reinforcing the BJP's political command, the polls in Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh suggest a new surge in support for Congress" that was being considered as "being in steep decline".

The BJP won 62 of the 65 seats in these three key states in the last parliamentary elections. Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh are also part of a bellwether region -- the Hindi-speaking heartland of India -- which gave the BJP and its allies 203 of the 225 seats that they won in 2014.

So, the Congress's robust performance -- it gained 163 assembly seats here since 2013 state polls -- is being regarded as a shot in the arm for the party. It will boost the morale of Congress party workers, make it more acceptable to sceptical regional allies, and also enhance the image of its leader Rahul Gandhi. It will also send out the significant message that Mr Modi's BJP is not invincible and can be defeated. All this will help Congress gain some much-needed momentum ahead of next year's crucial general elections.

 The Congress party has formed governments in the states of Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan (where it secured majority) and also where it emerged as the single largest party--Madhya Pradesh (on the basis of an alliance with regional parties). In Chhattisgarh, Congress won 68 of the 90 seats, with the BJP managing to get 15. In Rajasthan, Congress won 101 of the 199 seats contested, against 73 by the incumbent BJP. In Madhya Pradesh, the most important of the five states that have held Assembly elections in recent weeks, Congress emerged victorious on 114 seats while the BJP managed to hold on to 108 out of 230 seats. Regional parties won in two other smaller states that also voted -- Telangana in the south and Mizoram in the northeast. The Telangana Rashtra Samithi registered a thumping victory in Telangana, while in Mizoram the Mizo National Front trounced the Congress party.

The results came as a shot in the arm for Rahul Gandhi, President of the Congress party, who is trying to forge a broad alliance with regional groups and present Modi with his most serious challenge yet in a general election due by May, 2019.

The BJP has, however, said that the State results would not affect its prospects in the general elections. Finance Minister Arun Jaitley has remarked to ANI news agency that BJP leadership and cadres would "pause and analyse the results and then "take corrective steps" that may be required before the polls. It has already been reported that Prime Minister Modi is likely to announce loan waivers worth billions of US dollars to woo millions of angry farmers ahead of the general elections next year.

 However, Professor Apoorvanand from Delhi University, a specialist on human rights and politics, has observed, "the election results will have a psychological impact on the voters" during the upcoming elections. It will act as a signal to many who believed that the BJP could not be defeated." Modi's image has been weakened.

Analysts also believe that the verdict is indicative that people are now slightly reluctant in agreeing with the Hindutva (Hindu nationalism) ideology. In this context, political analyst Sajjan Singh has mentioned, "In the past five years, a vast section of people across caste, region and religion realised that they have got nothing. There are no jobs and development". The Modi government's decision to ban high denomination currency notes and controversial implementation of a federal Goods and Services Tax (GST) last year, has also been seen by some as "a suicidal move", which has brought "unimagined difficulties upon the cash-based rural and informal sector economy which sustains a large part of the Indian society" .

Nevertheless, BJP workers are taking solace from the fact that the party still put up a spirited fight in two of the three states, despite the formidable odds of anti-incumbency. The contest in Madhya Pradesh proved to be a cliff-hanger, with the final result only becoming clear by December 12 morning.

Soutik Biswas of the BBC has, however, drawn attention to certain important postulates. He has pointed out that "these state polls may be an unreliable barometer for next year's big elections." To support his observation he has drawn attention to three important factors.  He has observed that "there was considerable anti-incumbency against the BJP in these states". This was so because the BJP was trying for a record fourth term in both Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. Such a situation was inconsistent with the way people in Rajasthan vote. In that State, they have a consistent record of voting out the incumbent after one term. Secondly, one needs to analyse the situation against the backdrop where the majority of seats in the three states have witnessed bipolar contests between the BJP and the Congress.  One must not forget in this context that in general elections, regional parties in India hold the key. This means that next year much will depend on the kind of strategic regional alliances the Congress is able to stitch up and sustain in different states. The third observation underlines that one of the BJP's greatest strengths is having capable leaders in several states, many of whom have completed more than one term. Hobbled by dynastic politics, the Congress, on the other hand, appears to have failed to groom young local leaders, and have depended mainly on the charisma of the Gandhi family.

These factors will require the Congress to have a more powerful counter-narrative to the BJP. Political scientist Professor Gilles Verniers has noted that Congress should understand that counting on anti-incumbency alone might not work in the future. The Congress supporters need to understand that development outcome will also play a significant role. In the similar vein, political scientists Pradeep K Chhibber and Rahul Verma from the University of California have argued that India "is no longer led by a Western-oriented elite and citizens have voted into power politicians closer to their roots, politicians who represent small-town socially conservative values, in the BJP or regional parties". This has been a reflection of the shift of power to a "more conservative and vernacular elite" which seems to have escaped the Congress.

Other analysts have noted that Rahul Gandhi has already attributed his Party's general success to the growing unease among the unemployed Indian youth population and the farmers with regard to their future economic prospects.

One thing is clear. The 2019 general elections will be a referendum on Mr Modi. In 2014, he swept into power in what was an overwhelming verdict for change. His critics believe that he has frittered away some of that support.

However, the failure to offer an alternative narrative of hope to the people and its often fractious allies will make it difficult for the Congress to mount a credible challenge to Mr Modi in 2019 general elections.

Muhammad Zamir, a former Ambassador, is an analyst specialised in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance.


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