Big setback for BJP

The results of the keenly contested Assembly elections in five states were broadly in line with the sense provided by exit polls, except for Chhattisgarh, where a photo finish was predicted. The K Chandrasekar Rao-led Telangana Rashtra Samithi has swept the polls, and in Mizoram, the Mizo National Front routed the ruling Congress. But the most crucial battle was obviously in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh (MP) and Chhattisgarh, where the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Congress were locked in a direct contest. The results here provided the most significant takeaway in the context of the general elections in 2019. Contrary to expectations, the Congress beat the BJP in Chhattisgarh with a comfortable margin, and managed to cobble together a majority in Rajasthan. MP was always the key battle and the fortunes fluctuated right through the day as each round of counting saw the two parties swap positions on the leader board. While the final results are still not in, the Congress looks set to give the BJP a run for its money. Overall, thus, the BJP has suffered serious setbacks in three Hindi heartland states, two of which — MP and Chhattisgarh — were BJP strongholds where the party was hoping to win a consecutive fourth term in office.

The results herald a strong revival of the Congress, reversing the broad trend of the grand old party losing one state government after another since 2013. They bolster its credentials to challenge the BJP in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, which itself is a creditable achievement, considering that the Congress managed just 44 seats in the Lok Sabha polls in 2014. Rahul Gandhi, who completed one year as Congress president on Tuesday, will obviously look at the results with considerable satisfaction as they remove the perception of him being a perennial loser. The latest Assembly polls have shown that he has finally managed to build a team which will help him draw up the right kind of strategy in each state in the run-up to the general elections five months later. On the other hand, the scale of the BJP’s losses indicates a desire for change that one cannot lose sight of. The three key states gave it 62 out of a total 65 Lok Sabha seats in 2014, and the party had little to show by way of gains in the other two states either. More importantly, the results have dented Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s image of being invincible. It was also perhaps a rare instance of the BJP’s master strategist and president, Amit Shah, taking a few hard knocks. The party would therefore do well to do some serious introspection.

This is not to say that all is lost for the BJP — far from it. The fact that the party made a fight of it in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh despite anti-incumbency and in the backdrop of rural distress means that when the Lok Sabha polls pit Mr Modi against the rest, the BJP can do much better than its Assembly performance. Indeed, the Congress benefited from a vote swing of 5 to 7 per cent over the 2013 elections, but this may not be enough to upstage Mr Modi in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. That’s because the BJP under Mr Modi’s leadership commanded much higher vote shares in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls than the ones it garnered in the 2013 Assembly polls in these states. Thus, the voter swing is still not big enough to change the government at the Centre, and Mr Modi should be expected to lead a minority/coalition government next May, if his party learns its lessons from the setback in the semi-finals. Voters want a credible story that goes beyond aggressive posturing about the Ram temple, and delving into the failures of the previous regime.

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