What went wrong? This is the question that a lot of the BJP leaders would be asking themselves tonight. And this question has no easy answer. Irrespective of how one perceives this, irrespective of who forms a government in Madhya Pradesh and how things play out in Rajasthan, there is hardly a silver lining. This is probably the worst day for the BJP and its ecosystem ever since the party stormed into power in 2014. One cannot dispute the fact that it is time for the BJP to return to the drawing board.
The unfortunate part about this election is that it is extremely tough to analyze. Eight hours after counting began, we continue to encounter more political uncertainties than certainties. Let us first look at the political certainties that this election has to offer. Most of them come from the two states that the mainstream media ignored in its coverage, the only two states where we didn’t witness a direct Congress versus BJP battle.
In Telangana, the biggest takeaway of the election is that K Chandrashekhar Rao is here to stay. This isn’t a man who struck gold once because he led the statehood movement, this is master-strategist and arguably, a master-administrator. His bet of early elections payed off hugely. Not only did he rout the opposition in terms of seats, he has polled an impressive 47% of the votes. The golden law of Indian politics, that regional parties cannot dominate more than one state, has resulted in a terrible showing for the TDP. Chandrababu Naidu, who went on a spree stitching alliances all over the country, has been reduced to zilch in Telangana, which was part of united Andhra Pradesh five years ago.
In Mizoram, the Congress Party has been routed. The five-time Congress chief minister has lost both the seats he contested. A Congress-mukt Northeast is finally a reality. Hemanta Biswa Sarma has delivered on his mandate, and every BJP supporter must be hoping that his political acumen is tapped more often and he is given larger national responsibilities.
The biggest blow to the BJP isn’t Madhya Pradesh or Rajasthan, but the state of Chhattisgarh. A rout in Rajasthan was expected, and the fact that things were tricky in Madhya Pradesh was also known. But nobody expected the BJP to lose Chhattisgarh, and how! Only one pollster called Chhattisgarh in favor of the Congress. Granted that things have always been neck and neck in Chhattisgarh, but the fact that Raman Singh has been an extremely popular chief minister, the fact that the Congress Party’s local leadership was practically non-existent and the Ajit Jogi factor, was enough to make the educated guess that BJP would romp home for a fourth time. So what went wrong in Chhattisgarh? The fact that this question is almost unanswerable, and the results are baffling one and all, is exactly what went wrong in the state. Such a strong anti-incumbency wave is usually visible on the ground, but neither the BJP nor the mainstream media and its pollsters, nor the Congress Party for that matter, seemed to be aware of it. For all we know, the Congress wasn’t even expecting such a thumping win. This is a critical intelligence failure for the BJP. Ignorance about ground realities led to overconfidence and complacency.
Madhya Pradesh is probably the trickiest one of all. Eight hours into counting, the state was still see-sawing between the BJP and the Congress. Had Madhya Pradesh been the only state that went to polls, result day would have given political enthusiasts more heart attacks than Gujarat’s result day. But one thing is for sure- despite the BJP’s vote-share having reduced, it is difficult to conclude that there was an anti-incumbency wave against Shivraj Singh Chauhan. The fact of the matter is that the vote-shares of both parties are almost exactly the same, the BJP being ahead by a few decimal points. The number of seats both parties ultimately win are also unlikely to be very different from each other. For a three term government, it is hardly fair to term this as anti-incumbency.
Rajasthan was the only state in which, for more than a year now, both people within and outside the BJP were expecting a loss. Towards the end, there was talk of a comeback for the BJP, and this has reflected in the party’s vote-share which is only half a percent less than the Congress Party. There might have been high anti-incumbency in the state considering the BJP’s vote-share and the number of seats dropped substantially. But with the huge number of “others” registering a win in the state, one can conclude that despite high anti-incumbency, there is a tendency not to consider the Congress Party as the only alternative. Another interesting fact to emerge is that most of the “others” who did well were BJP rebels who were not given tickets. There seem to have been some obvious problems in ticket distribution.
What are the lessons for the BJP to take back from this?
Leaving Chhattisgarh aside, the lessons for the BJP to draw are quite similar in both Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan. There are essentially four lessons.
The most obvious one is that the core voter is not to be taken lightly. With the amount of development that has come about under Prime Minister Modi and the three chief ministers who lost today, it is safe to assume that development wasn’t a factor that prompted the voters to turn away from the BJP. There was a miscalculation in the timing of the Ram Mandir ordinance. The belief within the party probably was that they would pull through in the three states, and that they could use the ordinance as the trump card for the general elections after this. The fact that a guy who knows next to nothing about Hindutva could go temple-hopping and win votes on that plank, should be a cause of worry for the BJP.
The next lesson to draw is that things have to be ramped up on the perception battlefront. Both Raje and Shivraj were brilliant administrators. Despite this, Raje was projected as a nine to five Maharani chief minister, and Shivraj was projected as anti-upper caste and anti-farmer. The fact of the matter is that no politician in independent India has done as much work for the farmers as Shivraj has. Mandsaur, which was the epicenter of the politically-motivated farmer agitation has gone to the BJP, and nothing can be a better testament to this. There was a counter on the perception battlefront when Kamal Nath’s video came to light and the BJP projected the Rajasthan election as a Modi-centric battle, but it was too little too late.
The third lesson is that despite the fact that Rahul Gandhi might be BJP’s top campaigner according to many, these are ideas which must be restricted to the domain of memes. The BJP has taken this idea too seriously. The voter hates being told what to do from people in a position of power. The concerted campaigns that political elites and the mainstream media run against the likes of Narendra Modi, Yogi Adityanath and Donald Trump, have played a huge role in their rise to power. The BJP cannot afford to do the same thing to Rahul Gandhi, and make him a messiah among the silent majority.
The fourth lesson is that if you want to create a Congress-mukt Bharat, you must take a cue from the Congress Party’s own book. The Congress Party established itself as the dominant player in Indian politics for several decades after independence, and they were ruthless in the way they went about it. Look at the way they targeted and ruthlessly crushed their opponents. Perhaps the BJP doesn’t want to descend to that level, and I respect that. But why the Padma Award for Sharad Pawar? Why was the one-day ban on NDTV lifted after they compromised the position of our forces? Why aren’t the UPA era scamsters serving their sentence? There is no room for such niceties. This is politics. If you don’t slay, you will get slayed.
Will Congress-mukt Bharat ever be a reality?
These elections might have given the Congress Party a new lease of life, but this doesn’t mean that Prime Minister Modi’s dream of a Congress-mukt Bharat is shattered. Not by a long shot. The Congress was the principal opposition party in all the three states that the BJP lost today, and therefore, the obvious alternative. The Modi-Shah combine have successfully wiped the Congress out from the Northeast today. The grand old party has also been wiped out of Uttar Pradesh and Odisha almost entirely under the Modi-Shah combine. No doubt this is a huge setback, but even if the BJP had won these three states, they wouldn’t have been Congress-mukt.
Will these elections have a bearing on 2019? Obviously. The Congress Party’s cadre will be super-enthused, and three new channels have opened up to fund the party. More importantly, this has given a new lease of life to the Mahagathbandhan despite the fact that their first experiment failed royally in Telangana. But will this affect the BJP badly? Unlikely.
Firstly, the BJP’s cadre won’t be complacent. Now they know that they have a huge challenge in hand for 2019, and this will take them back to the drawing board and force them to make amends. Secondly, the state leadership in all the three states that the BJP lost was extremely strong. This indicates that it isn’t a mandate against Prime Minister Modi. The fact that Prime Minister Modi could execute some kind of a turnaround in Rajasthan at the eleventh hour is testament to this. More importantly, even though most exit polls predicted a BJP loss in Rajasthan, the same polls predict that the party is slated to win 20 Lok Sabha seats from the state in 2019. In Madhya Pradesh too, the BJP won in most constituencies where Prime Minister Modi campaigned. Interestingly, the Congress Party lost in most constituencies where Rahul Gandhi campaigned.
Things are far from over for 2019. The party should convert this loss into an opportunity to make amends and once again emerge as the force that it was in 2014. Having observed Amit Shah, this is probably already happening.
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