Modi Juggernaut Wipes Out Congress in India’s ‘Hindi Heartland’
The sweeping victories scored by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the three Hindi heartland states of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, and Chhattisgarh in state assembly elections are a huge setback to the opposition Congress party’s hopes of putting up a strong challenge to the ruling BJP in the 2024 general elections.
The BJP’s impressive performance in the elections is yet another endorsement of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s leadership and provides a shot in the arm to the value of Brand Modi in the run-up to next year’s national elections.
The BJP had not projected chief ministerial candidates in the states that voted recently. It was Modi alone who was the face of the BJP campaign in these states.
The results came as a shock to the Congress, which was confident of winning at least three states – Telangana, Chhattisgarh, and Madhya Pradesh. However, it managed to win only the southern state of Telangana, which it wrested from the Bharat Rashtra Samithi (BRS), a regional party. It was unable to retain power in its stronghold Chhattisgarh or Rajasthan. In Madhya Pradesh, voters continued to repose faith in four-time BJP Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan.
Neither the BJP nor the Congress performed well in the northeastern state of Mizoram. Here the contest was largely between local parties, and the Zoram People’s Movement ousted the ruling Mizo National Front by bagging 27 seats in the 40-member state assembly.
Overall results show a clear divide in the mandate between the northern states (i.e., the Hindi heartland) and southern India.
Opposition parties are in power in all the southern states. While the Congress is in power in Karnataka and Telangana and the Dravida Munetra Kazhagam in Tamil Nadu, the Left Front and the YSR Congress have formed governments in Kerala and Andhra Pradesh, respectively. In the wake of the recent results, political commentators observed that while southern India with its better developmental indices, literacy, and booming economy is rooting for the Congress, the Hindi-speaking northern belt continues to embrace the BJP’s Hindutva politics.
So what went wrong for the Congress, whose electoral prospects seemed brighter in recent months?
The complacency of Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel is being cited as a reason for the fall in its tally from 68 seats in 2018 to 35 in the recent election. In contrast, the BJP nearly quadrupled its seats from 15 to 54 in this period. Infighting in the Congress also weakened its performance.
The BJP’s election manifesto for Chhattisgarh, “Modi ki guarantee” promised a slew of populist schemes, including sops for farmers such as higher procurement rates for paddy, subsidized cooking gas, financial assistance for women, etc. These resonated with voters far more than the Congress freebies. The BJP’s focused wooing of tribals in Bastar, formerly a Congress stronghold, also contributed to it wresting control of the state.
In neighboring Madhya Pradesh, despite the popularity of Chief Minister Chouhan, the BJP was apprehensive that voter fatigue with its two-decade-long innings in power in the state would culminate in defeat. The party campaigned robustly. In addition to Modi leading the BJP’s campaign in the state, several BJP Union ministers were roped in to campaign door-to-door in the election.
Chouhan overcame anti-incumbency sentiment to win thanks to measures like specifically targeted schemes for women. Poised for a fifth term as chief minister, Chouhan’s stature has grown manifold within the party. Undeniably, his standing is no less than that of Modi in the BJP. Significantly, Modi scarcely acknowledged him during the poll campaign in the state.
As for the Congress, it was desperate to win back Madhya Pradesh to “avenge” the betrayal by former Congress leader Jyotiraditya Scindia. Although the party won the 2018 election in the state, Scindia’s defection with his supporters to the BJP enabled the latter to topple the Congress Chief Minister Kamal Nath and form the government.
In hindsight, the Congress campaign helmed by Kamal Nath (77) and senior leader Digvijay Singh (76) seemed jaded. In fact, Nath’s overconfidence and arrogance hampered the Congress’ prospects in the state. Importantly, his embrace of “soft Hindutva” – i.e., wooing the majority Hindu vote bank by projecting his Hindu religious identity – failed. The strategy was not only criticized by secular sections but also failed to impress right-wing voters, who preferred the hardline Hindutva of the BJP to the Congress’ emulation of that strategy. Consequently, the Congress slumped from winning 114 seats in 2018 to 66 in 2023.
Despite the many measures that the Congress government introduced in Rajasthan – it was the first in the country to bring in a Right to Health bill, a scheme to provide social security for gig workers, and a new pension scheme – the party’s tally in the state fell from 100 in 2018 to 70 in the recent elections. The state is well known for its revolving door policy, with the electorate voting out the Congress and the BJP in alternate elections. But what also came into play was the bitter rivalry between Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot and the much younger Sachin Pilot. It cost the party dearly. Besides, unlike the BJP, which distributed tickets based on the winnability of candidates, the Congress repeated candidates. Gehlot’s strategy of rewarding loyalists proved to be the Congress’ undoing; 17 of Gehlot’s 25 ministers lost the election. Boosted by Modi’s roadshows, and rallies, the BJP surged from 73 seats in 2018 to a decisive majority with 115 this time around.
Incidentally, the three northern states of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, and Chhattisgarh together account for 65 seats in the Lok Sabha, India’s lower house of Parliament. This is a significant number. While the BJP wave swept the three states in the 2019 general election, the Congress managed to win only three seats from here. There is a high likelihood of this being repeated in 2024.
The only consolation for the Congress in the recent elections, the last round before India votes in the 2024 general election, is Telangana where it was pitted not against the BJP but against the regional power-house, the K. Chandrashekhar Rao-led BRS.
Buoyed by its success in the Karnataka assembly election in May, the Congress carried out a grueling campaign spearheaded by state Congress Chief Revanth Reddy. Reddy was ably supported by Karnataka Deputy Chief Minister and the Congress’ organizational whiz D.K. Shivakumar and political strategist Sunil Kanugolu (interestingly, Kamal Nath had refused to work with Kanugolu in Madhya Pradesh). Congress leader Rahul Gandhi campaigned robustly in Telangana, targeting the corruption of the BRS government.
The Congress’ bagging of 65 seats in Telangana, where it had secured just 19 seats five years ago, marks a remarkable turnaround in the fortunes of the party in the state. It was the Congress government at the center that in 2014 carved out the state of Telangana from Andhra Pradesh, its stronghold. The party faced a poll debacle soon after. The BRS enjoyed a majority in Telangana for a decade. Now with both the Indian IT capitals of Bengaluru and Hyderabad under its rule, the Congress has deeper financial resources at its command as it prepares for 2024.
The election results have brought into question again the leadership abilities and political acumen of Rahul Gandhi. Many believe that Gandhi’s emphasis on the caste census to give Other Backward Classes (OBC) their rightful share in governance alienated groups such as the tribals, who embraced the BJP across these states.
Also, the reluctance of the Congress high command to squash factionalism with a heavy hand, like the BJP does, cost the party dearly. It must be mentioned that while Congress President Mallikarjun Kharge did campaign across these states, it was the Gandhis who were the star campaigners for the party.
The Congress’ performance was also undermined by its arrogance. It brushed aside its INDIA alliance partners in the run-up to the recent elections. I had written about the Congress putting INDIA alliance work in cold storage for its own benefit. It had hoped to leverage its possible gains in the state polls for stronger clout in the coalition.
With the abysmal poll results coming as a rude jolt for the Congress, Kharge quickly called a meeting of INDIA bloc parties.
The alliance is now floundering. There is deep acrimony among its members. Samajwadi Party’s Akhilesh Yadav was rudely snubbed by the Congress when he tried to work out a seat-sharing arrangement in Madhya Pradesh. Yadav will be waiting to teach the Congress a lesson in Uttar Pradesh during seat-sharing talks for the Lok Sabha elections. Since INDIA bloc partners could not come to any amicable agreement, they ended up fielding candidates against each other. The script looks to be no different in 2024.
Soon after the results were announced, a jubilant Modi, sensing victory in 2024, said: “Today’s hattrick has already sealed the verdict for the 2024 polls.”
Indeed, with the opposition failing to offer voters a credible alternative to Hindu majoritarian politics dished out by Modi, this appears to be a foregone conclusion.