The state assembly elections outcome has given the BJP and the Congress enough reasons to be on their toes till the upcoming general elections. In Madhya Pradesh, the number of seats BJP won went down to 109 from 165, in Rajasthan it fell to 73 from 163 and in Chhattisgarh the party won just 15 seats compared to 49 in 2013. Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh were BJP strongholds for the past 15 years. The results have undoubtedly rejuvenated the Congress party workers and given strength to the shaky legitimacy of the Congress president, Rahul Gandhi. At the same time, it has also provided a pre-general election opportunity for the BJP to think carefully about the agendas and issues that it is planning to embark on coming year in the Hindi heartland.
Hindutva agenda by BJP & Congress
In these states, BJP adopted a two-pronged strategy for its campaign. The first strategy was to actively experiment with the brand of Hindutva politics. The underlying narrative was simple—in order to blunt the anti-incumbency factor, give the voters something emotional and cultural to play upon and Hindutva may have seemed like the best available option to the party for that.
Apart from BJP president Amit Shah threatening to weed out 'Bangladeshis' and asserting that Ayodhya will have a 'Ram Mandir', the party also employed Adityanath to drum up Hindutva sentiments among voters. On the eve of the polls, the Uttar Pradesh chief minister, in his trademark style, declared that Hanuman was a Dalit tribal and 'Ram Bhakts' would vote for BJP. Of course, he added, 'Ravana Bhakts' will vote for Congress. Adityanath addressed approximately 75 rallies across three states on the election trail mainly trying mobilising and polarising the votes on religious lines.
The second strategy that the BJP embraced was highlighting its own government's achievements, reminding the people of the Congress era mis-governance and corruption, thereby evoking a sense of Congress 'fatigue' among the people.
The Congress party, on its part, vehemently raised the issue of policy decisions, farmer's plight, demonetisation, GST, unemployment, inflation, MSP and corruption. However, they also toyed with the Hindutva agenda. In Madhya Pradesh, they kicked off a 'Ram Yatra' where party leaders were supposed to visit temples in the state, Rahul Gandhi prayed in the Mahakaal temple in Ujjain and also tried to appease Brahmins.
Interestingly, the Hindutva approach seemed more crucial to Congress than to BJP. The latter probably assumed that the personalities of Modi and the likes of Shivraj Chouhan as faces of the party will be enough to carry them through.
However, for the Congress, Hindutva was supposed to be the last resort in an election campaign as they lacked organisation and sustained electoral efforts. Also, the party must have hoped that their attempts at 'soft Hindutva' was also meant to counter BJP's assertions that they are an anti-Hindu party.
Limitations of Hindutva politics
The outcome shows that the Hindutva agenda of both the parties, especially the BJP, failed to influence the voters. It is time the Congress realises that it cannot play in the BJP's court when it comes to experiment with the Hindutva politics. What will work for the Congress party is sticking to governance issues like demonetisation, GST, inflation, unemployment, economy and how the BJP government has been undermining institutions such as RBI. The outcome shows that the rural voters overwhelmingly supported Congress across the states. The widespread farmer's crisis became a credible fulcrum for the Congress performance in these states.
Farmers from across the country had taken out a massive march in New Delhi last month, and before that in Maharashtra in March. Farmers had also demonstrated in Delhi with skulls earlier this year and had openly rejected issues like the Ram Mandir as inconsequential. In fact, they persistently and powerfully voiced their discontent against the Modi government during its entire tenure. Many commentators have pointed out that India's rural distress has deep, systemic roots and cannot be solved with eyewash policy announcements.
That the BJP managed to garner a respectable number of seats, especially in Madhya Pradesh, despite ruling for three terms can be credited to a robust cadre based organisation, role of Panna Pramuksh, and aggressive campaign on the ground.
The takeaway for both the parties after the election result is that it is easier to convince voters on the issue of mis-governance by an incumbent government rather than the divisive agenda of Hindutva politics. The increasing hullaballoo by the BJP on the issue of so called 'Urban-Naxals', compounded with their Hindutva politics may have dealt them a body blow.
What the Congress can learn
It seems Congress has taken for granted the fact that if people are fed up of the BJP, they would automatically vote for their party. Perhaps, this complacence led to the party's moderate performance in Rajasthan, where there was a strong anti-incumbency wave against the Vasundhara Raje government.
When the BJP is in opposition and blends governance issues with the cultural politics of Hindutva, it has altogether different implications as it was witnessed in Uttar Pradesh. In states where the BJP is in power, the opposition can focus on issues of development which should expose the shortcomings of BJP's Hindutva agenda to the voters.
Now, Congress is relatively at a better place in bargaining with the regional parties for a larger coalition before the general election, 2019. At the same time, the outcome bestows even greater responsibility on the Congress to prepare a credible alternative vis-à-vis the BJP government. The presence of a non-BJP government in major Hindi Heartland has the potential to puncture the polarisation attempt by the Hindutva forces.
Rupak Kumar is a doctoral student at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi
(The opinions expressed in this post are the personal views of the author. They do not necessarily reflect the views of HuffPost India. Any omissions or errors are the author's and HuffPost India does not assume any liability or responsibility for them.)