POLITICS
13/12/2018 11:34 PM IST | Updated 14/12/2018 12:07 AM IST

What Congress, BJP Need To Keep In Mind Going Into 2019

The Hindutva strategy may not succeed for BJP, and the Congress would be mistaken if it focuses only on farmers' issues.

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A Bharatiya Janata Party supporter yawns during an election campaign rally addressed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi at Mahabubnagar district of Telangana in November, 2018. 

The verdicts of these assembly elections indicate that we might witness a shift in the nature of national politics, more so in light of the forthcoming 2019 Lok Sabha election. There is a strong possibility that during the 2019 poll, the Congress might like to focus on issues of governance as there is a shared belief in the Congress camp that its victory is largely due to people’s anger against the non-performance of the Bharatiya Janata Party-led (BJP-led) state and central governments. The party might try to focus on the issue of rural distress and more so, farmers’ distress.

The uncertainty within the BJP about how successful it can be in the 2019 election by contesting only on the issue of governance may have been reinforced. Thus, there may be a change in thinking within the party about whether it would like to go into the 2019 election solely by championing its record of development or something else—or development plus something else.

I think the BJP may wish to go into the 2019 election with an issue which may have a national appeal, cutting across voters of different castes and communities. Thus, it may decide to pick up the issues of nationalism, Hindu pride along with Mandir as important for the 2019 poll. But this might only happen if the ruling party fails in addressing the issues of farmers in the few months left before the general election. There is a strong possibility that rural issues, more so the issues of farmers, may dominate the 2019 election campaign.

While these results have forced the two major parties to think about campaign strategies for the 2019 poll, the Congress would be mistaken to believe that since its victory in these elections was largely due to farmers’ distress, it may be able to win the 2019 election on this issue as well. Similarly, if the BJP concludes that it can win the 2019 Lok Sabha election by raising a national issue, it may also be mistaken.

The best electoral performance of the BJP before the 2014 Lok Sabha poll was in the 1998 and 1999 Lok Sabha elections, which were largely contested on the issue of Hindutva. But in both these elections, though the BJP emerged as the single largest party and managed to form the coalition government at the centre, it fell short of the majority mark. It managed to win the 2014 Lok Sabha election with a majority, not due to the issue of Hindutva, but only because it promised development; at least it created a hope for development and people were attracted to this idea of development.

The electoral performances of the BJP in the recent past (1998, 1999 and 2014) suggest the politics of Hindutva has a limit and it can't take the party beyond a point. While the BJP might think of using the issue of Hindutva during its campaign in 2019, there would be a question mark about whether that strategy would succeed.

Limits to the influence of Hindutva politics

The electoral performances of the BJP in the recent past (1998, 1999 and 2014) suggest that the politics of Hindutva has a limit and it can’t take the party beyond a point. While the BJP might think of using the issue of Hindutva during its campaign in 2019, there would be a question mark about whether that strategy would succeed. An aggressive Hindutva does attract some sections of voters, but it also repels others who voted for the BJP as they hoped for development or some other positive changes.

There is a need for a careful look at the results to analyse if the farmers’ votes really shifted in favour of the Congress in a big way compared to the previous elections, and whether the BJP suffered mainly at the hands of the disenchanted farmers.

The Congress registered a convincing victory in Chhattisgarh, just managed to scrape through in Rajasthan but fell short of a majority mark in Madhya Pradesh. The BJP lost elections in all the three states where it had been in power, but a careful look at its vote share in these elections suggests that it still remains in a strong contest even in these states. Except for Chhattisgarh, where BJP’s vote share declined by nearly 8%—from 41% in 2013 to 33% in 2018—in the two other states, it has not lagged behind the Congress in terms of popular votes.

In Rajasthan, the BJP with 38.8% vote share did not remain far behind the Congress’ 39.3% vote share. Even in MP, though the Congress won 5 more seats (114) compared with the BJP (109), but the latter remained marginally ahead of the Congress by 0.1% votes. It is true that the vote share of the BJP has declined in all the three states but not to the extent of the party being wiped out of the electoral contest. Such a small decline in the vote share of the BJP makes us rethink if farmers really voted against it in a very large number.

An undercurrent in favour of Congress?

Also, even though the Congress could not manage to register a convincing victory in two of the three states, one still can’t take the credit away from the Grand Old Party as, in these elections, it more than doubled its tally of seats both in Rajasthan (from 21 seats in 2013 to 99 in 2018) and in MP (from 58 seats in 2013 to 114 in 2018). It also increased its vote share by more than 5% both in Rajasthan (33% in 2013 to 39.3% in 2108) and in MP (from 36.4% in 2013 to 41.1% in 2018). This change of vote share between two elections should be considered as a significant swing. Such a swing is normally possible only if there is a wave election. Going by the current vote share of the Congress and BJP both in MP and Rajasthan, one might say that there was no wave in favour of one party, but the significant ground which Congress covered compared with the previous assembly election suggests there must be some undercurrent in these states. It is important to note that the Congress had trailed behind the BJP by 12% votes in Rajasthan and by 8% votes in MP during the 2013 assembly elections. 

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The Congress would be mistaken to believe that since its victory in these elections was largely due to farmers' distress, it may be able to win the 2019 election on this issue as well. 

Different factors helped in generating this swing in favour of Congress in these three states. While in Rajasthan, the mood was more against the sitting Chief Minister than anything else, in MP it was anti-incumbency against both the state government and against the central government, though it was not very large. In Chhattisgarh, the Congress seems to have registered a late swing as it benefitted from the promise it made to the farmers in its manifesto of increasing the minimum support prise for farm produce. The disenchantment of the farmers is obvious not only in these three states but also in other states and the Congress managed to capitalise, to some extent, on this disenchantment in the three states and most successfully in Chhattisgarh.

The defeat of the Grand Old Party and its allies in Telangana signals that alliances may be important to defeat the BJP in 2019, but they need to be crafted carefully.

The setback for the Congress in Mizoram and Telangana, where regional parties emerged very strong, does indicate that the latter will play an important role in the 2019 election. While these victories will help the Congress in increasing its bargaining power vis-a-vis the regional parties, the defeat of the Grand Old Party and its allies in Telangana signals that alliances may be important to defeat the BJP in 2019, but they need to be crafted carefully. The failure of the experiment in Telangana once again raises the question whether two plus two can be four in elections. The Congress+TDP+CPI+TJS alliance looked extremely formidable on paper, but failed in the real match on the ground.

While opposition parties are hoping that the alliances should be able to halt the march of the BJP in 2019, and there are huge expectations from SP+BSP alliance in UP, but learning from the failure of the alliance experiment in Telangana, opposition parties should be cautious while forming alliances. The opposition parties need to ponder if it may be useful to think of having alliances like one between the BJD and Congress in Odisha; TMC and Congress or Congress and Left in West Bengal etc.

The author is the Director of Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, New Delhi. Views expressed are personal.