Two prominent BJP slogans have been missing from its ongoing campaign for five states — the promise of achche din and the dream of Congress-mukt Bharat. The reason for the BJP’s reluctance to reuse its popular jumlas from previous elections is apparent: Elections for these states do not portend achche din for the party, and the Congress appears set for an impressive comeback instead of getting wiped out of India.
For the first time since the advent of the Narendra Modi-era in politics, the Congress, as several surveys point out, starts as the frontrunner in this round of elections.
According to CVoter, it might sweep Rajasthan, win Telangana and win Madhya Pradesh by a small margin. Even in Chhattisgarh, the Congress is locked in a close contest with a slight lead over the BJP that could be decisive.
Just a few months ago, with the BJP decapitating its rivals ruthlessly in elections and the Modi-Amit Shah duo looking unassailable, who would have thought the Congress might be dreaming of a 4-0 win and the BJP would be fearing a wipeout? But, as Richie Benaud would have said, it’s all happening here.
What should worry the BJP more is the fact that the Congress has done nothing spectacular to get within striking distance of a 4-0 lead in India's heartland. It has managed to claw back by the simple expedient of just being there while the BJP collapses under the weight of anti-incumbency and growing anger against its two chief ministers — Vasundhara Raje and Shivraj Singh Chouhan.
Rajasthan, by electoral behaviour, is a state of extremes. Its impatient and fickle voters swing from one end of the spectrum to the other in almost every election, turning objects of their adulation into subjects of scorn and ridicule. But, the problem with the BJP in Rajasthan is that its government became extremely unpopular very early in its tenure.
For almost three years, the buzz on the ground has been suggesting anger against the incumbent government and the chief minister for a variety of reasons — unkept promises, effete governance, concentration of power in the hands of a self-serving coterie and churn in caste equations. But, in spite of early warnings, the BJP could do nothing to stop its slide. Now, as CVoter suggests, its vote share is likely to be eight percent less than that projected for the Congress. In addition, Raje's own popularity has fallen below Sachin Pilot's, who has the distinct disadvantage of not commanding a loyal support base of an influential caste or a cadre-based organisation like the RSS.
The BJP had invested almost two decades in Raje. She is the party's most popular face in the stae and nobody else in the party has a pan-Rajasthan appeal. Her falling graph and projected loss imply the BJP will have to find new faces to lead the party in 2019 to neutralise the anger against Raje.
If the BJP is still in the race in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, it needs to be more grateful to the Opposition than its own governments in these states. There is palpable anti-incumbency against Chouhan, reflected in the decline in his own popularity. Any other opponent would have harnessed it for electoral gains but the Congress got caught in infighting and failed to get its campaign off the ground for a very long time. This led people to doubt the Congress' ability to win the election, thus, activating the TINA (there is no alternative) factor in Chouhan’s favour.
In Chhattisgarh, similarly, the BJP is still in the fight because of a division in the anti-government vote. Ajit Jogi and Mayawati are taking away a small but decisive chunk of votes away from the Congress, helping the BJP in a triangular contest. Had the Congress done something to address the Mayawati-Jogi problem, it would have started as a clear frontrunner in the state.
All these states will be a big test for the prime minister's popularity. It is well established that the prime minister changes the electoral outcome with his big hitting in the end. But, the results have not been so spectacular whenever he has run into regional leaders with high popularity ratings, like in Bihar and Delhi in the past. In both Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, Pilot and Jyotiraditya Scindia are gaining popularity in every successive pre-poll survey, taking clear and decisive leads over Raje and Chouhan. This means, people already see them as prospective chief ministers compared to the alternatives offered by the BJP. Dislodging them from popularity charts in an Assembly election will be a huge challenge for the prime minister.
Also, voters in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh are clear about their choice for the prime minister's post — most of them prefer Modi over Rahul Gandhi. This clarity in the voter's mind may be a blessing for the BJP in 2019. But this year, it could be a curse, since voters are likely to convince themselves that voting the BJP out in the Assembly elections won’t be an act of disloyalty if they support Modi in the Lok Sabha. This dichotomy of faith is summed up by a slogan reverberating in Rajasthan: Modi tujh se bair nahin, Raje teri khair nahin (No animosity with Modi but won’t spare Raje).
Firstpost is now on WhatsApp. For the latest analysis, commentary and news updates, sign up for our WhatsApp services. Just go to Firstpost.com/Whatsapp and hit the Subscribe button.
Updated Date: Nov 15, 2018 13:25:17 IST