Rahul Gandhi has arrived as a mass leader. And the BJP stares at the threat of an unceremonious departure in 2019
Now it’s final. The BJP failed to win even a single state in Assembly elections 2018. Many had dubbed the polls the semi finals before the crucial 2019 general elections. The BJP lost three states —Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, all in the Hindi belt—to the Congress. While the TRS won Telangana hands down, the Mizo National Front wrested Mizoram from the Congress. Here are five takeaways from the elections.
‘Pappu’ no longer
Rahul began leading the Congress at a time when the party was, arguably, going through its toughest phase since Independence. Since his political ascend within the Congress party, he has been ridiculed and attacked by both the BJP’s leadership and its online troll army. Exactly five years ago, while campaigning in Chhattisgarh, Modi termed Rahul a “shehzada” (a prince, referring to a dynasty) and Sonia Gandhi “matashree”. In 2015, Prime Minister Modi mocked Rahul again: “Don’t go by his age, he hasn’t matured mentally and that’s why kept talking about toffees.”
Modi’s supporters have time and again attacked Rahul on social networks calling him ‘Pappu’ and ‘Amul Baby’. The consensus among the BJP supporters was that Rahul was not a match to Modi in leadership skills and personal appeal. Well, not any more. Sample these facts: Rahul Gandhi became Congress president on December 16, 2017. Within a year, his party — which was struggling to make a comeback since its Lok Sabha defeat in 2014 — has unseated the BJP in three key states.
Clearly, Rahul has energised the Congress’s organisational networks, especially in the battleground states, and struck a chord with India’s villages, especially farmers. He’s also evolved into a coalition builder, by leading the anti-BJP front. As Maharashtra Navnirman Sena Chief Raj Thackeray just said, the Pappu has become “Param Pujya” (most revered). If the BJP continues to take him lightly, it will be at its own peril.
The Modi wave has fizzled
As it became clear that the BJP was losing the key states, the party’s spin doctors argued that the results would not impact the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. Assembly elections and Lok Sabha elections are different and local factors were at play during the state polls, they said. Only if it were that simple. That said, what needs to scare the BJP is the massive fall in its popularity in all the three key states. Take Rajasthan, where the BJP won 55% of the popular vote in 2014 anchoring on the Modi wave. Now, the BJP’s share stands at 38.8%, a fall of 16 percentage points.
In the 2013 assembly elections, the BJP had 45.17% votes. This has also fallen by 6 points. In Madhya Pradesh, where the BJP got 54% vote in 2014, it has got only 41% this year, a slide of 13 points. Compared to the 2013 assembly elections when the BJP had about 45% votes, the fall is 4 points. In Chhattisgarh, the BJP suffered a 15-point decline in popular votes from 48.7 in 2014 to 33% now.
In the state, BJP had 41% vote in the 2013 assembly election—the slip is 8 points. These are wild swings. And it suggests the Modi wave that swept the BJP into power in 2014 has fizzled out. Modi has lost the mojo. He can’t take the party on his shoulder to win state elections. And if the anti-BJP trend continues, the BJP will be in serious trouble for the general elections.
The Yogi brand is all bunkum
BJP CM of Uttar Pradesh Yogi Adityanath was a star campaigner during the assembly polls. In four out of the five battleground states, Adityanath addressed 74 public meetings—26 in Rajasthan, 23 in Chhattisgarh, 17 in Madhya Pradesh and eight in Telangana. In contrast, Modi addressed only 32 rallies. According to a The Print report, the BJP got a beating in 59% of the seats where Adityanath campaigned. His speeches aimed at polarising voters and his obsession to rename cities failed to impress voters.
Even in UP, Adityanath was brought in as the Chief Minister after the elections, not before. In the March by-polls in Gorakhpur (Adityanath’s own city) and Phulpur, the BJP lost to Samajwadi Party, which raised doubts about the government’s popularity among UP voters. And the plan to bring Adityanath as a campaigner in other states also failed to reward the BJP.
Congress needs Mayawati
If the Congress wants to build a strong anti-BJP alliance, it needs Mayawati’s support. When the BSP chief declined a pre-poll alliance with Congress in October, she blamed the party, saying it was not serious in defeating the BJP. She also mocked the Congress saying that “they think they can win it alone”. Her calculation was that the Congress would realise her importance post-polls. Not as much as she hoped for. In Chhattisgarh, the Maya factor didn’t have any impact on the Congress, which won 68 of the 90 seats, while BSP won only two.
Even in Rajasthan, the Congress is only one seat short of majority at 99. With support from RLD, the Congress can stake claim to form the government without BSP’s six MLAs. In Madhya Pradesh, Congress has 114 and SP has 1. It needs only one MLA for majority.
But Mayawati has announced that her party, which has two MLAs in MP, would back the Congress. The BSP has its vote share more or less intact in these states. It has 4% vote in Rajasthan, 5% in MP and 3.9% in Chhattisgarh. If that’s transferred to the Congress, the alliance could have made wonders. In the Lok Sabha election when the contest will be much tougher, the Congress needs these votes against the BJP.
Long way to go for Congress
Of course, the results are a morale booster for the Congress. Its vote share has gone up in the three states compared to 2014. If one converts the votes the Congress got into Lok Sabha constituencies, there’s a sizeable gain for the Grand Old Party. For example, in MP, the Congress, which had only 2 seats in 2014, will win 12 seats out of 29. In Rajasthan, the Congress tally will go up to 12 from 0 in 2014.
In Chhattisgarh, it could repeat the BJP’s 2014 performance by winning 10 out of 11 seats. In the 85 Lok Sabha seats in all the five states, the Congress will win 35, up from 7, while the BJP’s strength will go down from 63 to 31. This is good news for the Congress.
But the BJP still remains a formidable force, both organisationally and financially. Even in the states where elections were held, the Congress was expected to do much better in Rajasthan. It scraped through. In both Rajasthan and MP, it needs allies to form government. It won a decisive victory only in Chhattisgarh. While the fall in the BJP’s vote share is huge compared to 2014, the Congress hasn’t seen a similar rise in its share. For example, Congress vote share rose 9 points in Rajasthan from 2014 (the BJP’s fall was 16 points). In MP, the Congress gained 6 points (BJP lost 13). Even in Chhattisgarh which Congress swept, its vote share jumped 5 points compared to the BJP’s 15 point decline.
There are only a few months left for the general election. And this is the first time the Congress has shown that it can win against the BJP. Moreover, its tally in the current Lok Sabha is low at 47, while the BJP alone has 272 seats. To unseat Modi, the Congress has to win a good lot of more elections . It should also build alliances with regional parties. That’s a new terrain Rahul Gandhi is in. So the election results may have endorsed his leadership and breathed new life into the ailing Congress, but it has a long way to go before the 2019 general elections.