How does one read the December 3 poll results? If one goes by the way the results powered the Nifty and Sensex to new highs last week because of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s sweep in three Hindi heartland states, which the stock market perceived as a strong indication of continued policy support, while easing concerns over political stability, then it is safe to say that from the market’s point of view, the results have reinforced consensus expectations of a Narendra Modi win in the 2024 general election.
Obviously, the market likes a stable, reform-oriented and market-friendly government at the Centre, though the fact remains that India’s most reform-oriented policies and budgets came from coalition governments in the 1990s.
However, if one considers various newspaper reports, analyses, and TV debates of the poll results, then the overwhelming consensus is that Modi will be re-elected in 2024; maybe with a few more or less seats, but re-elected nevertheless.
There is little doubt that the results of the Assembly elections, which saw the Congress winning in only Telangana where its opponent was a regional party, will have some impact on the upcoming Lok Sabha poll in April and May. But to say with absolute optimism that the Hindi heartland hat-trick for the BJP will ensure a hat-trick for Modi next year may be a little premature, given that a lot could happen between now and April in the Opposition space.
This is not to say that the BJP, a cadre-based organisation and a formidable election machine, will not give the Opposition a run for its money, given its willingness to work hard on every election, determination to win even in adverse political conditions and ability to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.
But to assume that 2024 is almost a done deal for Modi, and that the Congress and regional parties which have come together under the I.N.D.I.A bloc are unlikely to succeed in stopping or weakening the BJP juggernaut from winning the all-important general election, means that nothing is likely to change for the Opposition after the latest round of elections which saw the Congress losing badly to the BJP in a direct fight in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Chhattisgarh.
It is true that the Congress is quite laid-back as compared to the agile BJP. But to say that the former is no match to the BJP based on the latter’s impressive performance in three states is to pre-judge 2024 much before the I.N.D.I.A bloc parties reach a political consensus on seat-sharing and strategy. A few months back, none would have thought of this result, which shows how election campaigns can change the fortunes of parties.
Though the Congress’ intense campaign in Telangana paid off, it dropped the ball in the three central states where the BJP pulled out all the stops. With multiple pre-poll opinion surveys predicting a win for the grand old party in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, the Congress became overconfident of a victory in these states, even after knowing the juggernaut that the BJP has become.
For the BJP, the victory is a testament to how resilient is the saffron party, which relies heavily on Hindutva, nationalism, polarisation, welfare politics and alluring political narratives, and uses its organisational strength and resources to the optimum. Though it is heavily controlled by the central leadership, the victory also shows how quick the leadership is to change its strategy when the tide is not in its favour.
This was evident in how Shivraj Singh Chouhan, after being initially sidelined, was brought to the centre of the campaign in Madhya Pradesh, and how a truce was struck with disgruntled leaders in Rajasthan. The Congress on the other hand, relied heavily on its local leadership and ignored the I.N.D.I.A alliance partners to project a united Opposition by not inviting Opposition leaders for a joint campaign.
However, to extrapolate inferences from the BJP’s success in state polls and predict the 2024 general election could be a mistake, because the factors at play in state and national elections are different.
For instance, the 2004 and 2019 general elections are good examples of dramatically different results. The BJP’s impressive success in the latest round of polls is a huge moral boost for the party, as it goes into the 2024 general election with confidence that the enduring Modi appeal will once again outdo the Opposition, particularly the Congress in the northern and western states.
As the state polls once again mark the position of the prime minister as the most popular leader and vote-getter for the party, whom the Congress could not counter with a leader and strategy, it is obvious that the BJP is in pole position, while the task ahead before the Opposition is quite daunting.
The poll results are also likely to have an impact on the I.N.D.I.A alliance. As the Congress had hoped to be the driver and leader of the alliance, its flop show in the northern states will raise questions about its ability to lead. While its strong points are its pan-India presence and a visible national leadership, its weak organisation and messaging are seen as its major weaknesses.
Having lost its tenuous presence in the Hindi heartland, except in the small state of Himachal Pradesh, the Congress has also lost its bargaining position in the I.N.D.I.A alliance. However, this bodes good for the alliance as the Congress is likely to be more amenable to seat-sharing discussions with other alliance partners. BJP’s 3-1 win also makes the I.N.D.I.A alliance even more important, given that it aims to defeat the ruling party.
The significance of the poll results is that they have set the ball rolling for the general election. While the outcome will have a galvanising or demoralising effect on party workers on the winning and losing sides, it will also bring parties back to strategising for the big finale. The Opposition has much ground to cover, while the BJP, with Hindutva for cultural revival, Modi as a decisive leader and welfare schemes as an effective support system, looks well-placed to sway voters. On the other hand, the Congress can take heart from the fact that its loss in three states did not affect its vote share.
But it goes without saying that the Congress lacks an alternative narrative, electoral professionalism and coalition-making. Its loss in three states is a big setback for the party and it points to the significant work it needs to do in the upcoming general election. But it may be too early to write off the Congress and the I.N.D.I.A alliance.
The writer is a senior independent Mumbai-based journalist. He tweets at @ali_chougule