In what is being tipped as the semi-final before the grand final in 2024, another round of state elections gets underway today with elections to the Mizoram Assembly and the first phase of polls in Chhattisgarh. The polls spread over 24 days, will be held in the three Hindi heartland states of Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, and Rajasthan, where it is largely a battle between the BJP and the Congress; Telangana where the contest is between the Bharat Rashtra Samiti of K Chandrasekhar Rao and the Congress; while Mizoram will see a fierce fight between the Zoram People’s Movement , a six-party coalition, and the ruling Mizo National Front. Though Indians generally vote differently for state assemblies and the Lok Sabha, the timing of these polls just a few months ahead of the general election is crucial as the outcome is likely to build momentum for 2024.
The BJP is banking on the charisma of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to sway the electorate and has not projected any state leaders as its chief ministerial candidates. As is its wont, the party is seeking votes in the name of Modi and the promise of a double engine sarkar if voted to power. Added to that is the slew of welfare measures promised by the saffron party while at the same time decrying the ‘freebies’ offered by the Opposition parties.
The template of Hindutva, welfarism and the Modi magic, that the BJP has been dishing out in election after election, has not always worked at the state level, as was evident in Punjab, Karnataka and Himachal Pradesh. The Congress, on the other hand, is hoping its demand for a caste census as well as the success of Rahul Gandhi’s Bharat Jodo Yatra will reap it some dividends. Pre-poll surveys point to a favourable outcome for the Grand Old Party in Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh while Rajasthan may prove to be tougher given the infighting in the party.
However, Ashok Gehlot’s welfare measures may well see the party through. The Congress is trying to follow the Karnataka model by focusing on bread and butter issues but what worked for it south of the Vindhyas may not help it in the Hindi belt where religious polarisation has often proved to be a deciding factor . Ashok Gehlot has steered clear of religion in his poll rallies but Kamal Nath, the Congress’ go-to man in Madhya Pradesh, has emphasised on Rajiv Gandhi’s role in opening the locks at Ayodhya, in the hope that the BJP does not steal the thunder on the issue of the Ram temple in Ayodhya which is to be inaugurated in January 2024.
Not to be outdone, Nath has promised to build Idols of Lord Ram, Nishadraj and Kewatraj to be installed in Chitrakoot. In Chhattisgarh, the Enforcement Directorate’s decision to question Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel for his alleged involvement in the Mahadev app scam just four days ahead of the first phase of elections in the state appears to be too much of a coincidence and gives credence to the Opposition claim that the investigating agencies are deliberately targeting the BJP’s political rivals.
In Telangana, the Congress has seen a remarkable revival and has been further boosted by the decision of YSRCP leader Sharmila not to contest the elections and instead to support the Grand Old Party. The BJP’s prospects in the state appear to be very weak. The BRS is battling anti-incumbency but again the slew of welfare sops offered by it may sway the electorate. Mizoram is an interesting battle as it is being largely seen in the context of the turmoil in neighbouring Manipur. The BJP bigwigs have refrained from physically campaigning in the northeastern state where Chief Minister Zoramthanga had refused to accompany the PM on any election rally. The people of the state are no doubt going to be influenced by the situation in Manipur where the Centre and the state have been accused of inaction in the face of terrible ethnic violence, the deaths of hundreds and the displacement of thousands.
The Assembly elections are ultimately a big test for the Opposition INDIA bloc. The results to be declared on December 3 will determine if the Opposition grouping stands a chance in 2024. As it is, differences in seat sharing have marred unity efforts. The stakes are indeed high for the BJP and the Opposition parties and verdict 2023 may prove to be an indicator for 2024.