After the recent round of state elections and the political developments earlier in the year, it is possible to future-gaze India’s electoral politics over the next 15 months. This year, the Bharatiya Janata Party won significant mandates in two states — a second consecutive victory in Uttar Pradesh and a historic seat tally in Gujarat. It also returned to power in Manipur and retained Uttarakhand and Goa. But the BJP lost both the Delhi Municipal Corporation as well as Himachal Pradesh. While it gained Maharashtra by aligning with the rebel faction of Shiv Sena, the BJP lost Bihar as Nitish Kumar switched over to the RJD.
If the BJP’s record-setting win in Gujarat was proof of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s immense popularity in his home state, the defeats in Himachal and Delhi exposed the limitation of his charisma in overcoming anti-incumbency, non-performance and other local factors outside Gujarat. The general election is about one and half years away, but there are nine Assembly elections lined up next year, which will set the tone for the 2024 race. Two questions arise. One, can the BJP win Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Telangana — apart from the Northeast states Tripura, Meghalaya, Nagaland and Mizoram? Two, what sort of Opposition can the BJP expect in the 2024 general election?
Let’s begin with the second question first. In spite of the marginal setback to the BJP in the recent round of elections, the general perception is that it has little to worry about in the next national election. This is because even if the results show that the BJP is not invincible, there is little national-level Opposition to challenge Mr Modi. When Mr Modi is on the ballot, there is no Opposition leader who can match his popularity, oratory and ability to campaign relentlessly across the country. As long as the Opposition remains divided, there is little chance of the fragmented Opposition seriously hurting the BJP. However, at this point it is unclear what sort of Opposition challenge will eventually emerge before the 2024 general election and who will lead it.
While the perception is that the emotional appeal of Mr Modi, nationalism and Hindutva are likely to make the BJP’s job of winning 2024 election easier, state elections are competitive battlefields. Given that voters are now increasingly adopting split-ticket voting, voting differently for state and national elections, the BJP has a challenge going into 2023. Certainly, Mr Modi and the BJP cannot turn Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Telangana and Tripura into campaigns fought on national issues. And we aren’t sure if nationalism or Hindutva make a significant difference in state elections. The latest bit of evidence that we have is that they did not work in Himachal Pradesh.
Modi’s name and ideology didn’t make a difference in Delhi and Himachal because both elections were fought on local issues. It means that when the issues on which elections are fought become local or regional, the BJP has a challenge. This has been the case in many Assembly elections in the last eight years and it is also likely to play out in 2023, as de-localising politics will be a challenge for Mr Modi. Therefore, the Assembly elections in nine states are not only crucial for the BJP, they will also tell which party may have an edge in the 2024 general election.
Though the BJP has expanded its footprint in many states in the last nine years, its position is still not strong in the electoral politics of states as compared to its hegemony on national electoral politics. Data shows that less than half of India’s population is ruled by a BJP Government, either by itself or in coalition with small regional parties. This figure reportedly drops to 28% if Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra are excluded, as these states came into the BJP kitty as a result of defections with the use of money power and central agencies, and not democratically through outright election victories. So, can the Modi magic help BJP sail through the Assembly elections in 2023? For the BJP, the losses in the recent round of elections are a reminder that the ‘index of Opposition unity’ should remain fractured, which helped its massive win in Gujarat.
The BJP’s challenge in the state elections would be to retain Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh and Tripura, while wresting power from the Congress in Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan and from KCR’s Bharat Rashtra Samiti (BRS) in Telangana. The battles in the three Northeast states — Meghalaya, Nagaland and Manipur — would be between regional parties. If inflation is a worry for the BJP in the coming months, unemployment, falling incomes and rising inequality are its other big concerns. Besides, there will be local issues in each state that the Opposition parties will raise in order to pin down the BJP. But a lot will also depend on the dominant narrative that will shape up around the time the election dates are announced.
There is a direct fight between the BJP and the Congress in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. As a formidable player in these states, the Congress is likely to retain Chhattisgarh but in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, it will be a tough fight between the two principal opponents. The chances of the Congress making a comeback in Karnataka where there will be a triangular contest between the BJP, Congress and JDS are also said to be bright. In Telangana, there will be a three-way contest between BRS, Congress and BJP, but the regional party has the advantage though the BJP may be hoping to make a significant breakthrough in the state. In Tripura too, there is going to be a triangular fight between the BJP, Congress and the Left Front, unless the CPI(M) and Congress come together, which would make it difficult for the BJP to retain power.
All in all, the 2023 assembly elections will be a crucial test for Mr Modi and the BJP. The outcome of these elections will lead to various permutations and combinations in the run-up to 2024.
The writer is a senior independent Mumbai-based journalist. He tweets at @ali_chougule
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