The announcement of poll schedules for legislative assemblies in the five states of Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Mizoram and Telangana has plunged India headlong into the season of polls, the biggest festival of democracy. The impact of the results of the elections in these states spread across northwestern, central, northeastern and southern parts of India will be felt across India as they will take place four to five months before the much bigger battle: parliamentary polls in 2019.
Although it may not be totally accurate to say that people vote in the same manner in state and national elections, it is by and largely agreed that the geographical spread of the five states will give a fair idea as to which direction the wind will be blowing. That is mainly because the fight in the key battleground states—Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan—would be a straight face-off between ruling Bharatiya Janata Party and main opposition Congress Party in the run-up to the parliamentary elections. Regional parties in these three states are marginal players. The five states together have 83 seats out of a total of 543 in the Lok Sabha.
The stakes are equally high for both the BJP and the Congress in the five states and there are important lessons for both sides in terms of shaping and reshaping their strategies and building up momentum for the national elections. The coming state polls will also provide an opportunity for the political parties to ascertain the planks that will get traction with the voters. The BJP has till date woven its campaign narrative around nationalism issues like National Register of Citizens (NRC) to identify “illegal immigrants from Bangladesh”, “urban Maoists” and economic development. The Congress, on the other hand, sought to pin down the BJP-led government on alleged graft in the purchase of Rafale fighter jets from France, the state of farmers, unemployment and rising prices of petrol and diesel.
If the saffron party can overcome anti-incumbency and retain power in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, where it has been ruling for the last 15 years having won elections three consecutive times, as also Rajasthan, which is known for not returning a party to power for more than one five-year tenure at a stretch, it will be a big morale-booster and optics for the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the 2019 general elections.
A victory for the Congress, which hopes to ride on anti-incumbency, in at least two of the five states—and that indeed is a very challenging task for the party given its current predicament—could generate confidence in its capability for a comeback path not only as what Sonia Gandhi had termed the “natural party for governance” but also as the anchor of a national-level alliance of key regional parties to take on the BJP, something which has been elusive so far. A Congress victory will help create a constellation of regional parties opposed to the BJP and strengthen its bargaining power when it comes to sharing of parliamentary seats to be contested with the smaller outfits. Also, it will push up the rating of Congress President Rahul Gandhi as a potentially strong challenger to Modi.
As usual, the BJP is betting big on the charisma of Modi to see it through in the five states, particularly in Rajasthan where all accounts point to an extremely tough task for the party to retain power. The Congress fancies its best chance in Rajasthan where the party has so far been able to put up an impressive show of unity among its two key veteran leaders Ashok Gehlot, a former chief minister of the state, and young Sachin Pilot, despite known personal rivalry between them. Gehlot and Pilot have been campaigning in Rajasthan together. However, such a show of unity is missing in the Congress in adjacent Madhya Pradesh where factional feud has hamstrung the party since long.
What has added to the Congress' anxieties are its efforts for an alliance with Dalit leader Mayawati-led Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) for the assembly polls in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan, which have come unstuck on the issue of seat-sharing. Mayawati has rejected any tie-up with the Congress in the three states although it is a force only in a few pockets of Dalits there. Following in the footsteps of BSP, Samajwadi Party (SP) led by Akhilesh Yadav also spurned the alliance with the Congress in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. The strongholds of the BSP and the SP are, of course, Uttar Pradesh. Still, the BSP and the SP's rejecting the alliance with the Congress in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan is being viewed as bad optics not only for the coming assembly polls but also for next year's national elections. A division of anti-BJP votes is generally seen as helpful to the BJP.
However, the Congress maintains that both the BSP and the SP will come around to align with it in the general elections. Interestingly, Mayawati has kept that option open by praising Rahul Gandhi and Sonia Gandhi in the same breath as she rejected the alliance with the Congress for the assembly polls in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan. Mayawati is waiting to see the results of the coming assembly elections in the five states to find out where the Congress stands in order to finalise her future strategy for her main bastion Uttar Pradesh which sends the largest number (80) of members to parliament.
Mizoram too will see a triangular contest between the Congress, the BJP and the key state party Mizo National Front. Mizoram is the only one of the seven northeastern states where the Congress is in power. The party has been ruling the state for the last decade having won the state assembly poll on two successive occasions.
In Telangana, the Congress was voted out of power by local party Telangana Rashtra Samithi headed by K Chandrasekhar Rao in the first assembly elections held in Telangana in 2013 since the creation of the state after bifurcation of Andhra Pradesh state. This time, the Congress has aligned with the Telugu Desam Party and Left parties in Telangana.
The dynamics of politics in India varies from state to state and with national politics. As things stand now, the fate of a national-level overarching unity among anti-BJP parties will depend a lot on the coming polls in the five states which are the final round of major electoral contest before the mother of all battles in 2019.
Pallab Bhattacharya is a special correspondent to The Daily Star.