The Congress party's successes in the Madhya Pradesh (MP), Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh assembly elections have boosted its morale and burnished the image of its leader, Rahul Gandhi. Nationally these results have raised questions about the outcome of the forthcoming Lok Sabha polls. Internationally too they have naturally attracted attention; foreign governments, multinational companies, non-governmental organisations and the global media would focus on them to assess the Indian political scene in 2019 and beyond. Despite the caution that Indian states' elections are not a true barometer of the voters' decisions pertaining to the national polls, Indian and foreign observers would seek to extract pointers to India's political future from them.
MP and Chhattisgarh were ruled by the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) since 2003. Rajasthan had voted a BJP government to power in 2013 but its voters have shifted allegiance between the Congress and the BJP in each assembly election since 1998 and they did so in this election too. Thus, there is no doubt that the BJP was battling anti-incumbency in each of the states. The final results show that in Chhattisgarh the Congress routed the BJP: it secured 68 out of the assembly's 90 seats and had a 10% larger vote share. The results in the other two states that together account for almost 10% of the Lok Sabha strength of 545 require a closer scrutiny.
In the large states of MP and Rajasthan the BJP lost a very large number of seats. In the former its tally went down from 165 to 109 and in the latter from 163 to 73. The BJP's loss was the Congress's gain but it was not able to get majorities on its own. In these states it formed governments with the help of the Bahujan Samaj party. In MP the BJP's vote share went down by about 4% but it was fractionally still more than that of the Congress and in Rajasthan it fell by around 6% and was only a 0.05% less than that of the Congress. Even accomplished psephologists find it very difficult to establish an exact co-relation between vote shares and seats; relatively small changes in the former can cause enormous swings in the latter.
These assembly results, have resulted in a perception of uncertainty in the way the Hindi speaking states will go in the Lok Sabha elections which are now only four months away. The critical issue is: will Prime Minister Narendra Modi achieve his splendid 2014 success in the Hindi speaking states and union territories in 2019? That was the foundation of the BJP securing a majority on its own. It got 191 out of the Hindi areas 226 seats, an astonishing 'strike rate' of 84.5%. The BJP vote percentages in different Hindi speaking states clearly showed that Modi had made inroads in the constituencies of caste-based parties where they were strong and had decimated the Congress in straight contests.
There is little doubt that Modi will seek the people's support and not only in the Hindi areas on the plank of stability (by stressing on the inherent instability of a motley alliance) and progress which he will assert that only he can provide and this will resonate with many. He also has the firm allegiance of the BJP's traditional base. However, will all this prevent an erosion in his strength in the Hindi states if the caste-based parties and an assertive Congress are able to come together? That he will face a great challenge, if they do, is an obvious fact. Matters will, however, become clearer only if and when the opposition parties which face many inter-se contradictions reach a conclusion of how they will approach the elections. The challenge will decrease if the opposition is not united, especially in Uttar Pradesh, but it will still require substantial effort to maintain the BJP's 2014 strength in the coming elections.
The BJP did well in three non-Hindi speaking states, Gujarat, Maharashtra and Karnataka in 2014. It got all 26 seats in Gujarat and along with its Shiv Sena ally 41 out of 48 in Maharashtra. In Karnataka it got 17 seats. In his home state of Gujarat Modi can be expected to do well but he may have issues in the other two. Here too his pre-eminent national stature and credibility will come into play. He is also going all out to send his message of stability and progress to those areas which did not vote for him in the 2014 elections. In order to get it through–and this is important for the Hindi speaking states too—he has to ensure that members of his party and its associates do not erode that message with their own agendas. He has to quickly reconcile these diverse impulses while retaining the loyalty of his core constituency.
The coming months will naturally turn national attention inwards and foreign policy issues will take a back-seat. Modi will contest the election principally on his economic programme but will also stress that he is firm on national security issues and has enhanced India's prestige abroad with a successful foreign policy. Modi has imparted his own style and verve to India's external engagements but its substance admits little divergence between political parties at this stage of India's requirements and development. Almost all serious interlocutors of India know this.
The next couple of months will bring about more clarity in the pre-election scene but the Indian voters' capacity to surprise should never be under estimated.