Indian flag flag, elections, ballot box, casting vote. Image: iStock
India Votes. File photo Photo: iStock

The assembly polls of the three states belonging to the Hindi heartland – Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chattisgarh – have shown that India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is no longer invincible.

The opposition Indian National Congress (INC) led by Rahul Gandhi has, at last, after facing many electoral defeats, managed to snatch away the key states from the hands of the BJP, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, before the 2019 general elections, which are only three or four months away.

The three Hindi states are very important as they account for 65 seats in the Lok Sabha (the lower house of the Indian Parliament). During the last Lok Sabha elections, in 2014, the BJP almost swept these states, winning 62 seats. But if the results of assembly polls are compared with the Lok Sabha seats, the number comes down to only 30 seats out of 65. It means that the BJP would lose half of the seats it won in 2014.

Obviously, assembly and general elections are different and so it would be hasty to compare them. Yet it has been observed in the past that the assembly results of these three states have been mirrored in the Lok Sabha elections that followed. Nevertheless, there have been exceptions, such as the 2004 general elections. The national mood wasn’t same with the verdict of these states, which gave a thumping victory to the BJP both in the assembly elections held in 2003 and in the general elections.

Warning for BJP

The BJP’s loss in these agrarian states will definitely have a negative impact on the party if timely corrections are not made. The rural areas of these three states preferring Congress is certainly a warning for the BJP because 67% of the Indian population still lives in rural areas. Urban areas – considered the backbone of the BJP – have also tilted slightly towards the Congress party.

The party’s major headache is the growing disenchantment among the Hindu upper castes – who form the BJP’s core base – which played a role in the party’s dismal showing in the assembly elections. The results have also shown that the BJP’s outreach to the Dalits – lower-caste Hindus – and the tribals didn’t yield results, with the BJP performing poorly in the seats reserved for both the communities in the assembly elections.

In addition to this, the loss in the Hindi heartland has weakened the BJP’s bargaining power with its allies – especially Shiv Sena, a Maharashtra-based party. Shiv Sena, although a junior partner of the BJP both in Maharashtra and in the Union government, has acted rather like an opposition party due to the BJP’s rise in Maharashtra.

Shiv Sena has been demanding a 50:50 share of seats for the assembly elections of Maharashtra, which are due in 2019 after the Lok Sabha elections. The BJP’s drubbing in the assembly polls has certainly emboldened Shiv Sena to increase its pressure on the BJP to make it agree to the 50:50 seats share in state assembly elections and in return Shiv Sena, which has already decided to go solo in the upcoming elections, may agree to enter into an alliance with the BJP in the crucial Lok Sabha elections. Maharashtra accounts for 48 Lok Sabha seats – the second-highest seats share after Uttar Pradesh, which has 80 seats.

The fact that cannot be ignored is that despite the hype surrounding Congress getting a comfortable majority in Rajasthan, the Rahul Gandhi-led party failed to secure a majority on its own – getting 99 seats – 2 seats short of a majority.

In Madhya Pradesh, where the BJP was in power for the last 15 years, Congress also couldn’t secure a majority, getting only 114 seats – two seats short of a majority. Only in Chhattisgarh was the grand old party to score big by securing 68 seats out of 90.

Congress, no doubt, has reasons to celebrate as the party is proving to be successful at denting the BJP’s juggernaut image ahead of the crucial 2019 general polls in the Hindi heartland – considered a BJP stronghold. But linking the results with 2019 would not be a wise move for the Congress as the elections were fought mostly on local issues. It would be wrong to assume that the results are a direct referendum on the Modi government’s policies.

Modi remains the tallest leader in the country, but the assembly polls have somehow dented his juggernaut image

No doubt, Modi remains the tallest leader in the country, but the assembly polls have dented his juggernaut image. The BJP will obviously deny saying these are state polls mostly fought on local issues. Clearly, these are state elections fought on local issues but drawing conclusions that national issues had absolutely no impact would be incorrect. Rather, the BJP should treat the results as warning signals before the 2019 polls.

The Saffron Party shouldn’t forget the fact that in 2004, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, then prime minister and the BJP’s iconic leader, was the tallest leader in the country but still the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government led by him couldn’t return to power despite much hype surrounding his bid.

Apparently, the political situations of 2018 are not similar to 2004 because the Congress party is reviving itself but not in the required way. Otherwise, Congress would have easily won 120+ seats both in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh instead of failing to cross the majority mark on its own. Plus, BJP’s losses are not directly to the Congress’s advantage as regional forces are sharing the benefits. The BJP lost the elections, but in terms of vote shares, the losses are not that huge and if timely corrections are made the damage from the assembly elections can be undone.

But one thing is clear from these assembly election results – the Modi-led BJP is no longer invincible and the party needs a period of serious introspection. The message from voters is very clear – the government’s performance is the key factor, not the popularity of leaders. Otherwise, the BJP wouldn’t have lost in Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh as the outgoing chief ministers – Raman Singh and Shivraj Chauhan – are popular in their respective states.

In addition to that, Modi needs to be more humble when dealing with allies like Shiv Sena and has to bring more allies under the umbrella of the NDA to counter the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.

The writer is an India-based commentator on politics, religion, culture and philosophy and tweets @sagarneelsinha.