The Battle Ahead

This year will be crucial for both the ruling BJP as well as the main Opposition party, the Congress, as both have high stakes in elections in eight states. Polls are scheduled in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Karnataka, apart from the Northeastern states of Meghalaya, Tripura, Mizoram and Nagaland. This is seen as a mini general election before the 2019 Lok Sabha polls.

After Gujarat’s verdict, a BJP versus Congress battle will more sharply define India’s political landscape. Only 10 states remain for the BJP to conquer. In most of the poll-bound states, there is a direct fight between the Congress and the BJP. A resurgent Congress is hoping to cash in on the anti-incumbency factor in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, while retaining Karnataka and Mizoram. The BJP is eyeing grabbing Karnataka, Tripura, Meghalaya and Mizoram and also retaining the three states above mentioned.

The BJP, having peaked in the North is now eyeing the Northeast and the South for expansion. The Northeastern states have traditionally been Congress strongholds, but Narendra Modi believes that after the formation of the first BJP government in Assam last year, the people of this region are looking at the BJP as a credible alternative. “The BJP-led NEDA (North-East Democratic Alliance) is in power in five states but I am confident that in the coming days, the alliance will be in power in all the eight states in the Northeastern region,” BJP chief Amit Shah claimed while inaugurating the second conclave of NEDA some time back.

Till last year, the Congress was in power in five of the eight North-east states. These were Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram, Meghalaya and Manipur. But this changed and the BJP and its allies are now ruling in Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Manipur and Sikkim.

Will the BJP surge continue or will the Congress halt its progress? Will the BJP continue to make inroads or has the reversal begun with the Congress putting up a fight in Gujarat? The Gujarat story was not about the BJP’s win but about a revived Congress coming close to victory. The Congress is rejuvenated but its vice-president, Rahul Gandhi, needs to do much more to win.

The overall BJP vote share in Gujarat came down from nearly 60 percent in 2014 Lok Sabha polls to 49 percent in the 2017 assembly polls in a state where the BJP considers itself invincible. The Congress share, on the other hand, went up to 41.5 percent against 33.45 in 2014. Despite winning Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh, the aura of Modi has dimmed. The BJP needs a course correction. The rise of second-generation caste leaders, the aspirations of new voters, the woes of farmers and the adverse impact of GST and demonetization need to be tackled.

The BJP has already sounded the poll bugle for Tripura, Meghalaya, Mizoram and Nagaland. The PM started his poll campaign in Mizoram the day the Gujarat poll campaign ended. The party has never ruled in Meghalaya, unlike the Congress, which has had six terms, including the current one with Mukul Sangma as its face. The church plays a big role in the North-east. The BJP has fielded Union tourism minister KJ Alphons, a Christian, to reassure voters that issues like the beef ban will not be forced in the region. The Congress can have an upper hand in Meghalaya if it can resolve internal squabbles, though Sangma is popular.

Coming to Nagaland, it has always been a bastion of regional parties and the Congress and the BJP have to look for a coalition with them. The BJP has a good equation with the present ruling combine, the Naga People’s Front. However, the framework agreement of a Naga accord signed between New Delhi and the Manipur-based National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isak-Muivah) in 2015 might create some tension. Both parties will have to look for a viable coalition to win the state.

In CPI (M)-ruled Tripura, the BJP recently lured six Trinamool Congress MLAs to defect. The BJP has never won this tiny state, as Tripura has been a Left bastion. Chief Minister Manik Sarkar has been in office since 1998. While it isn’t easy to dislodge the Left, the BJP sees some potential for growth in the small state.

As for the other major states that are going to the polls next year, there is a strong anti-incumbency factor. While the BJP has been in power in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan, the Congress is ruling in Karnataka, Meghalaya and Mizoram.

The Congress party’s best chances are in Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan. There is also a possibility of it winning Madhya Pradesh if the party remains united. Rajasthan has been alternating between the BJP and the Congress in the past and it is the turn of the Congress now. Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje is also losing popularity. The vote share gap in Rajasthan is 12.5 percent.

In Chhattisgarh, Raman Singh has been ruling since 2003 but the Congress has no strong local leader after the exit of Ajit Jogi. Even a small shift can lead to a Congress victory. In the previous elections, the Congress missed the bus with just a 0.7 percent gap. If the party finds a good leader, it will go a long way.

Madhya Pradesh may be a tough win for the Congress as it has been out of power for 15 years. The vote share gap is just 8.5 percent. Unless faction leaders like Kamal Nath, Digvijaya Singh and Jyotiraditya Scindia are united, the party cannot win. For the BJP, it is to be seen how far scams like Vyapam will affect it. Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan has been in office since 2005.

In Congress-ruled Karnataka, the party and the BJP have been in poll mode since the beginning of last year. The BJP is depending on the anti-incumbency factor. The Congress has already made the current chief minister, Siddaramaiah, its chief ministerial face, while the BJP has zeroed in on former Chief Minister BS Yeddyurappa. Siddaramaiah is a strong local leader and might tie up with the JD(S) as a post-poll ally.

Bihar, Delhi and Punjab proved that when the BJP faced strong local leaders, it lost. For the Congress, it is critical to retain this state, as of present only Punjab and Karnataka are the two big states in the party’s kitty. In 2013, the Congress came to power on the strength of a caste coalition of Vokkaligas, Lingayats, Dalits and minorities. The BJP is looking to replicate the Uttar Pradesh model by attempting to unite traditional and unrecognized OBC groups. It is looking to the Brahmins, a section of Vokkaligas, Lingayats and OBCs. The JD(S) headed by former Prime Minister HD Deve Gowda might take away some votes. This time, the BJP is also eying Dalit votes. Powerful mutt heads are also with the BJP. Its biggest danger is internal sabotage. The BJP, on its part, is trying to raise the issue of corruption and the failures of the Siddaramaiah government. State BJP leaders are worried that after the improved performance of the Congress in Gujarat, it may not be that easy to win Karnataka as this party’s workers are enthused.

The stakes are high and unless the Congress has its foot soldiers ready as well as a viable caste coalition, it cannot snatch more states. The BJP has to depend on its social engineering and the Modi magic to win. So, 2018 will be a precursor to the 2019 Lok Sabha polls and Modi’s return as prime minister.