2018 Assembly polls: the semi-finals for 2019?

 

There is enough ferment in these elections to craft a heady new brew in 2019

The Assembly elections in Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Mizoram and Telangana certainly are the semi-finals for the 2019 general election. In the first three States, the Congress is in a direct contest with the BJP. Every Assembly seat that the Congress wins will help it wrest more Lok Sabha seats from the BJP. In 2014, the BJP won 10 of the 11 Lok Sabha seats in Chhattisgarh, all 25 seats in Rajasthan, and 27 of the 29 seats in Madhya Pradesh. The BJP cannot better this performance. In Lok Sabha byelections after 2014, the Congress has wrested some seats from the BJP. The Congress is set to maintain that momentum in the Assembly polls. That will transform the 2019 electoral contest.

A test for anti-incumbency

This election will also test whether anti-incumbency can be harnessed effectively. The BJP government in Rajasthan has been a disaster, so the Congress should be able to win there. After 15 years of BJP rule, the rot is clearly visible in Chhattisgarh, seen in the PDS scam. The BJP has ruled for many years in Madhya Pradesh and the Vyapam scam is alive in people’s memory. In these three States, the cumulative number of registered unemployed youth is very high. Anti-incumbency can work in favour of the Congress alliance in Telangana, but against it in Mizoram. Overall, if voters focus on track records, that augurs well for the Congress in 2019 as the Modi government has failed spectacularly in delivering on its tall promises.

The key question these Assembly elections will answer is this: will local governance factors overcome national emotive issues? If the Congress can get voters to decide based on issues and candidates and their track records, that provides a template for the Lok Sabha election. That will counter Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s attempt to make it a presidential-style contest. Nationally, the Sangh Parivar is getting set to unleash the Ayodhya issue. We will see if voters in these States get swayed by yet another cynical BJP ploy to polarise the electorate and divert attention from its all-round governance failures.

The arithmetic of alliances

These elections will also teach us lessons about the arithmetic of local alliances. In Telangana, the Congress is in alliance with the Telugu Desam Party and with the Kodandaram-led Telangana Jana Samithi that led the Telangana movement before it was hijacked by K. Chandrasekhar Rao (KCR) and turned into a family firm. There is also a significant number of Andhra Pradesh-origin voters in Telangana. The people have also not forgotten that it was the Congress that helped make Telangana a reality. Thus, the alliance is set to demonstrate that KCR miscalculated by going for early polls, and can then improve its performance in 2019.

The alliance with Mayawati did not happen. By tying up with Ajit Jogi in Chhattisgarh, Ms. Mayawati risks dividing the anti-BJP voter base. But this time she may find that her voters will not stick with her if doing so only benefits the BJP. Another electoral wipeout for the BSP will weaken Ms. Mayawati’s bargaining power for 2019 and cause her core Jatav Dalit supporters to gravitate towards emerging alternatives like the Bhim Army.

Caste arithmetic

This election also portends a shake-up in the caste arithmetic. Various upper caste groups that were hitherto staunch BJP supporters are upset with it because of its doublespeak on the issue of the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. Their disgust with the BJP and their lack of trust in it is causing them to embrace the Congress.

Thus, there is enough ferment in these Assembly elections to craft a heady new brew in 2019.

Rajeev Gowda is a Congress MP and Chairman of the AICC’s research department

 

The Lok Sabha verdict is likely to be not one verdict but 29 distinct voter assertions

Why and how does one assert that the 2018 Assembly elections are not necessarily the semi-finals? Three arguments can be marshalled in support of this contention. First, the Assembly polls in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan, Telangana and Mizoram are unique electoral contests that do not represent the diversity of political competition found in the rest of the country. In the three north Indian States, it is a direct contest between the Congress and the BJP. In Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh, there could possibly be a distant third factor. In Mizoram, the competition is essentially between the Congress and a State-based party. The danger of calling this electoral round a formal semi-final is that one is tempted to extrapolate the political trends witnessed in these polls to the national election.

Every State is unique

Given the fact that the Lok Sabha verdict is likely to be not one verdict but 29 distinct voter assertions, each will be propelled by a unique constellation of factors that will define and decide the nature and structure of the electoral competition in that State. The danger of arriving at overarching generalisations based on these four verdicts is that it would do injustice to the complex nuances that explain a national election result. This week, we saw the Congress-JD(S) alliance wrest the initiative from the BJP in the Karnataka bypolls. Yet, this is not necessarily any indicator of what may happen in the five Assembly polls or an indicator of the wider national implications for the Grand Alliance of non-BJP parties.

Second, over the last two decades, we have seen that a few months is an excruciatingly long time in politics; you can see many unexpected twists in that time. Issues which have been on the backburner for long can be pushed to the forefront or parties can place them at the top of their agenda. We are likely to witness this trend this time around too, with the BJP deciding to push its development agenda to the background and play up the Ram Mandir issue. This distinction between factors that influence a Assembly verdict and a national vote has been seen in the past too. A classic example was in 2003-04, when the BJP came up with a remarkable electoral performance in the December 2003 Assembly polls but bit the dust in the 2004 Lok Sabha election. In Karnataka, the Assembly verdicts have never accurately predicted a Lok Sabha verdict in the State.

A different ball game

Finally, we assume that if an election is called a semi-final, it is a trendsetter for the grand finale. Sports enthusiasts would know that this can be very misleading. Teams which struggle to win a semi-final can win handsomely in the final and vice versa. One can be lulled into complacency by a semi-final verdict and be totally off the mark while assuming that similar trends will play out in the final. Each game has its context. When characterising a contest as a semi-final, we associate it with certain trends and assume that the same will play out in the final. The history of both sports and politics has proved that this is not necessarily true — one could well be framing a wrong set of indicators emerging from a semi-final to project the trends of a final. Let’s remember that a final is more often than not a different ball game both in terms of the context as well as the content of the contest.

Sandeep Shastri is a political scientist and the national coordinator of the Lokniti network

 

The real question is, can we project the results beyond the five States going to polls?

Semi-final is a lazy and misleading metaphor for how the Assembly elections are likely to foreshadow, and in turn influence, the Lok Sabha elections. A semi-final filters the final contestants. It gives little idea of who is going to win eventually. It does not shape the final outcome. If we must use a sporting metaphor, there is an element here of a warm-up match where the finalists play off against each other. Using a film industry metaphor we could call it the trailer. Or it could be compared to a qualifying round in the F1 races, where your performance in the earlier round gives you a head start in the final. We may call this direct or indirect impact on the final outcome the tailwind effect. Let us discuss both these one by one.

A careful reading

These Assembly polls could be a trailer for the eventual movie, provided we do a careful reading of the final outcome of these elections, away from the shrill headlines and political rhetoric that dominate TV screens on the day of counting. There is, of course, a straightforward connect: the BJP won 63 of the 83 seats in these five States in 2014. So, it must win the three Hindi heartland States comfortably to retain any hope of repeating that performance. Past record suggests that a defeat in any of these States would certainly mean major losses in the Lok Sabha elections.

The real question is, can we project the results beyond these five States? Telangana and Mizoram are outliers here. Their results do not reflect even their neighbouring States, let alone the entire country. We should focus on Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. These three States form a large, contiguous region that went along with the rest of the Hindi heartland in 2014. This region gave the BJP and its allies 203 out of 225 Lok Sabha seats. This is where the BJP’s fate will be determined in 2019. The more likely scenario of the BJP facing a rout in Rajasthan and suffering a significant drop in votes in the other two States would show that the party is vulnerable in its quest for return to national power. A BJP defeat in any two of these three States would suggest a negative mood in the Hindi heartland States and a steep decline from its 2014 seats tally.

Then there is the ‘tailwind’ effect, since these State polls will have real-life consequences for the national polls. If the BJP wins Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, the Opposition campaign will face a strong headwind. Conversely, an electoral reversal for the BJP in the Hindi heartland States will dampen the morale of the BJP election machine. This may also facilitate the process of Opposition unity. If the Opposition controls one or two big States, this would also mean more election funds to the non-BJP camp.

A balancing act

A setback for the BJP would encourage big business to hedge their bets and give at least a small share of their political donations to the Opposition parties. Above all, if the results indicate a shift away from the BJP and the possibility of a non-BJP government at the Centre, it would trigger a badly needed balancing act in the media where bending over backwards has become the norm. At least some TV anchors will stop behaving like BJP spokespersons, some newspapers will stop carrying the government’s spin as news, and views critical of the regime will find their way to the editorial pages. That will still not make for a level playing ground, given the massive advantage of money, media and machine that the BJP enjoys today, but it might make the 2019 contest less unfair.

Yogendra Yadav is a political scientist and president of the Swaraj India Party

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