The campaigns and voting for the last state elections before the Lok Sabha polls are winding up and one can already draw a number of observations that will help read the results of December 11.
First, these have been fairly conventional elections, in terms of electoral strategies, public declarations and mobilisation tropes. In Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, the Congress campaign focused on government corruption, banking on anti-incumbency sentiments against two regimes that have been around for 15 years. In Rajasthan, it concentrated its attacks against the chief minister, Vasundhara Raje, who is disliked even in her own party. These are classic oppositional issues and postures that do not require the challenger to bring forth new ideas or proposals on how to govern a state. Maybe power fatigue will lead to a protest vote against the BJP, or voters’ defection, but it is not clear what sort of alternative the Congress seeks to offer.
Of all the variables, voter turnout will be a first indication of what may or may not happen in these elections. Participation in elections in India has been steadily rising, thanks to the efforts of the Election Commission to improve voters’ registration. Not only does the Commission keep up with the demographic growth of the voting population, but it succeeds in better including segments of voters that have traditionally lagged behind, such as women and young voters. In 2014, the influx of new voters largely benefited the BJP, as these new voters aspired for change.
Preliminary accounts of participation in these elections indicate a continuing trend. MP registered a record 74 per cent turnout. Other states are currently voting but should also return high turnouts. This indicates that these elections will be competitive, and that anti-incumbency may not be such a major factor. Both the Congress and BJP are unlikely to lose many of the voters who supported them in the past. Much will depend on the distribution of votes among new voters, about which we currently have no information.
Another distinct mobilisation trope has been the appeals to women voters, through the inclusion of women’s issues in parties’ manifesto. The Congress in Rajasthan has promised free education for women. In MP, the BJP had a special section of its manifesto for women, promising to streamline jobs and to reinforce women self-help groups. Parties are aware that more and more women participate in elections. Since 2014, they have outvoted men in 17 states (that is, turnout among women exceeds turnout among men).
Both parties have also become more vocal about the need to improve women representation in elected assemblies. Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and MP are three states where women representation is above the national average, at 14, 11 and 10 per cent respectively. Telangana is situated on the national average, at 7.5 per cent. Candidates’ data gathered by the Trivedi Centre for Political Data suggests that women’s representation should remain stable in the three north Indian states, where the BJP and Congress have distributed 11.5 and 12.6 per cent of their tickets to women. Telangana could see an improvement should the Congress do well.
The question everyone will ask on December 12 is whether these elections have any predictive value for the spring general elections. Parties will certainly attempt to spin the results to their advantage, regardless of what these actually look like. Past elections results recommend prudence since in 2003, the BJP swept Rajasthan, MP and Chhattisgarh and went on to lose the 2004 election (although, not from those states). Generally speaking, parties retain the states they win in regional elections when those elections take place closer to the following general election (less than a year). Consequently, these results might indicate what may happen in those states in 2019 but will have no predictive value beyond then.
These elections are also poor predictors since most of them are bipolar contests between the Congress and the BJP. More than the Congress, it is the regional parties that hold the keys to the general election, and their ability to form local alliances and sustain them on the ground will be crucial.
In Telangana, the newly-minted alliance between the Congress and TDP will be an indicator to other parties about the prospect of a large opposition alliance. Most regional parties are still are wondering what to do with Congress in the spring of 2019. There is a widespread perception that allying with the Congress may be beneficial when it is a marginal player in a pre-electoral alliance, as in the mahagathbandhan in Bihar, but that it becomes toxic once the seat-sharing agreement gives it more space. In Uttar Pradesh, the Congress significantly dragged the Samajwadi Party down, which partly explains the lack of enthusiasm and the hesitation in forming of a grand anti-BJP alliance in that state.
What is striking from these four campaigns is that they have been fought largely on conventional regional and local issues: Public service provision, corruption, joblessness. National themes have not been used as much (not as much as in the recent Gujarat election) and both the PM and Congress president have had a moderate involvement in campaigning.
This should favour the Congress where it has a ground presence, and harm it where it lacks a strong regional organisation. Since 2014, the Congress has been on a losing spree, going from governing 13 states to just three. The two states where it performed reasonably well — Punjab and Karnataka — are states where the Congress has a robust local organisation, recognisable regional leadership, and where Rahul Gandhi did not campaign much.
A second common trait between these elections is the fact that Congress has not been able to come up with a clear and distinct message, a counter-narrative to the BJP’s formidable electoral and communication machine. Instead, it seems to be counting on anti-incumbency to do the work, a complacent attitude that has made the BJP competitive in areas where it has gathered genuine discontent, against the lack of development outcome, unemployment, and rural distress.
In that regard, Rahul Gandhi’s recent gestures towards Hindu voters are a pale imitation of the cultural appropriation of the religious space achieved by the BJP and are indicative of a defeatist approach towards secularism as well as revealing of a form of cultural victory of the BJP. Voters who care about religion will always prefer the original to the copy.