Over 16 crore electors eligible to vote for their representatives for 679 assembly constituencies, covering 83 Lok Sabha seats across 5 states, are exercising their franchise in November 2023. These Assembly elections are a real test case on the comparative strength and mass support of the ruling BJP at the Centre and the Congress, the major opposition. The Congress, despite its debacle in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, made a strong comeback during the 2018 assembly polls, capturing 305 seats with a majority in 3 of the states going to the polls. While the BJP won 199 seats, the regional parties and independents secured 175 seats, captured power in Telangana and Mizoram, and overshadowed the national parties. (See Table 1).
Table 1 – Assembly Elections 2018: Total ACs and Seats Won by Parties
|Won by BJP
|Won by Congress
|Won by Others
Being the final round before the country goes into general election mode, the political analysts are divided on the question of whether these polls can be interpreted as the ‘semi-final’ to the 2024 Lok Sabha polls. Going by the past trends of the last two decades and the narratives and tactics of the major parties in the fray, a few of them hold that the November battles cannot be overemphasised, nor can they be dubbed as the ‘semi-final’ to the scheduled ‘Finals’ in 2024. As the November polls are ‘state-centric’, the ‘mass-psyche’ of the larger sections of the voters, according to them, would be influenced by the immediate local or regional issues of their concern or interest, whereas in the Lok Sabha elections, their approach would be decided on the basis of broader and more serious issues of national importance such as security, development, growth, welfare and the image of the government in power. Negating such arguments and hypotheses, another set of analysts hold that the past trends need not be repeated in the 2024 polls, as the changes and challenges that the country has witnessed in the areas of polity, governance, etc. during the last decade were unprecedented. Moreover, such issues of national importance have been widely discussed and debated during the November polls. Thus, the poll outcome, especially from the Hindi-heartland states, may reflect on the electoral trends in the 2024 polls.
It is debatable how these November Assembly elections are going to influence the 2024 LS polls. But these elections have raised certain unique features that are of immense interest to any student of electoral politics. The first and foremost is the shift in the hierarchical approach of the Congress and the BJP, the main contenders in the polls. The High Command of the Congress, which in the past had exercised absolute control over state units on matters like election strategy, finalisation of candidates and so on, has adopted a more flexible and tactical approach, enabling the ‘state straps’ to play a more crucial role in such matters. Thus, leaders like Kamal Nath in Madhya Pradesh, Ashok Gehlot in Rajasthan, Bhupesh Baghel in Chhattisgarh, Revanth Reddy in Telangana, and Lalsawta in Mizoram have emerged at the centre of the state election scene. By effectively projecting their image, the party could send a message to the voters that these leaders would implement the promises and guarantees and fulfil the aspirations of the voters if they were voted to power. No doubt, a negative fallout of the strategy was the emergence of ‘rebels’ or dissidents who, to a certain extent, could be contained at the instance of the central leadership.
On the other hand, the BJP adopted a quite opposite strategy of ‘Centre-centric approach’ in the polls. For them, the best weapon in their armoury for electioneering was the popular image of the Prime Minister and the various welfare-developmental schemes of the central government. Naturally, the endeavour of the party leadership was to strategically use this weapon among the voters and reap a rich harvest in the elections. As part of the strategy, prominent central leaders, Union Ministers, MPs, etc. who hail from these states were fielded as party candidates, especially in constituencies where the party faced serious contest, anticipating polarisation of uncommitted voters in favour of such ‘VIP’ candidates. Moreover, special teams comprising senior Central Ministers/ MPs were entrusted with the task of monitoring the campaign. When the central leadership has virtually controlled the election exercise, the prominent faces of the party in these states are relegated to the background or to play second fiddle to the central leaders. Naturally, leaders like Shivraj Singh Chouhan in Madhya Pradesh or Vasundhara Raje in Rajasthan, who otherwise were the main faces of the party there, have to bear the brunt of this strategy, which, according to many ’election-watchers’ was part of the move to contain anti-incumbency or internal squabbles in state units.
When the November polls, by and large, turned into a battle between the BJP and the Congress, the much-hyped INDIA alliance went into hibernation with occasional outbursts by prominent leaders of the alliance, such as Akhilesh Yadav of the Samajwadi Party, adversely affecting their unity and cohesiveness. In spite of their best efforts, none of the INDIA alliance partners could enter into an electoral understanding with the Congress in these states. There is a lurking fear among the partners like the SP, AAP, TMC, etc. that they will lose their clout and bargaining power for seats in the 2024 LS polls if the Congress makes an impressive performance in the November elections. Thus, parties like the TMC and the AAP have raised the demand that the seat understanding among INDIA alliance partners for the 2024 polls be made in advance. It is crucial how the Congress leadership would reciprocate to such demands. Moreover, ideological differences have come up in the INDIA camp on issues like the ‘Caste Census’, Economic survey, ‘Sanatan-dharma controversy’, or the nature or partners of alliances in states like West Bengal. However, the line of thinking of the Congress leadership is that an impressive performance by the party in the November polls would help to subside such polemics in the alliance and would boost its image and credibility, enabling them to face the 2024 polls with more confidence. No doubt, the outcome of the November elections will have a decisive impact on the future of the INDIA alliance.
Meanwhile, the demand for a caste census and the reservation of OBCs on the basis of the census have emerged as key issues for the 2024 polls. Though there are differences in the INDIA alliance on this issue, the Congress has decided to vigorously pursue it with a view to breaking the success formula of the BJP in rallying the forward castes and prominent sections of the OBCs by exploiting the ‘Hindutva’ agenda. In many states, particularly in the Hindi heartland, the electoral victory of the NDA/BJP has been largely attributed to this strategy. For example, the support of non-Yadava OBCs such as Kurmis, Rajbhabar, Nishad, etc. has considerably contributed to their victory in many northern states, especially UP and Bihar. Taking cue from such factors, the Congress has already promised to conduct caste surveys in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Telangana if they come to power in the November polls.
The BJP leadership has yet to come up with a specific line of approach on this complex issue, but they have indicated that they are not against the caste census. At the same time, the party tries to counter the adverse fallout of the issue in the elections by highlighting that the aggressive demand of the Congress for the caste census is intended to divide the Hindu community. Even the ‘Sanatan-dharma controversy’, evoked by one of the key partners of the INDIA alliance, is interpreted as part of this sinister move. However, the BJP is likely to formulate a more acceptable and consensus-worthy line on ‘caste census’ before the 2024 polls, as a few NDA partners in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar representing major OBCs have already come out in favour of caste census.
An interrelated issue is the demand for the economic survey and the sanctioning of concessions and facilities on the basis of population. The Congress, which has been engaged in a propaganda war against the BJP, alleging its pro-corporate policies and crony capitalist tendencies, intends to use economic surveys, etc., to refurbish its pro-poor image among more and more sections of voters. All along the ‘Bharat Jodo Yatra’, the party has projected such themes in order to win the support of poor and middle-class sections.
The theme of economic justice and welfarism, especially of the poor and underprivileged sections, which have emerged as a potential weapon to woo the voters, has led to another noticeable trend of announcing a lot of ’freebies’, guarantees and promises to the voters by the major political parties. The November polls have witnessed a large number of announcements of ‘freebies’ to different sections, such as women, farmers, unemployed, students, traders, government employees, pensioners, Adivasis/Dalits, contract workers and so on—perhaps unprecedented in the electoral history of these states. Even the Election Commission has expressed doubts as to why the political parties announce ‘freebies’ only in the run-up to the polls. Had these parties, especially those in power, been serious about such concessions, they should have implemented them much before the elections. Thus, the pertinent question is: how far are these ‘freebies’ going to influence the voters? Logically, those parties or states that have implemented them in advance are likely to benefit from the freebies. Perhaps the best test case is Telangana, where the TRS/BRS implemented many of these freebies almost a year before the November polls. If the BRS, which faces stiff competition from the Congress, retains power with a landslide victory in the polls, it would be an acknowledgement of the fact that ‘freebies’ work well to the advantage of the party that is behind them. If so, more and more parties will vigorously follow the strategy. Ultimately, such policies and strategies will slowly and steadily devalue the democratic exercise of elections. The real development of a state(s) will take a backseat in the light of such dominating trends as welfarism and populism. Hence, it is the appropriate time that the constitutional and statutory bodies should seriously think of ways and means to checkmate such trends that devalue our democratic institutions and concepts of development.
Views expressed by the author are personal and need not reflect or represent the views of the Centre for Public Policy Research.