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Election results 2018: BJP cuts its losses as Congress revives in heartland

Assembly election results trends show that Congress may be on its way to unseat the BJP in three Hindi heartland states even as the saffron party puts up a fight in MP and Rajasthan

Radhika Ramaseshan 

Radhika Ramaseshan
Radhika Ramaseshan

The Congress seemed on the road to revival and recovery in parts of the Hindi heartland where it was pitted directly against the Bharatiya Janata Party. The trends available so far established the Congress's arrival in Chhatissgarh after 15 years without the leadership of its former chief minister and strongman Ajit Jogi who quit and floated his own party. However, in conjunction with the Bahujan Samaj Party, Jogi's Janta Congress Chhattisgarh failed to impact the Congress's surge as the party seemed to have crossed the half-way mark comfortably on its own.

The narrative was different in the other two cow belt states, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh. Here, the trends defied the projections of certain exit polls and the Congress's own expectations because the BJP, up against strong anti-incumbency sentiments, fought back under the stewardship of its respective regional chieftains, Vasundhara Raje and Shivraj Singh Chouhan and considerably narrowed down gap between itself and the Congress. In other words, if the Congress wins eventually, it might have the comfort of unseating the BJP government in MP after 15 years and the Rajasthan dispensation after five years but left holding a host of problems, caused by the lack of resolution on who its chief minister would be (it did not declare a CM candidate in the three states) and the prospect of depending on the Independents and support from the smaller parties. The issue of who would be its CMs is tangled by the fact that while MP has two visible contenders, Kamal Nath and Jyotiraditya Scindia, Rajasthan has an equal number in Ashok Gehlot and Sachin Pilot. As the trends were flowing in, in Jaipur it was evident that Gehlot and Pilot had mobilised their cheer leaders outside their residences to raise slogans and proffer sound bites in their support. Indeed, Gehlot backers even held a veiled threat to the effect that if he was passed over as the CM, the Congress might suffer "losses" in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls. Nath and Scindia have so far kept their counsel to themselves while Digvijay Singh, the third angle of the MP triangle, stepped back even before electioneering, choosing to work as a backroom strategist and planner.

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For the Congress, if the trends hold out until the results are declared, there are other lessons to be gleaned. In Rajasthan, where it was billed as a victor for months now and projected to win at least 140 of the 200 seats, the struggle to reach the half-way mark reflected on its less-than-satisfactory candidates' selection, the inability to contain large-scale rebellion, the lack of a sharp focus in its discourse that often veered away from the issues of the day (agrarian distress, corruption, demonetisation and GST) to answer the BJP on the Ayodhya temple and Hanuman's caste antecedents and the reluctance to offer an alternate blueprint to the BJP's, other than its president Rahul Gandhi announcing that if elected to power, its government would waive away farm loans. While the promise was bought in Chhattisgarh and parts of MP, it apparently did not click in Rajasthan.

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For the BJP, the imminent loss of three state governments--the first big electoral setback it experienced since the bounties that it picked up after 2014--was ill-timed because the 2019 Lok Sabha election is months away. While the party and its ideological parent, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh will be reluctant to split hairs on who was more culpable for the reverses--the Centre or the state governments or both in measures--in order not to blur the focus on Narendra Modi as the mascot that endures, in MP and Rajasthan, it was evident that in the rural and semi-rural areas, "note bandi" and GST had shaken up the local economies because the farmers, largely the small and marginal farmers, were unable to sell months of produce to the traders for want of hard money. A BJP source said on authority that it was "unlikely" that the Centre would examine the role of demonetisation and GST in the light of the results because these policies were laid out as the signposts of the BJP's economic "vision".

ALSO READ: Rajasthan election result 2018 LIVE: Congress ahead; BJP gives tough fight

So while the outgoing CMs would be on the high on the radar of the expected introspection that ensues after an unfavourable showing, sources said while Raman Singh of Chhattisgarh was most likely to go through a "temporary eclipse", it was "difficult" to use the same yardstick to judge Chouhan and Vasundhara because of their fight back in MP and Rajasthan that denied the Congress the showing it looked forward to.

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Chouhan fought on the political capital he had accumulated over 12 years as the CM after taking over from Uma Bharati as the genial "Mamaji" who was self-made, from a backward caste and a poor background, a dedicated RSS worker, accessible to all at all times, and not overtly anti-minorities. On the flip side, while he endured major scams that implicated him, his wife Sadhna Singh Chouhan and her brother Sanjay Masani (who joined the Congress before the elections) and weathered the suspicion that he was interested in the PM's job before the 2014 elections, his last tenure was marked by rural unrest, a discernible failure to manage the bureaucracy and the lower echelons of the administration, malcontents within the BJP who felt that they were looped out of the power structures despite being committed to the party and complaints of petty corruption. Chouhan's problems were exacerbated by serious grouses against his ministers and MLAs. Additionally, the BJP organisation--one of its most robust apparatus--showed signs of fraying as some of the veterans stayed indifferent during the Chouhan virtually carried the load of electioneering on himself.

Vasundhara functioned as a law unto herself although the Rajasthan BJP is as strong as the one in MP. Her brand equity derived from certain landmark social welfare schemes she conceptualised although their benefits did not uniformly reach the targeted sections. Like Chouhan, she might have been left to her own devices had the central leadership not glimpsed an opening in the state after the Congress's inhouse problems unleashed dissent and indiscipline. At that point, the BJP president Amit Shah--helped by his central team members Prakash Javadekar, Om Prakash Mathur and P Murlidhar Rao and Chandrashekar, the general secretary (organisation)--systematically re-activated the cadre and pushed them to publicise Vasundhara's schemes on the ground. The net outcome was in MP and Rajasthan, early trends showed the BJP had cut its losses.

Twitter: @radrama

First Published: Tue, December 11 2018. 12:53 IST