What will be the national impact of the coming elections in five states? Keeping aside noises over the apparent Congress slide and the hype over the BJP’s modified aggression, we must account for two counter-intuitive facts before seeking an answer.
First, though we think the national mood is one of utter antipathy towards the Congress, apparently on a downslide since it won the 2009 elections, recent electoral outcomes suggest a more complex picture.
In the 21 state elections since 2009, the Congress won 177 seats and lost 86; the Bharatiya Janata Party won 46 seats and lost 133. Net gain for the Congress: 91 seats. Net loss for the BJP: 87 seats.
This is not in the least to understate the series of controversies that have hit the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government at the Centre or discount the battle lines the BJP has drawn.
Secondly, the correlation between state and central elections is tenuous and complex.
In 2003, the BJP won Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan and thought the national mood was in its favour. The party advanced the general elections by six months, but what happened in May 2004 was contrary to its expectations.
In 2009, the DMK-Congress alliance did well in the Lok Sabha polls in Tamil Nadu, but the AIADMK swept the next assembly elections in 2011. Still, the state elections will be a warm-up for the national elections, for both the Congress and the BJP.
The heartland factor
Four of the five elections are happening in the heartland of India and both national parties are face to face. In the present political scenario, across India’s 28 states and seven Union territories, the Congress and the BJP are in direct contest only in seven. Voters must choose between the parties in Delhi, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, which collectively send 72 members to the lower house of Parliament.
Why is this factor important? Unlike 2004 and 2009, 2014 is not going to be driven by alliances. The primary choice the voters will be called to make is between the BJP and the Congress. Whoever gets closer to the halfway mark will attract allies, post-elections. So this round of state elections will be a battle for primacy between these two national parties.
The way our quasi federalism works is that while the Centre drives policies, it is the states that manage governance and delivery of most public services.
So, in Delhi and Rajasthan, the Congress will face double anti-incumbency — by virtue of being in power in both the Centre and the state. In MP and Chhattisgarh, both parties will contest to take credit for good work and blame the other for the inadequacies.
The money spent by the Centre on welfare in the last decade is unprecedented. During the 11th Plan period (2007-2012) about `7 lakh crore was spent on 15 flagship social sector programmes. Smart chief ministers have appropriated the political dividend of this spending.
The ceaseless battle between the states and Centre will translate into a battle between the BJP and the Congress to win public perception over two key questions that will determine the outcome not only of the assembly elections, but also the 2014 general elections: 1) Who should get credit for the welfare schemes? 2) Who is to blame for the untamed price rise of essential commodities?
To swing this, leadership is important and both parties have problems on this front. Congress is afflicted by a problem of plenty. The party high command has managed to contain the confusion in MP by projecting Jyotiraditya Scindia as its face. In Rajasthan, however, the battle of nerves between chief minister Ashok Gehlot and party general secretary CP Joshi is on. Delhi has a similar situation between chief minister Sheila Dikshit and Ajay Maken.
The worst situation is in Chhattisgarh. After the near wipeout of its leadership in a Maoist ambush in May, a less than inspiring leader heads the Congress, while the more popular Ajit Jogi sulks on the sidelines.
The BJP CMs in MP and Chhattisgarh are popular and well entrenched. In Rajasthan, Vasundhara Raje has managed to contain internal squabbles. The entry of Narendra Modi as the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate has added a new dimension. His popularity in these states, at least among the party cadre, is evident. But his stated aversion to welfare distribution is contradictory to the image that party CMs have created over the last two terms.