What BJP's wins in 3 states mean for 2024 Lok Sabha elections
It shows that BJP’s organisation remains robust and cadres remain motivated
New Delhi: As 2018-2019 showed, the outcome of the state assembly elections in critical Hindi heartland states, four months before the Lok Sabha elections, is not an accurate window into the popular mood at the national level. The Congress won Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh comfortably in December 2018; the BJP won 62 of the 65 seats in the Lok Sabha from the three states in 2019.
Still, while the results were never going to be a guide for what will happen in 2024, especially if the BJP lost, the nature of the outcome, where the BJP swept the three states, does suggest the party has a huge advantage heading into the national polls. The Congress did win Telangana, and while it is a remarkable triumph, the verdict doesn’t really resolve the party’s political crisis, an almost existential one, north of the Vindhyas.
Instead, the verdict reveals that Narendra Modi’s appeal and magical connect with voters is firmly intact -- especially in the heartland. It shows that BJP’s organisation remains robust and cadres remain motivated. It deprives the Congress both of power and resources that would have helped during the Lok Sabha polls. And it reinforces the fact that the BJP’s narrative has resonance among voters, while the Congress’s narrative, for all its creativity, doesn’t carry the same appeal. Examine each of these factors separately and the contours of the 2024 battle become clearer.
The Modi puzzle
There is a puzzle when it comes to Modi and state elections. After 2018, Indian politics has witnessed a trend where voters haven’t hesitated to opt for the Congress or regional forces in state elections, even when Modi has been campaigning. Such outcomes have been, accurately, explained as the dominance of local factors over the national because the same voters tell reporters and pollsters that they will vote for the PM during Lok Sabha elections. At the same time, it is also true that Modi’s appeal continues to help in state elections, as it did in this round.
How does one explain this seeming analytical inconsistency? The BJP may have an incentive in crediting Modi for wins and insulating him from losses -- but there is something deeper at play. When the Congress or regional forces are able to get the right mix of local issues, local leadership, local caste coalitions, and local narrative — and this is combined with deep resentment against BJP’s local leadership — it is hard for Modi to offset all the disadvantages. But when voters aren’t animated by local alternatives on offer, even if they aren’t enamoured by BJP’s local political platform, Modi’s presence and connect makes a difference.
And it makes a difference because of the reassurance that Modi seems to provide to voters. This is based on a promise of relative integrity, for the Opposition’s campaign of painting Modi as a patron of crony capitalists hasn’t struck a chord beyond his opponents just as the allegations around Rafale procurement in 2019 didn’t strike a chord. It is based on a promise of “double engine” sarkar, where voters buy into the narrative that having the BJP in power does lead to governance advantages. It is based on a record of welfare delivery, where Modi’s image of caring for the poor due to the government’s cash transfers and “ease of living” schemes (gas cylinders, rural homes, free ration, electrification, drinking water) resonates. It is based on both an almost subconscious sense of Hindu identity, a belief that Modi is best placed to protect Hindu interests, and a desire to be a part of something larger than subcaste identities. And it is based on the projection of Modi having elevated India’s profile on the global stage.
The PM provided this distinctive edge to the party in the three states, and because voters didn’t seem to think that the local alternatives on offer were qualitatively better, they appear to have decided to cast their lot with the BJP. It also helped that there was no large overhanging issue -- in 2018, agrarian and rural distress were very real issues. But more importantly, all these factors to do with Modi’s image will give the BJP an even clearer edge in the Lok Sabha elections where, as 2014 and 2019 have shown, the leadership question is central to voter choices. Modi’s connection goes beyond the political, it is deeply emotional and a decade after it first propelled him to power, this remains BJP’s abiding strength.
The organisational muscle
Converting this connection with voters to actual votes is hard work. The BJP’s organisational robustness is no recipe for success; after all, with the same structure, it has lost a series of state elections, including, most recently in Karnataka.
But the party’s careful attention to the issue of organisational leadership at the state, district, constituency, block and booth levels; its ability to motivate workers at the right time; its enormous resource advantage, propelled both by central and local funding; its clinical assessment of caste dynamics at the local level; its ruthless strategy of ticket distribution (think of its decision to send top national leaders, including central ministers, to contest elections in Madhya Pradesh or remove incumbents to introduce fresh blood and offset local anti-incumbency); and its record of defending the party’s performance as an incumbent and attacking the ruling party’s record when in opposition is quite remarkable and does help for sure.
Modi, Amit Shah and JP Nadda now also have a set of leaders who can be trusted with boosting the party’s muscle on the ground — from the low-key but politically effective and experienced Bhupendra Yadav to the technocrat turned minister Ashwini Vaishnav (both in charge of MP), from the veteran Om Mathur to one of Modi’s favourites health minister Mansukh Mandviya (in charge of Chhattisgarh), from Pralhad Joshi (in charge of Rajasthan) to a range of others (think Dharmendra Pradhan who was in charge of UP in 2022 or Himanta Biswa Sarma who runs party affairs in the Northeast to Sunil Bansal who helped win UP in 2017 and 2019 and is now in charge of eastern states).
All of this helped in the state elections, but it will be an even bigger asset in national elections, especially when the opposition is confronted by more serious organisational deficits given the scale of national polls.
The narrative advantage
To be fair, in the past two years, the Congress has attempted to politically reinvent itself. It has, in a historic break for the party, backed a caste census, running the risk of alienating upper castes. Rahul Gandhi completed an ambitious Bharat Jodo Yatra. The Congress has presented its own welfarist counter to the BJP. It has sought to build a wider Opposition alliance. It has tried to avoid getting ensnared in the BJP’s trap of being viewed as a party that believes in the “politics of appeasement” with its brand of soft Hindutva (think of Kamal Nath and Bhupesh Baghel’s politics). But none of it has worked.
And it hasn’t worked because the BJP clearly still has a narrative that resonates with voters.
That narrative is based on a mix of delivery and hope. It goes something like this — Modi is honest and leaders of other parties are corrupt; BJP governments deliver on infrastructure while under past non-BJP governments, roads were poor and power was marked by its absence; the BJP provides immediate relief to the poor when they are in crisis (think of relief during Covid-19) and has revolutionised welfare delivery, while the other parties are insensitive and inefficient; the BJP can take various Hindu groups together while the other parties are focused on dividing Hindus and uniting Muslims; the BJP has a vision for 2047 while the others are visionless, dragging the country back to the past by focusing on issues such as the caste census; Modi is a global leader who provides stability while the rest are fragmented with little imagination for India’s place in the world.
True or false, different elements of this narrative appear to strike a chord for different constituencies. If it has worked in state elections, it is even more likely to work in national elections where the role of an overarching narrative is even more important.
The power disadvantage
Incumbency is an advantage. Control over the administrative apparatus helps parties expand their appeal, accumulate resources, and win over new recruits. It is also a disadvantage. Political power brings greater scrutiny, leads to contradictions within the support base depending on who gets how much patronage, leads to inevitable corruption and the baggage associated with it, and alienates voters.
It is striking that the BJP is often able to turn incumbency into an advantage. In Gujarat, it has not just been in power for 25 years but also won its biggest mandate in 2022. In Uttar Pradesh, the party broke historical trends to win a second term last year. In Madhya Pradesh, after almost two decades (18 years to be precise with a one-and-a-half-year break in the middle), it has won the biggest mandate the state has given since 1985. It is also striking that the Congress is unable to turn incumbency into an asset. In both Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan, after one term, voters sought a change rather than go with seemingly popular chief ministers.
This has implications for 2024 in three ways. The first is Modi’s proven ability to turn his ten-year record into an advantage on the national stage, aided by what will be a concerted effort by the party to consolidate its support base in all the states where it has won. The second is that the BJP will not just have its national resource pool but also a resource pool from local sources in states where it has won. And the third is the fact that the Congress will lose out on the ability to accumulate resources from states where it has either lost power or failed to win, leaving it primarily with Telangana and Karnataka to contribute to party coffers in what will probably be the most expensive election India has witnessed to date.
Put together, the message from Sunday is clear. A loss for the BJP wouldn’t have shown what 2024 will be like, but the party’s success gives ample indication of what the 2024 verdict will resemble.
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