When the Assembly elections for five states — Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Telangana and Mizoram — were announced, it was believed by most people that this would be the semi-final for the final which is scheduled to take place in early 2019. It was widely believed that the party, which would perform well in these Assembly elections (win two or three states), would be in a stronger position to win the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. It was believed this would be true in case of the BJP, but may not be for the Congress as the party would still need to travel a long way for a possible victory in 2019, even if it manages to win two or three of these five states.
The Congress will be starting from a very low base in terms of voteshare (19.6 per cent votes in the 2014 Lok Sabha election) and it needs to perform extremely well to win the 2019 Lok Sabha election. But slowly and gradually, as the campaign in different states progressed and election entered in different phases, the focus has now shifted to a great extent on only one state —Madhya Pradesh — which goes to the polls today (November 28) along with Mizoram.
The importance of Madhya Pradesh more than any other state in this round of Assembly elections is not because the state is geographically located in the middle of the country or because it is in the middle of this election cycle (Chhattisgarh voted on November 12 and 20 and Rajasthan and Telangana will vote on December 7), but only because there is a lot of uncertainty about what might happen in Madhya Pradesh. The ground reports and various surveys suggest that the BJP is comfortably placed in Chhattisgarh and the Congress is in a strong position in Rajasthan. But there still remains a lot of suspense about what might happen in Madhya Pradesh.
Though the Congress, in alliance with the Telugu Desam Party, Communist Party of India (Marxist) and Telangana Jana Samithi, is giving a good fight to the Telangana Rashtra Samithi in Telangana, yet the incumbent TRS seems well placed to retain power in Telangana. The Congress might be losing one more state in the Northeast — Mizoram. While there is hardly any discussion on what might be the impact on the 2019 Lok Sabha of a possible victory of the Congress in Mizoram or in Telangana or even in Chhattisgarh, there is a strong belief that the Madhya Pradesh result might affect the mood of the people. It is likely to shape/change the narrative of the 2019 Lok Sabha election.
While there is no guarantee that the party — which might win the Assembly elections in Madhya Pradesh — would certainly win the 2019 Lok Sabha election, it is widely believed that the results of Madhya Pradesh will shape the nature of the 2019 electoral contest. If the BJP manages to retain Madhya Pradesh, it will give a strong signal of its return to power comfortably at the Centre in 2019 and the road to 2019 will become difficult for the Congress. If the Congress manages to snatch Madhya Pradesh from the BJP, the narrative for the 2019 Lok Sabha election might change. While this victory may not help in people believing that the Congress might come back to power in 2019, it would certainly help the Congress in regaining its negotiating power vis-à-vis the regional parties while discussing possible alliance formations for 2019.
The ground reports suggest that the Congress has led a strong camping against the BJP and it seems it has succeeded in mobilising an additional support beyond what it received in the 2013 Assembly elections. But that may not be enough for the Congress to unseat the BJP in Madhya Pradesh, as the lead of the BJP over the Congress has been very large. During the 2013 Assembly elections, the BJP led over the Congress by eight per cent votes. In a bipolar contest, the Congress will need to generate a five to six per cent swing in its favour to defeat the BJP.
A five to six per cent swing is not an impossible task. There have been elections that have witnessed bigger swings. Even in these round of Assembly elections, the reports suggest that the Congress, which trailed behind the BJP by almost 12 per cent votes in Rajasthan, seems to have managed to generate a big swing in its favour and is comfortably placed. But that seems to be happening only because there is a strong anti-incumbency mood in the state — a visible anger against chief minister Vasundhara Raje. In a sharp contrast, there is no strong anti-incumbency mood in Madhya Pradesh, sections of voters like farmers and the youth may be slightly unhappy with the Madhya Pradesh government, but there is no visible anger amongst them to overthrow the ruling party. As a complete contrast to what one witnesses in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan remains reasonably popular in the state.
The BJP seems to have done reasonably well even in Chhattisgarh only because there is a reasonable level of satisfaction in the people with the ruling BJP and chief minister Raman Singh still remains popular even after being in power for 15 years. Though the people of Telangana will vote for the first time on December 7 after the new state was formed after the 2014 Lok Sabha election by bifurcation of erstwhile Andhra Pradesh, the TRS has been in power in the state since 2014.
The TRS formed its first government with K. Chandrashekar Rao as the first chief minister as the party, which contested the 2014 Assembly elections in united Andhra Pradesh, had won 62 of the 119 Assembly seats in this region. Chief minister KCR, who led sustained agitation for the formation of Telangana, still remains very popular among voters of his state. There is hardly any other state which has focused so much on welfare schemes for the people. It is important to note that one of the reasons for the popularity of KCR is his launching of 19 welfare schemes during the four years of his tenure.
One may not be sure how much impact these results will have on the 2019 contest, but it is sure that performance in these elections will affect the morale of party workers and will also help in creating perception about different political parties. Perceptions do play an important role in Indian elections, so one needs to wait and keep watching how these elections unfold, and what happens on the way to the 2019 contest....