The BJP’s decisive win and the Congress’s complete rout in the assembly elections in three northern states, in what is known as the ‘Hindi heartland’, has taken many ‘experts’ by surprise. More than the surprise element, the key takeaway of the 2023 assembly elections results is the message that the electorate has clearly given to the political class of the nation. By favouring the development plank and rejecting caste politics as well as the politics of freebies, the voters across states have told the world at large that Bharat’s electorate has now come of age – it knows its mind and will no longer be swayed by divisive tactics and empty rhetoric.
There is much analysis about how votes in assembly elections have gone to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who was the face of the BJP’s poll campaign, instead of state leaders. While Modi’s direct connect with the voters is an undeniable factor, other factors such as the organisational strength of the BJP and the opposition’s disconnect with the people’s aspirations cannot be overlooked while decoding the results.
The voters of all five states – Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Telangana and Mizoram – made educated choices that emerged as clear-cut, unambiguous results.
The two most worrying aspects of the entire election campaign this time were:
1. The efforts to promote caste-based politics, and
2. The politics of freebies
Had these issues gained ground, it would have taken Bharat into a bleak future where social cohesion and economic development would have suffered tremendously. By dumping both election strategies, the electorate has voted for a brighter future for the nation – and set a positive tone for the crucial 2024 elections.
It was the affirmative vote of the electorate that made PM Modi emphasise in his victory speech that for his party there are only four castes — women, poor, farmers, and youth.
The results have proved that the days of appeasement and caste politics are over and that ‘new India’ votes on politics of performance, Union Home Minister Amit Shah said soon after the results were declared.
Another heartening takeaway of the results is the emergence of women as independent and decisive voters. PM Modi acknowledged and bowed to this women power when he expressed gratitude towards the ‘Nari Shakti’ of the country in his speech at the BJP headquarters in Delhi. He credited the female electorate for decisively choosing the BJP. “I want to express my gratitude to the ‘Nari Shakti’ of the country. I would often say during my rallies that ‘Nari Shakti’ has decided that BJP’s flag will rise high in the elections,” he added.
‘NO’ TO CASTE POLITICS
On October 2, 2023, the Bihar government made public the results of its controversial caste-based survey ‘Bihar Jaati Adharit Ganana’. While Prime Minister Narendra Modi outright condemned the intent behind the survey, the Congress was quick to not just jump up on the caste bandwagon, it actively made it one of its key poll planks for the 2024 general elections.
Addressing a poll rally in Chhattisgarh on October 29, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi declared that his party will order a caste census within just two hours of the results if his party wins the 2024 Lok Sabha polls. For the assembly elections, the promise was state-wise caste surveys – a promise that the Congress reiterated in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Telangana as well. Throughout the election campaign, Gandhi’s main emphasis was on the caste census, highlighting the “necessity” to provide representation “in proportion to the population”.
Media started discussing whether it was time for Mandal 2.0. In the 1990s, Mandal politics had fragmented north Indian voters terribly along caste lines, inciting widespread violence across states. A repeat of the same kind of politics would have threatened both peace and progress in the country.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi took the threat head on. Hours after the Bihar government released its caste survey findings, he said while addressing a gathering at Gwalior on October 2 that the Opposition had only divided the country along caste lines in the past six decades.
“Our government at the Center is concerned about the poor and is committed to their welfare, regardless of the class or caste they belong to,” he said the next day on October 3 at a public event in Raipur.
From here on, the BJP seemed to consolidate its election strategy to counter the opposition’s bid to promote caste politics at national level. And it became ‘development politics’ versus ‘caste politics’.
Addressing a Dussehra rally on October 24, Prime Minister Narendra Modi called for the elimination of casteism. He urged the people to vanquish the forces trying to divide the country on the basis of casteism and regionalism.
At a Chhattishgarh rally on November 4, PM Modi stated that the biggest caste in the country is the poor and he considers himself their sevak. And then on December 1, two days before the results, PM Modi spoke at a video interaction with welfare beneficiaries where he said that the poor, youth, women, and farmers are the “biggest castes” and that uplifting them would make the country developed.
Even though the BJP did not categorically reject the concept of caste census, it subtly drew a bigger line by prioritising development and upliftment over castes and quotas. The BJP countered the opposition’s move by launching schemes for the entire society instead of a particular section. BJP government’s central schemes such as the PM-Kisan Samman Nidhi and in MP the Mukhya Mantri Ladli Bahana Yojna found more resonance with the electorate than the promised caste census.
The Prime Minister’s victory speech on December 3, after the results were out, underlined the development plank in the context of the opposition’s caste narrative when he said that for the party there are only four castes — women, poor, farmers, and youth – whose empowerment will strengthen the country. This will be the BJP’s baseline strategy for the 2024 general elections too.
In Chhattisgarh, where OBCs constitute 43 per cent of the population, Congress’ caste census charm failed miserably as BJP won by impressive margins.
Reports suggests that former CM Bhupesh Baghel’s aggressive OBC politics alienated OBC’s Sahus, the dominant community. BJP fielded 11 Sahus while Congress fielded 9. BJP fielded 31 OBC candidates, Congress had 30, with 17 and 12 winners respectively. Congress’ aggressive OBC strategy may also have been counterproductive in tribal areas where tribals voted for the BJP. The scale of the Congress’ defeat can be gauged from the fact that nine out of 13 ministers in the Bhupesh Baghel cabinet bit dust.
In Rajasthan, former CM Ashok Gehlot was quick to announce that a caste census would be conducted in the state if the Congress was voted back to power. He even talked of raising the OBC quota by 6 per cent from 21 per cent to 27 per cent. There were reports that major caste groups in Rajasthan, including the OBCs, were demanding a caste census and an increase in reservation. The OBC population in Rajasthan is reported to be over 50 per cent.
The BJP decisively won in the state with 115 seats, with Congress reduced to 69 seats and others 15 seats in the 200-member Assembly.
In Madhya Pradesh, Rahul Gandhi emphasised on holding a caste census if voted to power. Using his favourite slogan ‘Jitni Abadi, Utna Haq’ (representation as per numbers), Gandhi said during a poll campaign in Neemuch district that “If we come to power in the state, we guarantee that we will conduct a caste census. Everybody needs to know about their strength in the country.” The caste census is an “X-ray” that is necessary to ensure the participation of OBCs, Dalits and tribals in the government as per their proportion in the population, Gandhi said.
BJP has bettered the Congress in all regions of the State. According to EC estimates, the BJP vote share was 48.69 per cent, a sharp rise of almost 8 per cent from the previous figure of 41.02 per cent in 2018.
The Hindi heartland electorate has proved it has come a long way from the time of Mandal politics. For the Opposition, the caste strategy has proved a political dud, leaving it short of a strong base on which to plan its 2024 campaign against the BJP juggernaut.
The recent trend of promising outlandish freebies to woo voters has been a matter of grave concern, having a direct negative impact on the economic well-being of the nation. Each and every party feels compelled to counter the offers of the opponent parties, many of them being fiscally untenable. Many states are today under tremendous debt owing to such dole-out schemes.
These elections were no different. However, voters have showed through their voting pattern that they are not interested in just free dole-outs but want long-term development on all parameters. Many interviewees on TV channels in the run up to voting could be heard saying that don’t want freebies but would rather prefer opportunities to progress.
Secondly, voters are not ready to be fooled by hollow promises from one election to the next. The Congress’s case in Chhattisgarh is a case in point. In 2018, it had promised many freebies and welfare measures which resonated with the electorate, helping it win. This time, as the election campaign gained momentum, the party unveiled a slew of promises, some of them were repeats of 2018 promises which the party did not deliver on in its five years of rule. Congress even upped the value of benefits from its current schemes, it said if the party was re-elected the landless would receive ₹10,000 per year, up from the ₹7,000 they are getting under the Rajiv Gandhi Landless Agricultural Labourer Justice Scheme. It further banked on promises of farmer loan waivers and reinstatement of the old pension scheme.
The BJP manifesto too had several populist promises, but the Congress proposed benefits of higher value. The voters nevertheless preferred to vote for the BJP. ‘Modi’s Guarantee’ and BJP’s track record on delivering developmental governance were factors that obviously weighed more than tall promises.
The message is clear. Promise what you can deliver, and then deliver what you promised. The voter understands the strategy of promises and is now watching and evaluating the performance of ruling parties.
PM Modi had said in 2022 that the parties indulging in ‘revri culture’ (freebie culture) to secure votes would lead the nation into darkness.
NARROW WIN IN TELANGANA
In Telangana, the Congress won by a narrow shift of 2 per cent votes defeating the Bharat Rashtra Samithi (BRS), which bore the brunt of a definite anti-incumbency sentiment. According to the Election Commission’s data, the Congress won 64 assembly seats in the 119-member assembly, attaining a 39.40 per cent vote share, while the BRS bagged 39 seats with a 37.35 per cent vote share. The BRS vote share dropped by over 10 per cent while the Congress gained 11 per cent.
Here too the BJP registered gains as it doubled its vote share and improved its tally to 8 assembly seats. In 2018, it had secured just one seat with a 7 per cent vote share.
SC-ST’s support to Saffron party
- Madhya Pradesh Polls: BJP won 50 out of the total 82 seats reserved for ST and SC communities. In the last election, it had won 33 such seats
- Rajasthan Polls: The BJP won 22 of the 34 SC reserved seats, while the Congress won 11 seats
- Chhattisgarh Polls : Out of 35 SC seats, the BJP won 26 this time, up from 18 in 2018. On the other hand, the Congress won 9 SC seats from 17 in 2018
Some observers suggest the Congress’s win could be based on votes from Telugu Desam Party sympathisers after the TDP opted out of the race. The TDP had secured 3.5 per cent of votes and two seats in the 2018 assembly elections.
The BRS’s defeat also represents the unpopularity of freebie schemes such as Rythu Bandhu.
Women have decisively marked their place as crucial voters who could decide future elections.
In Madhya Pradesh, the BJP solidified its support among women voters, marking a substantial seven per cent swing from 2018 and securing a formidable vote share of 50 per cent. The Congress saw a 3 per cent drop in female vote share from 2018. Men in the state, just like women, have given a big chunk of their votes to the BJP, with 44 per cent support.
Ruling BJP’s Ladli Behna Yojana in the state is said to have proved a game-changer. Under this scheme, eligible women are entitled to get Rs 1,250 every month. The concept that when you give money to the lady of the house the entire family benefits from it, is rooted in ground reality. This will not only convert into women votes, but be a precursor to development at the grassroots level.
Chhattisgarh witnessed a significant nine per cent increase in women’s vote share for the BJP to reach 43 per cent. The Congress saw a three per cent decline in women’s vote share. On the other hand, men leaned a bit towards the Congress, with a one per cent shift, giving them a 43 per cent vote share.
In other states, the women vote share remained almost constant.
The Ladli Behna Yojana at the state level, along with several women-centric schemes of the Modi government across the spectrum, from Direct Benefit Transfer to Nari Vandan Adhiniyam has sought to bring economic empowerment to women, and they have shown their appreciation.
Women voters can no longer be taken for granted – that they will vote according to their men’s will. They are increasingly becoming mindful that freebies and lip service cannot help them out of poverty or empower them in any other way.
FUTURE OF OPPOSITION
The opposition alliance called I.N.D.I.A. had little to stand on from the beginning, and these elections have hit it hard.
The Congress’s debacle has not only cost the party its perceived leadership position in the Dotted Alliance but also proved that its poll strategies have a greater tendency to flop rather than achieve.
In Madhya Pradesh, an overconfident Kamal Nath refused to forge an alliance with alliance partner Samajwadi Party (SP) in Madhya Pradesh. This would hardly instil much confidence in its coalition partners for the crucial Lok Sabha elections.
Reports suggest that the Congress and SP fighting it out in 66 seats cost both of them dearly, especially in the seats bordering Uttar Pradesh. Whether an alliance would have made any difference to the poll results or not is a moot question, but even if they had lost together, there would have been at least a sense of collective responsibility within the opposition bloc.
Curse of opposing Sanatan Dharma
The Congress’s rout in the three states of the Hindi belt has also been attributed to its tacit support to DMK’s Udhaynidhi Stalin’s derogatory comments against the Sanatan Dharma. Congress leader Acharya Pramod Krishnam criticised his own party on this issue and stated categorically: “Opposing Sanatan (Dharma) has sunk the party. This country has never accepted caste-based politics… This is the curse of opposing Sanatan (Dharma).” He said this even as the counting of votes was underway and Congress was trailing in all three states.
Political analyst Tehseen Poonawalla also asserted that the “biggest reason” for Congress’s defeat is “abusing Sanatan Dharma”. The mandate is in favour of the BJP and the Congress needs to introspect, he said. Former cricketer Venkatesh Prasad too attributed the Congress’s performance to the ‘Sanatana Dharma’ row. “Abusing Sanatana Dharma was bound to have its consequences,” he wrote on X.
Samajwadi Party (SP) chief Akhilesh Yadav had even countered Congress’s demand for for a caste census, and asked why the party did not conduct such an exercise when it was in power at the Centre. Yadav’s comment highlights the differences within the Opposition ‘front’ seeking to put up a united fight against the BJP in 2024.
Now with the principal opposition party being restricted to just three states on its own – Karnataka, Telangana and Himachal Pradesh – against 12 held by the BJP, the Congress remains just another partner in the alliance. In 2024, alliance partners TMC, RJD, JDU or the SP are unlikely to part with too many seats in West Bengal, Bihar or Uttar Pradesh to the Congress.
VOTE FOR DEVELOPMENT
The voters of 2023 have shown that they have politically evolved. PM Modi’s emphasis on ‘Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas, Sabka Vishwas and Sabka Prayaas’ resonates with them. They can discern the difference between real-time efforts as opposed to fluffy promises. They understand socio-political issues and development policies and are no longer ready to be lured by doles and sporadic development.
There is a decisive shift in the voting pattern – it is no longer determined by just identities and incentives but is now influenced by empowerment, cultural assertion and social assimilation.
The 2023 assembly elections have bolstered the BJP’s argument that the party delivers developmental politics. In Telangana, BJP’s KVR Reddy, a local leader, emerged as a dark horse by defeating both BRS chief and CM K. Chandrashekar Rao (KCR) and Congress’s Revanth Reddy in Kamareddy. KVR Reddy is known to have worked well for local development.
“The results in Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan indicate that the people of India are firmly with politics of good governance and development … ,” Modi wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter.
The ‘magic’ of ‘Modi’s Guarantee’ has worked on the ground because people have acknowledged the genuine efforts of the Modi Government at the Centre to provide good governance, comprehensive development and tackle issues of national security and foreign policy. The new state governments, whether BJP or Congress, would do well to remember this maxim defined by the voters for politicians in 2023–deliver on the ground or else…