Here are some reasons why India’s ruling party lost to its main rival in three very important state elections

(Image source- Reuters)

The 11th of December is not a day that the Modi government will forget easily. In addition to conceding ground in Telangana, India’s ruling party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), was beaten in elections in the states of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chattisgarh by the main opposition party -- the Indian National Congress.

It wouldn’t be remiss to say that the BJP was expecting a better performance in the three states, all of which lie in the Hindu heartland. While the party suffered heavy defeats in Rajasthan, where power has alternated between the BJP and Congress since 1993, and Chattisgarh, it fell short of the Congress by a few seats in Madhya Pradesh, where it was campaigning for its record fourth consecutive term.

And so begins a period of introspection for India’s ruling party, which up until yesterday, seemed insurmountable in the face of a divided opposition. While the BJP blames the results on “local issues,” in effect, downplaying any apprehensions they have about their strength ahead of next year’s Lok Sabha elections, it remains to be seen what exactly went wrong.

Here are a few possible reasons:

The anti-incumbency wave

One of the primary explanations here seems to be that the BJP underestimated the anti-incumbency problem and how it was mostly targeted at chief ministers.

Despite its diverse makeup, the Indian electorate can be remarkably consistent when it comes to voting for change. Anti-incumbency is always a key consideration in the minds of voters come election time and this time it was no different The BJP was the ruler in all three states that it lost to the Congress, and failed to make a good enough case for re-election. This was compounded by the general resentment of upper-caste voters, who felt shunted by recent changes to the SC/ST Act.

The BJP wasn’t able to demonstrate that it had made good on its promises. For example, in Rajasthan, Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje, did not deliver on her goal of creating 1.5 million new jobs. Meanwhile its rival Congress swayed voters with promises of better welfare schemes a change in the way of doing things.

Farmer distress

A number of factors have dominated the public conversation in India all year: High fuel prices, youth unemployment, lack of funds for small businesses and most importantly, the need for farmers to secure debt relief. The BJP suffered heavy losses in rural constituencies as compared to urban ones, and this may be due to the fact that it didn’t cater to a crucial voter bloc.

Madhya Pradesh is largely a rural state, and a significant proportion of its voters are farmers. In fact, the BJP lost a number of seats in two key regions in the state that were notable for farmer suicides and protests.

In contrast, the Congress made farmers a key part of its election proposals. In addition to promising an increase in the minimum support price for agricultural commodities, Rahul Gandhi alluded to a national waiver for all farmers - an unrealistic proposal, but one that resonated nonetheless - while criticising the Modi administration’s supposed approach to writing off the bad loans of large companies. The BJP was unable to present an adequate response or counter-offer to the Congress’s pitch to farmers.

A failure of leadership

Anonymous sources told the Indian Express that the BJP’s core leadership played a very heavy hand in deciding electoral strategies in each state and did not decentralise power to the chiefs of state units, which resulted in them overlooking issues of local importance. In addition, there were reports of conflicts between state chiefs and party leaders, as seen in the tussle between Raje and BJP President Amit Shah over the distribution of tickets in Rajasthan.

There were also complaints of “overconfidence” among the party’s leaders, a plausible claim given the BJP’s strong showing in multiple state elections over the last few years. More importantly, its decision to play into the Hindutva nationalism narrative, as evidenced by sending UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath on the campaign trail and bringing up the Ram Temple issue, did not pay off.

The electoral victory is the most significant one for the Opposition since the BJP stormed to power in the general elections of 2014 on a wave of popular support for Brand Modi. It may be too soon to say if the Modi star is dimming, however. In fact, the string of losses will likely propel the ruling party to rely more on its star figure and hand out more sweeteners to allies and farmers as campaigning for the general elections ramps up.

The Congress showed that it is still a force to reckon with in the Hindi-speaking belt of India and will now have a renewed vigour when it comes to sealing alliances with other opposition parties. Having presented the election results as a collective assessment on the Modi government, it is in a strong position to take on India’s ruling party in next year’s Lok Sabha elections. However, it remains to be seen if the promise of loan waivers and freebies can fuel its campaign.

The stage is set for an interesting 2019.

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