Two out of MP, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan will vote for the BJP in general elections regardless of their respective state election outcomes.
The Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) traditional hold over the states of Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan will be put to test on December 11, when state election results are due. Elections will be held across five states—Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Mizoram, Telangana and Rajasthan—spread over November 12 until December 7. Counting for all the states is scheduled to take place on December 11.
Opinion polls seem to agree that the BJP stands to lose Rajasthan. There is widespread anti-incumbency sentiment due to youth unemployment, farmer distress and tensions over caste-based identity politics The key opposition party, Indian National Congress (INC), seems to be more adept in its campaigning in Rajasthan; although there have been reports of party infighting.
The scene looks brighter for the BJP in Madhya Pradesh, in part due to the longevity of its incumbent chief minister and improved roads, power supply and social welfare schemes. However, like Rajasthan, the BJP grapples with widespread farmer dissatisfaction over low incomes and joblessness. It also finds itself struggling to find an optimal balance between different caste communities.
Opinion polls fail to show a clear frontrunner in Chhattisgarh, although it looks like the INC has a slight edge. Like Madhya Pradesh, this will be a prestige battle for the BJP which has been in power since its inception in 2003, although it had a narrow victory in 2013. Given the large tribal population and frequent Naxal conflict, development and caste-based issues will remain relevant themes.
Telangana is a stronghold of the local Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) party, which is likely to benefit from calling a flash election. INC has a stronger footing than the BJP in Telangana, and is trying to form a coalition against TRS. However, opinion polls suggest the TRS coming back with a stronger majority. Mizoram is a small state in the northeast—the only one in the region where the INC holds a majority. While the Opposition party Mizo National Front (MNF) has collaborated with BJP in the past, they intend to contest elections independently.
Historically, Indian voters are known to be inconsistent in their voting patterns in state versus general elections. Typically, general election candidates from a state’s ruling party enjoy a greater comparative advantage when general elections are scheduled early in the term as opposed to later; when there is a greater risk from contamination from local anti-incumbency. However, the predictive power of state elections remains unreliable—the rout of the BJP in 2009 came despite a string of state electoral victories in the run-up. A state-level autopsy of the BJP’s 2014 general election victory reveals the crucial role played by its runaway success amongst constituencies in Uttar Pradesh—a state that was then governed by the opposition. Similarly, key inroads made in Maharashtra and Bihar (in 2014) came despite the BJP not being in power in either state assembly.
Together, the states of Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan will account for ~12% of parliamentary seats. Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh have consistently voted for BJP parliamentarians by a sizeable margin. If the pattern persists, then the result of the state elections should not materially impact the BJP’s general election prospects in these two states. Rajasthan is trickier. While it has voted more frequently in favour of the BJP over INC in general elections, it has also sprung surprises. Even if the BJP loses Rajasthan as the polls suggest, it may still be able to count on it for support in the general election. However, the clean sweep it enjoyed in 2014 will most likely be compromised.
The BJP has aggressively campaigned in state elections and of the top 17 states that are represented in the Upper House, it has now successfully wrestled control in nine. Of the 41 parliamentary seats belonging to smaller states, 25 hail from the Northeast—where the BJP has elbowed its way into seven of the eight state governments. Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh have a sizeable agrarian population, and the rural electoral performance will serve as an indicator of how relevant farm distress remains as an issue among the electorate. While the BJP suffered losses among rural constituencies during the Gujarat elections in December 2017, subsequent ‘Mood of the Nation’ surveys seem to suggest that the respondents complaining about farm distress has fallen from 6% as of January 2018 to 3% in July.
Going into the state election results, opinion polls suggest that the BJP will manage to retain Madhya Pradesh; lose Rajasthan; and remain competitive in Chhattisgarh, i.e., results will be a mixed bag. On the face of it, the BJP’s prospects for the 65 parliamentary seats (of the 543 in the Lok Sabha) suggest that two out of these three states will vote for the BJP in general elections regardless of their state election outcome. At the same time, the state elections will also reflect the mood of the nation, and the extent to which the BJP has been able to distance itself from the electoral issues of low farm incomes and broader rural distress.
Edited excerpts from Nomura’s India: Politics—Winter is coming