Nationally dominant, with a strategy that clicks

In much of the Hindi belt, the Bharatiya Janata Party now possesses a core ideological vote bank that ensures the party a forbidding structural advantage in any election

December 04, 2023 12:16 am | Updated 10:48 am IST

‘In much of the Hindi belt, the BJP now possesses a core ideological vote bank that ensures a forbidding structural advantage to the party in any election’

‘In much of the Hindi belt, the BJP now possesses a core ideological vote bank that ensures a forbidding structural advantage to the party in any election’ | Photo Credit: REUTERS

The results of the four-State election (Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Telangana), declared on Sunday, provide a wealth of compelling evidence that might help us answer two of the most important questions relating to Indian politics. What are the crucial factors which best explain the continuing national dominance of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)? Second, and somewhat relatedly, what explains the perennially feeble state of the Opposition (principally the Congress party)?

Explaining the BJP’s triumph

In some respects, the BJP’s triumph in all three States, i.e., Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, represents a puzzle. However, it might appear much more of a puzzle to those who have consistently laid emphasis on the organisational machinery and the welfare model of the BJP to explain its electoral successes. Those factors are important but not decisive.

In Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan, the welfare plank rested with the incumbent Congress, and both Congress Chief Ministers, i.e., Bhupesh Baghel and Ashok Gehlot, respectively, commanded (as per survey evidence) broad popular satisfaction in this respect.

Also, in both these States, paralysing factional struggles and centralised control of the BJP had weakened its State-level leadership. The resultant organisational inertia had characterised much of the last five years of the Opposition BJP in both these States. Meanwhile, in Madhya Pradesh, the State BJP leadership was weighed down by a two-decade long anti-incumbency. Therefore, one must desist from reflexively ascribing every electoral victory of the BJP to a certain popular welfare scheme or a superior organisational machinery. These advantages, after all, had not materialised for the BJP in earlier State elections, including the Karnataka election in May.

The BJP’s victories in these State elections, as in previous elections north of the Vindhyas, owe themselves to two principal factors. First, a dominant (and in some respects unchallenged) ideological agenda, represented by the expansive rubric of Hindu nationalism. Second, a trusted and charismatic national leadership (chiefly Prime Minister Narendra Modi) which is highly adept at constantly reimagining and activating this ideological agenda through super-charged electoral campaigns. In much of the Hindi belt, the BJP now possesses a core ideological vote bank that ensures a forbidding structural advantage to the party in any election. In Rajasthan, for example, survey evidence (Axis India Today) suggests three times as many upper castes voted for the BJP as the Congress. The traditional divisions between Brahmins, Rajputs and Baniyas that had long characterised State politics seemed to have disappeared. More importantly, voters from the Other Backward Classes now represent the most critical support base of the party in the vast majority of the ‘Hindi belt’ States. Consider the leads commanded by the BJP against the Congress among OBC voters as in exit poll evidence (Axis India Today): 26%-point lead among the OBCs in Rajasthan, 24%-point lead in Madhya Pradesh, and a 13%-point lead in Chhattisgarh.

At least among certain upwardly mobile and dominant OBCs, support for the BJP now remains resilient and insulated through many contingent factors. Consider some of these factors: the two incumbent Chief Ministers belonging to OBC castes and often emphasising their identity; Rajasthan expanding the OBC quota and announcing caste census; the popularity of Mr. Baghel among farming OBC communities such as Kurmis and Sahus.

The urban and upwardly mobile OBCs certainly identify and relate more with the ideological agenda of the National Democratic Alliance and the charismatic leadership of the BJP. Consider some survey markers of the JIST-TIF research, where the responses of OBC voters and upper caste voters of Rajasthan appear to be virtually identical. On the question of responsibility for high inflation resting with the national or State government: 54% upper castes and 48% OBC respondents say State government, as opposed to 31% Dalits and 33% tribals. Even on questions relating to whether ‘freebies’ are right or wrong, upwardly mobile OBCs (Yadav, Kurmi, Lodhi, Gujjar) appear ambiguous and divided, close to the position of upper castes, in contrast to the overwhelming support evinced by the Most Backward Castes, Dalit and tribal voters.

The state of the Opposition and the Congress

The charismatic leadership of Mr. Modi, who took a significant political risk fronting all three elections, remains crucial in melding this expanded support base of the party and smoothening out divisions among them through evoking a populist personality-based appeal. Mr. Modi also remains a singularly powerful force perhaps when facing an incumbent Opposition leader, electorally mobilising all the various constituencies harbouring latent feelings of anti-incumbency. Mr. Modi’s personal popularity has been perhaps a decisive factor in ensuring that no incumbent Congress Chief Minister of a large State has come back to power in the entirety of the Modi era (the last time was perhaps Tarun Gogoi in the Assam election in 2011).

Now, let us come to the factors explaining the weakened state of the Opposition, principally the Congress. All of these factors have been quite obvious for a long time and, hence, can be tackled quite briefly.

First, the old guard of the Congress in North India (exemplified by Kamal Nath perfectly) is now perhaps a decade past its expiry date. They prevent the party from propounding a real progressive agenda and developing a State-level leadership that can embody progressive ideas. Since the old guard is resolutely status quoist, this not only harms the party by stanching intra-party competition and the emergence of a young leadership but they also veto the taking up of new ideas such as the caste census. The caste census agenda was virtually put into pause by the Congress in three State elections (even in Madhya Pradesh, where the CSDS NDTV survey evidence indicated a clear plurality of voters agreeing with the plank).

Consider the modus operandi of Congress Chief Ministers such as Mr. Baghel and Mr. Gehlot. They not just sidelined strong rival leaders (such as Sachin Pilot and T.S. Singh Deo) but also marginalised their State Congress organisation, preferring to operate through bureaucrats and chosen ministerial aides. Their excesses have been enabled by a weakened high Command. The resulting atrophy of the State organisations, however, also means that the party struggles to convert latent satisfaction with the respective Congress Chief Ministers into actual votes for the Congress party on election day. Meanwhile, the Congress lost much of its tribal support base in both the northern Sarguja and the southern Bastar belt of Chhattisgarh (where it had swept in the previous election). This is again a reminder of the perils of not advancing a distinctive ideological agenda

Editorial | Decisive wins: On M.P., Rajasthan, Telangana and Chhattisgarh Assembly election results

The Congress’s victory in Telangana provides not only an important consolation point but also a way forward. The strategy in Telangana (and the election in Karnataka earlier) has been the inverse of its strategy in northern India. In Telangana, the specific year-long mobilisations among Dalit and tribal voters, and electoral promises such as the significant subsidy to tenant farmers, had introduced a pronounced progressive agenda into the electoral contest. In both these States, the Congress has also evolved a credible leadership which can embody such an ideological agenda.

In summary, the Congress might console itself by claiming that it has now become the leading party of southern India. Yet, the BJP remains the nationally dominant party, and it increasingly appears that the saffron dominance might not face a credible rival challenge either in 2024 or even for some time beyond it.

Asim Ali is a political researcher and columnist

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