The BJP stormed back into power in Madhya Pradesh, toppled Congress in Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh—but came in a distant third in Telangana. Today, we look at what happened and why. Part two will examine what the results portend for the 2024 elections—and the deepening North-South divide.
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First, the election results
Madhya Pradesh numbers: The BJP has won 163 out of 230 seats—scoring a convincing majority. This is a huge improvement on the 109 seats it won in 2018. The Congress, OTOH, dropped from 114 seats to a pitiful 66. Reminder: the BJP engineered a coup in 2020 to topple the Congress government. It will not need to do so this time around.
What’s most notable: The anti-incumbency wave against CM Shivraj Singh Chouhan never materialised. He managed to retain his popularity—despite being sidelined by the party leadership. As for Congress, the decision to give free rein to Kamal Nath—a man most notorious for directing the 1984 violence against Sikhs—proved to be a disaster. Nath’s best efforts to position himself as a Hindutva icon failed to impress. As did positioning him as the future CM.
What to look for: Whether Chouhan aka Mamaji will be asked to come back as CM—despite being humiliated by the PM himself.
Rajasthan numbers: BJP has won 115 out of the 199 seats contested—while Congress has only managed only 69. That’s a drop of 30% from its 2018 haul of 99. The BJP, however, has doubled its 2018 performance of 73.
What’s notable: Congress’ Rajasthan campaign was a one-man show. CM Ashok Gehlot had silenced all rivals—as in, Sachin Pilot—and even bullied the Gandhis into submission. He staked everything on his reputation as the ‘welfare Chief Minister’—and the so-called Rajasthan model.
But his personal popularity wasn’t sufficient to overcome the state’s habit of kicking out ruling parties—every five years. Especially since he insisted on giving tickets to his loyalists—who had dubious reputations—which, in turn, stoked the anti-incumbency impulse.
What to look for: The BJP ran an in-your-face Hindutva campaign in the state. New Delhi may decide to anoint the next Yogi Adityanath as the next CM: “Balaknath, a saffron-clad seer who is also known as the 'Yogi of Rajasthan' is being seen as a front-runner for the CM post over career politicians such as Vasundhara Raje and Rajendra Rathore.”
Chhattisgarh numbers: The BJP has won 54 out of 90 seats—leaving Congress with a paltry 35. This is a huge turnaround for a party that swept the previous election with 68 seats—and boasted a popular Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel.
What’s notable: The tribal belt is critical to any victory in Chhattisgarh. Twenty six of the 29 reserved seats are in two divisions: Bastar and Surguja. The Congress won all 26 in 2018. This time, it lost all seats in Surguja—and eight out 12 in Bastar. Even Deputy CM TS Singh Deo lost his seat in Surguja. Also this: “BJP's grassroot campaign… penetrated Maoist-dominated areas of Bastar that outsiders feared to tread.” FYI: Congress seems to have lost the tribal vote across all three states in the Hindi belt—primarily by taking it for granted.
What to look for: The Hinduisation of tribal voters—who are being targeted by the RSS—making them more likely to vote BJP.
Telangana numbers: Congress came from behind to sweep 64 out of 119 seats. The incumbent party—Bharat Rashtra Samithi led by K Chandrashekar Rao—dropped to 39. A steep fall from its 2018 total of 88. The BJP improved its performance—rising from one to eight seats. Asaduddin Owaisi’s party AIMIM managed only seven. So that’s a relatively decent showing for the saffron party.
What’s notable: This is a pretty remarkable win for Congress. It was in grave danger of being ousted by the BJP from its #2 position earlier this year. It’s also special since the party has struggled ever since Andhra Pradesh was divided into two—in 2014. This is the first time Congress has managed to win one of the states.
Reminder: Undivided Andhra Pradesh accounted for the largest contingent of Congress MPs during the UPA years. But in the previous Lok Sabha election, the party got zero seats in Andhra Pradesh and 3 seats in Telangana.
What to look for: The rise of Revanth Reddy—who is seen as the architect of this turnaround in Congress’ fortunes. Also: BJP’s wins in North Telangana where it has been running a polarisation campaign. OTOH, former state unit chief and RSS man Bandi Sanjay Kumar lost his seat in a close contest.
The bigger picture: Three key patterns
Ghar, ghar Modi: In all three Hindi belt states, the BJP did not announce a Chief Minister candidate—even in MP where Chouhan was the incumbent. They made the election about Modi—pitting him against state leaders. That gamble has paid off richly:
[T]he 2023 assembly elections have confirmed that there exists no boundary between the state and national elections. Local faces and muddas (issues) no longer matter. Shivraj Singh Chouhan will not get the entire credit for BJP’s Madhya Pradesh win. Instead, it is Modi’s win. In Rajasthan, it was not anti-incumbency against Ashok Gehlot; rather, it was Modi’s charisma and people’s trust in him that worked across castes and dharma…
[In Chhattisgarh] there was a sentiment, which resounded across castes, creed, and sex. ‘State mein Baghel, country mein Modi’. But the people have minced their own words. Here onwards, It is all about ‘State (Hindi heartland) mein bhi Modi, desh mein bhi Modi’.
Voters in the Hindi belt trust that the PM will appoint the right man for the job—which makes the CM candidate entirely irrelevant.
Welfare politics is no silver bullet: All of the four CMs had built great goodwill through their lavish welfare schemes. But all that largesse couldn’t protect Gehlot, Baghel or KCR. Yes, there is lots of talk of how the female empowerment schemes won women voters in Madhya Pradesh. But the message required the right messenger to sell the pitch:
Guarantee PM Modi worked well in MP. In every speech, Modi successfully convinced the voters that the double engine government can do wonders in MP and the voters will get priority in all the schemes.
Also this: Welfare politics has become an arms race—with all sides falling over themselves to dole out benefits. Poll promises are not a winning card that can trump other, more serious handicaps.
Congress loses clout: The party insisted on postponing all talks on seat-sharing with its INDIA allies—until after the state elections. It refused to make alliances with INDIA partners in the elections. And leaders like Kamal Nath publicly insulted supposed allies like the Samajwadi Party.
Now, the Congress will have to head back to the negotiating table having lost the Hindi belt—and pissed off its friends. Unsurprisingly, everyone from Mamata Banerjee to Nitish Yadav has taken great pleasure that these defeats belong entirely to Congress. And many privately blame the party for losing critical time and momentum:
A TMC leader pointed out that they had wanted seat-sharing arrangements to be put in place by October 31, in order to put up a credible fight in next year’s Lok Sabha election. “Had the car been running in third gear, this bump [that is, the Congress rout in three States] would have only slowed it down. But they never started the car, which is now in reverse gear,” the leader said.
What to look for: Most top leaders are expected to skip the next meeting scheduled to be held at Congress President Mallikarjun Kharge’s home this week. It remains to be seen under what circumstances—and conditions—the INDIA alliance reconvenes again.
A silver lining for Congress: Yes, it lost the Hindi belt, but has retained sufficient ground to stage a comeback. In Madhya Pradesh, Congress' vote share is 40.45%—compared to BJP’s 48.73%. That margin is even narrower in Rajasthan: 41.78% for BJP as opposed to 39.52% for Congress. In fact, Congress has almost the same vote share as 2018. In Chhattisgarh, the numbers are 46.35% and 42.13% for BJP and Congress, respectively.
Point to note: While BJP improved its performance in Telangana, the party only has 14% of the vote share. So it won’t be winning elections by itself any time soon.
The bottomline: In part two, we look at what these results tell us about the 2024 Lok Sabha elections—and the deepening North-South divide.
The Hindu offers big picture takeaways—while The Print and Indian Express focus on the Modi effect. The Hindu and Deccan Herald analyse the damage to Congress’ clout in INDIA. Indian Express has a good piece on the resilience of Shivraj Singh Chouhan. The Quint explains why BJP won Rajasthan. NDTV is best on Chhattisgarh—while The Hindu looks at how Congress lost the tribal vote everywhere except Telangana.