What the 2023 assembly results mean for key leaders
What do the assembly election results imply for the country’s top leaders? Dipankar Ghose analyses the verdict and its impact
Narendra Modi Another elections cycle, another stamp of authority on the Hindi heartland. The outcome in none of the three states that the BJP has won was a given. The party battled 18 years of anti-incumbency in Madhya Pradesh, and in Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, it was up against doughty regional leaders in Ashok Gehlot and Bhupesh Baghel. In all three states, the BJP did not declare a chief ministerial candidate, and the campaign centered around Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The results show that Modi’s combination of nationalism and welfare still carries immense credibility, and his ability to transform difficult elections to comfortable victories endures. There was a hiccup in Telangana, but even there the BJP has risen from its 2018 tally. Heading into the 2024 elections, the results cement Modi as the single-most influential political figure in the country, and put him and the BJP in pole position, with the Opposition not even in the rear-view mirror for now.
Amit Shah If Modi’s lustre was at the core of the BJP’s appeal, then Union home minister Amit Shah’s management ensured that nothing was lost in translating this into votes. He was responsible for the nuts and bolts of the campaign, being on the road almost non-stop, playing a key role both in the selection of candidates and the issues that the respective campaigns would focus on. He saw the opportunity of a shift in eastern Rajasthan, recognised space for welfare promises in Madhya Pradesh, and engineered a BJP push in tribal Chhattisgarh. With less than six months to go for the Lok Sabha elections, the BJP win bolsters his position as a key architect of the party’s electoral success, reflecting both his industry and political acumen, that have put the party in a near-impregnable position at the national level.
Rahul Gandhi Sunday was a truly chastening day for the Congress and Rahul Gandhi. He may no longer be the party president, but Gandhi had clearly continued to position himself as the antidote to Narendra Modi, leading the grand old party’s campaign in all four states. In Telangana, the Congress has won for the first time in history, taking advantage of searing anti-incumbency against K Chandrashekar Rao, but in the crucial Hindi heartland, where the Lok Sabha elections will be won and lost, the Congress finds itself wiped out. Gandhi attempted to make the demand for a caste census a central issue, but there is little evidence that this found traction; labelled the BJP a party of the rich, but the poor continue to back Modi; and offered the Congress as a developmental alternative to the BJP, a promise that voters across three states rejected. Going forward, it is difficult to imagine what the Congress, or Gandhi can do to change the narrative.
Mallikarjun Kharge Mallikarjun Kharge took over as Congress president in October 2022. Under his leadership, the party won state elections in Himachal Pradesh and Karnataka, and there was talk of a revival in its fortunes. In some ways, wresting Telangana from the BRS is a continuation of that trend — except that Kharge is not the leader of a party from the south of the Vindhyas, but one that ostensibly wants to challenge the BJP nationally. On that front, Sunday made it clear that there is much more work to do. Chhattisgarh is loath to changing leadership quickly and gave the BJP 15 years, yet the Congress has been decimated in five; in Madhya Pradesh, the BJP had 18 years of anti-incumbency to battle and still won with a stunning margin; and in Rajasthan, Gehlot’s welfare bonanza came up short. Ahead of 2024, Kharge now leads a party that seems to have no answers to what works in the Hindi heartland. If that remains the case, there is no pathway to a change of guard in May 2024.
Kamal Nath Six months before the elections, former Madhya Pradesh chief minister Kamal Nath had everything going for him. The Congress had won the 2018 assembly elections, but its government collapsed on account of internal differences — which means, in theory, he should have gained sympathy. His once great rival for the top job, Jyotiraditya Scindia, was no longer in the party, which had coalesced around Nath, and the campaign was more unified than it ever was. And facing them was Shivraj Singh Chouhan, with the baggage of 18 years of anti-incumbency. But Sunday was not the crowning moment of a storied political career that some expected to be but the likely beginning of the end. It is clear that Nath, 77, does not have what it takes to combat the BJP in Madhya Pradesh, and that the Congress needs fresh blood (the BJP is a step ahead, and getting the next generation ready).
Ashok Gehlot Ahead of the 2023 assembly elections, Ashok Gehlot looked to pull off an image makeover. The quiet and reclusive man who could have been Congress president framed the party’s state campaign around himself, and unleashed a plethora of welfare schemes. To be fair, his task was not easy — Rajasthan is a state that switches between political parties — and Gehlot was the Congress’s best chance. But a fractured party — despite public claims of unity close to the campaign, no lasting truce was ever brokered between him and Sachin Pilot — didn’t help. Gehlot will be 77 by the time the next assembly elections come around, and his primary problem may well be to stave off internal challenges to his leadership, with calls for a change in guard only likely to become louder. Already there are whispers of what might have been had the party bitten the bullet and effected a generational change by opting for Pilot either in 2018 or anytime later.
K Chandrashekar Rao December 3 means that K Chandrashekar Rao, Telangana’s only, but soon to be former chief minister, has to go back to the drawing board and make some fundamental changes. It is clear that the Telangana movement, as an emotional and political issue, has now run its course. The allegations of corruption and inaccessibility against him (and his family) have stuck, the lack of a second rung outside his clan has begun to hurt, and the projection of himself as a national alternative that led to a shift from Telangana Rashtra Samithi to the Bharat Rashtra Samithi now looks like a joke without a punchline. Rao will now have to play an unfamiliar role, of principal opposition to the Congress. More immediately, ahead of him, he has Lok Sabha elections against a resurgent Congress and a rising BJP on the anvil. Even in 2019, the TRS ceded space to the national parties, winning only nine of 17 seats. Now, it must go into national elections having ceded space at the state level. He may well choose to throw in his lot with one of the two national parties.
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