Why BJP’s spectacular victory in MP is also a negative vote for Opposition
The BJP has been in power in the state, except for the year-and-a-half interregnum when Kamal Nath was chief minister after 2018, for longer than Rahul Gandhi has been in politics
New Delhi: The outcome of the Madhya Pradesh elections is arguably the starkest illustration of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) ability to convert adversity into opportunity and the Congress’s ability to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. And in that sense, MP represents a microcosm of the story of national politics over the past decade.
Think of the context first
The BJP has been in power in the state, except for the year-and-a-half interregnum when Kamal Nath was chief minister after 2018, for longer than Rahul Gandhi has been in politics. Shivraj Singh Chouhan has been at the helm of governance in Bhopal for longer than any other CM in any state across the Hindi heartland. The BJP suffered from internal factionalism in a state where it has powerful leaders in every distinct region. The prolonged stint in power would have, obviously, resulted in multiple constituencies being unhappy at not getting what they believe to be their share of benefits. There were allegations of corruption. And given both the dominance of agriculture in the political economy, and the substantial presence of tribals and Dalits, MP provided an opportunity to those who believe that the BJP hasn’t delivered to the poor to wrest away the state.
The Congress, on the face of it, had a clear leadership structure, with Kamal Nath and Digvijaya Singh, two veteran leaders, completely in control of the campaign. It had ample resources given Nath’s personal ability to dispense patronage. It had three solid years to build a strong campaign against the Chouhan government, including on the plank of having “stolen” the 2018 mandate. It had, as the Opposition, the ability to tap into local contradictions and promise the moon in terms of welfare benefits.
Yet, MP has delivered a resounding mandate in favour of the BJP. The scale of the win is staggering both in terms of the vote share and the seat tally. Voters could not have sent a clearer message — they have both decisively expressed their preference for the BJP and rejected the Congress. It is both a positive vote for the incumbent and a negative vote for the opposition when the reverse is so much easier to accomplish. So what explains it?
Look at the negative vote first
This may well be with the benefit of hindsight but it is clear that the Congress lost an opportunity to effect a generational shift in its leadership in 2018 when it oped for Nath over Jyotiraditya Scindia as chief minister. Scindia quit the party in 2020, as did his supporters, and the Congress lost power. He has delivered the Gwalior-Chambal region thrice in a row, once for the Congress in 2018 and twice for the BJP in bypolls in 2021 and now in 2023. If the Congress party hadn’t been so worried about the old guard (it is curious how Rahul Gandhi is supposed to dislike the old guard, yet fails to effect change when he has clear alternatives), it would have resulted in a generational transition in the state’s politics, infusing it with energy and new ideas.
Instead, the party not only preferred to opt for Nath (ostensibly because he had funded the campaign and because he had Singh’s support) but, in this year’s election, gave him almost complete control over the party campaign. But Nath, who turns 77 in a fortnight, is neither a rooted leader in Madhya Pradesh (yes, he has been an MP from Chhindwara but is known more for his connections in Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata than in Bhopal and the rural hinterland) nor a particularly charismatic and appealing leader.
If leadership was the party’s biggest drawback, so was the narrative
Kamal Nath sought to project himself as a committed Hindu — but it was hard to beat the BJP at that game. Nath promised welfare — but the BJP has a strong welfarist platform where it can credibly claim it has delivered to marginalised constituencies consistently. Nath projected the BJP as anti-tribal — but, despite the 2018 loss in tribal seats, the BJP has consistently reached out to tribals with representation and welfare and it worked on remedying its weaknesses in tribal seats. Nath thought he could win over women voters — but the combination of Narendra Modi’s appeal among women voters based on his image of integrity as well as welfare delivery and CM Shivraj Singh Chouhan’s own women-centric schemes ensured this remained a hope rather than reality. Nath banked on winning key regions — instead, the BJP swept the state. Nath thought he had revamped the party organisation — but it couldn’t beat the BJP’s organisation in a state which was among Jan Sangh’s original citadels, substantially due to Scindia’s grandmother’s Rajmata’s Vijayaraje Scindia’s role, and where the party has grown exponentially.
But it wasn’t just a negative vote. Yes, the Congress may have done well in getting around 40% of the vote share but in a bipolar contest, that is no consolation. With close to 50% of voters opting for the BJP, the mandate reflects a positive sentiment.
And that sentiment is based on an affirmation and support for Modi’s leadership. It is based on Chouhan’s credible welfare delivery. It is a reward for the BJP’s decision to deploy its senior leaders from the state for assembly elections, a signal to voters how seriously it took the state. It is because the BJP distributed tickets early on, giving candidates ample time to campaign. It is based on a recognition that the government has offered help to the poor in times of distress, both during the pandemic and beyond. It is based on faith in the BJP’s ability to keep order, in contrast to fears about the possible disorder under Congress. It is based on a remarkable coalition of both the dominant castes and subaltern constituencies seeing the BJP as a vehicle for their aspiration, based on the outreach by the party’s leaders and workers on the ground.
The region at the heart of India has sent a message that will resonate beyond its state borders. MP, just like Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh, is now a BJP fortress. Voters took a chance on the Congress in 2018, and with the party failing to deliver on the mandate, the state has returned to its natural party of governance.
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