Indian elections are becoming curiouser and curiouser. Normally, in an election, there are candidates representing a party; a party has a leader who will spearhead the campaign; and the party with a majority of the total seats (on its own or together with supporting parties) will form the government. All these have been turned upside down by the BJP, thanks to its indomitable leader, Mr Narendra Modi.
Re-writing the Rules
Mr Narendra Modi has re-written the rules of the BJP and, to some extent, the rules of elections. Within his party, he has imposed his will so completely that all dissent has been suppressed. On his direction, dozens of Union ministers and serving MPs are contesting state elections, albeit unwillingly. In the current state elections, Mr Modi is the candidate of the party in every constituency. His party has been directed to seek votes in his name; while seeking votes Mr Modi claims that a vote for his party will be a vote for him and strengthen his hands.
The BJP did not project any individual as the leader (and presumptive chief minister) in any state. Not even in the case of Mr Shivraj Chouhan, the incumbent chief minister of Madhya Pradesh. Or in the case of Rajasthan or Chhattisgarh where Ms Vasundhara Raje and Mr Raman Singh, respectively, are the most recognizable faces of the party. In Mizoram and Telangana, the BJP is of no consequence.
The Congress and other contesting parties are playing by the conventional rules. They have fielded candidates with their own identities in most constituencies. The incumbent chief minister is the leader of the Congress campaign in Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan; and the former chief minister led the Congress in Madhya Pradesh. In Telangana, it is chief minister Mr Chandrashekar Rao and, in Mizoram, chief minister Mr Zoramthanga, who led the campaign of their parties.
The campaigns of the major parties are very different. The BJP is virtually seeking a vote of confidence in Mr Modi for the work of the central government. If the BJP forms the state government, it is claimed it will be a double-engine government, whatever that means. This convoluted argument was rejected in the state elections in Himachal Pradesh and Karnataka. The Congress, BRS and MNF are seeking votes based on the record of work of the state government. To Mr Modi, it is a dress rehearsal for the parliamentary elections due next year. For the Congress and other parties, the objective is to emerge winner in the state concerned; the Lok Sabha elections are not yet in sight.
For the past several months, Mr Modi had railed against ‘freebies’ — he called them revris — but his party was the first to release the manifesto in the earliest state election (Chhattisgarh on November 7) containing a host of revris, including cash support to specific sections of the people. Mr Modi also took the lead in holding mega-rallies that cock a snook at the rules that limit election expenditure on behalf of a candidate or candidates. Each mega rally must cost crores of rupees and it is difficult to believe that all that money was received through legal channels and duly accounted for in some one’s books of account.
Unemployment and price rise are the two top concerns. The BJP claimed that the policies and programmes of the central government had created millions of jobs. In the face of unemployment figures (both the official PLFS and the private CMIE), the claim has zero credibility. On price rise, the onus is conventionally on the central government. The BJP is on the backfoot on both issues and Mr Modi carefully avoided them in his speeches. He also avoided the issue of caste census after the home minister considerably diluted the BJP’s opposition to a caste census. The Congress hammered on the issues of caste census, unemployment and price rise.
Poor Remain Poor
Because of peculiar circumstances, the BJP is on a weak wicket in the five elections. It is a serious challenger in only in three states (Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan) and there is no third party to split the anti-BJP vote. If the BJP loses two out of the three states, its score will be one and will be labeled the loser. The Congress is a serious contender in all the five states. In my assessment, its score will be greater than the BJP’s.
The BJP no longer speaks about achche din. It no longer claims it created 2 crore jobs a year. In the light of the official PLFS survey’s numbers, it cannot claim there has been an improvement in the income of the people. In the six years between 2017-18 and 2022-23 the poor remained poor: the average monthly earnings of different categories of workers barely increased but it was completely neutralised by the annual average consumer inflation that was always above 4 per cent.
Category 2017-18 2022-23
Self-employment 12,318 13,347
Casual wage/labour 6,969 7,899
Regular wage/labour 19,450 20,039
Given the parlous state of the economy, I think the outcome of the five elections will surprise many. It will also give rise to intriguing questions about the Lok Sabha elections in 2024.