Periodic state elections teach lessons. They reaffirm the success of policies at the state level and give opportunities to ruling parties and opposition parties to correct their policies and strategies while moving forward. India’s large size and diversity demand more elections, rather than a single, comprehensive one. An election followed by five years of political silence would take a vibrant democracy into a kind of political stupor, which does not give the people a chance to express themselves or give political parties the chance to change track.
So what have the 2023 elections, inclusive of Karnataka, taught us? The first lesson is that India is sharply divided in its political choices. The contours of a north-south divide are emerging. The Gangetic belt is tilting strongly towards the Bharatiya Janata Party. Even the people-friendly measures of Ashok Gehlot made little impression. I recall that I had met a young man from Rajasthan in Hyderabad a few months ago. He told me that at the state level, Rajasthan would vote for Gehlot because his welfare measures, particularly in the health sector, had made a huge impact, but in the general elections, the vote would be heavily in favour of Modi.
In both the northern states, the Modi image loomed large. The failure of the Congress party to use this opportunity to have a trial run for the newly formed INDIA coalition rebounded severely against them. As it did in West Bengal earlier, where they chose to oppose the Trinamool Congress in alliance with the Left in local elections. Win or lose, they would have learned to battle together and build bridges.
In the south, the Modi magic did not work either in Karnataka or Telangana. The people saw only the Congress as an alternative to the ruling parties. Effective and united leadership at the state level and the disillusionment of the people with the earlier governments, particularly on account of perceived unbridled corruption, led to the collapse of the BJP in Karnataka and the Bharat Rashtra Samithi (BRS) in Telangana. The Modi factor did not work.
The resounding defeat of the Congress has hopefully taught them the right lessons for the general elections. The most important single lesson is that their state-level leadership in the Hindi-speaking belt poses no threat to the BJP. The image of Modi is too strong for them to challenge. At best, they can cut their losses. Even this would be possible only if the leadership of the INDIA alliance is given to a Hindi-speaking leader with administrative and political experience. At the moment, I can think only of Nitish Kumar.
In Assam and the Northeast, the Modi image has spread far and wide on the foundations built by a former Congressman, Himanta Biswa Sarma. It may be difficult for the opposition alliance to break through. In West Bengal and all of the east, the leadership should be clearly with Mamata Banerjee. The Left, which is still smarting from its ouster from both Bengal and Tripura and seems to be increasingly marginalised in Indian politics, barring in Kerala, have to either play ball or play alone.
In the west, Gujarat will obviously vote wholesale for the BJP. In Maharashtra, again, the position is not clear. The breakup of the Shiv Sena and the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) has certainly shifted the equation in favour of the BJP. Old warhorse Sharad Pawar and the Thackeray scion Uddhav, and his son Aditya, could swing part of the west. In Odisha, people have shown again and again their preference for Naveen Patnaik, who is entirely bound to his state, with no national ambitions. At the national level, he is likely to go with whichever formation is in power. Perhaps Odisha could be combined with the east and Mamata could build connections with him on behalf of INDIA.
Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh are unknown factors, as these states have been under the President’s rule for too long. As far as Delhi and Punjab are concerned, the Congress would do well to swallow its aversion to Arvind Kejriwal, who should be given the lead.
This leaves the south. While state elections have spelt defeat for the Congress, it would be dangerous to underestimate the power of the Modi factor in the national elections. The Congress, under Rahul and Kharge, will have to assume leadership in the south. Kerala is the odd man out. The BJP is not represented electorally either in parliament or in the legislative assembly. The electoral battle has been fought between the United Democratic Front, led by the Congress and the Left Democratic Front, led by the CPI(M). If they combine and share seats, they will, of course, rout the BJP.
But, in the long run, the emergence of BJP as the principal opposition could be a serious threat to both fronts. Hence, the UDF and the LDF must continue to cross swords in Kerala, except in a couple of constituencies where the BJP may be perceived to be strong.
Despite all these strategies (provided the INDIA alliance comes together), the Modi effect may still be too strong for them. Even if the alliance loses, they will live to fight another day only if they can significantly reduce the BJP’s majority in parliament. Parliamentary delimitation will follow after 2026. The strength of the south and other states that have faithfully followed the advice of former central governments on family planning will come down sharply in parliament. This is an advantage for the BJP, which could then comfortably rule Delhi for the next few decades.
Many prickly issues like language, UCC, CAA and provisions of the constitution may come to the fore again, leading to sharp division within the country. Having lost two states, the opposition will not have the strength to prevent amendments to the constitution ― indeed, even the remaking of the constitution. Decisions taken in the next few months will have a long-term impact on Indian polity.
K.M. Chandrasekhar is former cabinet secretary, Government of India.