There is a tendency to equate elections to the five States of Chhattisgarh, Mizoram, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Telangana, scheduled for next month, as a “semi-final” before the Lok Sabha polls, but it is wrong to do so as most have populations that rival that of major countries and have specific electoral concerns. What distinguishes this particular cycle of elections is the largely bipolar nature of the contest between the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Indian National Congress in three of them, with regional parties being significant only in Mizoram and Telangana. In all three north-central Indian States with a large Hindi-speaking population, the BJP has sought to cash in on the popularity of the Union government and increased support for its unabashed Hindutva ideology. The Congress seeks to upend this by promising a caste census and focusing on its record of implementing welfare measures, or through a list of committed guarantees. In Rajasthan, Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot remains popular on account of his government’s welfare measures, but his MLAs do not enjoy the same confidence, complicating his party’s task to retain power, even if the scourge of factionalism seems to have been muted for now. In Madhya Pradesh, Chief Minister Shivraj Chouhan has spent 18 years at the helm and faces anti-incumbency over issues related to government performance on the economy and social discrimination, but the fertile ground for Hindutva ideology in the State has provided the BJP a cache of committed voters that has kept it in the fray.
In Chhattisgarh, Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel has managed to stem dissidence within the Congress party and is also seeking to battle on his government’s welfare record — farm loan waivers, increase in support prices for crops and minor forest produce — besides seeking to pander to the voters’ sense of a regional identity. But the BJP again threatens to keep the contest close. A rejuvenated Congress following the Bharat Jodo Yatra and internal elections believes it has the organisational wherewithal to take on the better funded and more resourceful BJP in these three States and its performance could well determine its ability to effectively contest the 2024 polls. In Telangana, the Congress’s revival has been more evident, especially after its triumph in Karnataka. The grand old party now expects to provide a tough fight for the ruling Bharat Rashtra Samithi, with the BJP relegated to the role of a spoiler. The emergence of the Zoram People’s Movement has changed the equations in Mizoram, promising a three-cornered fight in a traditionally two-party system, but Chief Minister Zoramthanga of the ruling Mizo National Front expects the overhang of the Manipur situation and his government’s position to favour his party. These elections are no “semi-finals” but the stakes are high for the two national parties in the fray.