2023 Political Battle Much More Than 9 State Polls: 2 Charts & 2 Points Show How

Nine states will go to polls in 2023 but the countdown to 2024 will be shaped by two key questions.

6 min read
2023 Political Battle Much More Than 9 State Polls: 2 Charts & 2 Points Show How

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In Indian politics, the year before the Lok Sabha elections has come to be popularly referred to as a 'semi-final year'. At least since 1998, this has partly been due to a number of state elections falling just before the general elections.

2023 is no exception because as many as nine states will be going to polls this year. However, will the results of the nine Assembly elections give us a hint of what lies ahead in the Lok Sabha elections? Probably not and this article will show you why.

This article will also examine two key political questions we need to look out for in 2023, besides the nine state elections.


9 State Elections

If things go according to schedule, 2023 will have nine state elections in broadly three electoral cycles:

February-March: Meghalaya, Nagaland and Tripura

April-May: Karnataka

November-December: Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Mizoram, Rajasthan and Telangana

As this map shows, presently the BJP is heading the government in Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh and Tripura and is an alliance partner in the ruling coalition in Nagaland and Meghalaya. The Congress is the incumbent in Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh. Regional parties are ruling Telangana and Mizoram - the Bharat Rashtra Samithi and Mizo National Front respectively.


Different Voting Patterns at Assembly and Lok Sabha Elections

It is clear that many voters vote differently in Assembly and Lok Sabha elections. This was particularly evident in the change in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections compared to the Assembly polls in 2018.

The graphs below show how the BJP made huge gains in states like Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka and Telangana. In Rajasthan, the vote share increase was as high as 23 percentage points compared to the Assembly polls. In Karnataka, MP and Chhattisgarh, the gains were in the 16-18 points range.

The BJP's gains in all these states were at the expense of the Congress and regional players. The UPA's gains in terms of vote share in Karnataka is a bit misleading as this is mainly due to the Congress and JD(S) forming a pre-poll alliance. In reality both the Congress and JD-S lost significant ground compared to the Assembly elections.

An interesting pattern here is also the Congress' massive gains in the Northeast in the Lok Sabha elections, compared to 2018 Assembly polls.

This was mainly at the expense of regional parties, especially the Naga People's Front in Nagaland and the Left in Tripura. In Mizoram, the Congress formed a pre-poll alliance with the Zoram Nationalist Party and this is reflected in the rise in its vote share.

The BJP's gains in Rajasthan, MP, Chhattisgarh, Karnataka and Telangana and those of the Congress in Meghalaya, Nagaland and Mizoram are even more stark if one compares the change in Assembly segment leads between the 2018 Assembly polls and the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.

Therefore while the nine state elections are important in themselves, they may not necessarily be an indicator of what will happen in the Lok Sabha elections.

The importance of what happens in 2023 goes beyond the nine state elections. There are two major questions.


First Big Question: Can the Opposition Put Forward a Strong Narrative Against the BJP in 2023?

Presently the Opposition's narrative against the Narendra Modi government focuses on broadly four different themes. Whether these themes become a threat to the BJP in 2024 would depend on how effectively the Opposition parties and pressure groups mobilise people around these narratives in 2023.

1. Economic woes: Jobs, price rise, farmers' issues

Some of the more effective state election campaigns by Opposition parties in the past few years have been focussed on the economy: Tejashwi Yadav's spirited campaign in Bihar had a very strong jobs thrust and the Himachal Pradesh Congress' campaign was focussed on key economic promises such as government jobs, restoration of Old Pension Scheme and monthly allowances for women.

Loss of jobs, economic stagnation and agrarian issues remain major points of criticism against the Modi government.

To be fair, these issues were there even in 2019. However, the Pulwama Attack and Balakot strike changed the narrative.

Some have also blamed Rahul Gandhi's excessive focus on Rafale for the Opposition's failure to mobilise voters on an economic plank. A big question in 2023 would be: can the Opposition mobilise voters around economic issues the way they did in some state elections or are they likely to squander it once again like 2019?


2. Social Justice and Representation of Oppressed Castes:

One space to watch out for is the caste census announced by the Nitish Kumar government in Bihar. The census is expected to begin in early January 2023.

If timed well and given the necessary political push, this can become an important issue ahead of the 2024 Lok Sabha elections.

A caste census could potentially reveal that marginalised communities account for a much larger share of the population than estimated. This, in turn, could lead to demands for increasing the reservation for these communities.

At the very least, the Bihar caste census would give a push to the demand for a national caste census.

In Uttar Pradesh, Samajwadi Party chief Akhilesh Yadav has also said that "BJP needs to be defeated if reservation is to be saved".

The BJP is treading carefully on this matter as it is afraid of losing the pan-Hindu coalition it has built over the past eight years.

For instance the Yogi Adityanath government was quick to challenge the Allahabad High Court's directive to hold the urban local body elections without the reservation for OBCs.

In 2023, can the Opposition bring issues of social justice and representation back into focus and dent BJP's Hindutva social coalition?


3. Social Harmony

This is the dominant theme of the Congress' Bharat Jodo Yatra, that will resume on 3 January. A Yatra from East to West may also take place later in 2023.

During the ongoing Yatra, Rahul Gandhi has constantly emphasised on "love", "harmony" and "bringing people together".

The Yatra is a significant intervention as due to the BJP's hegemony, 'secular' parties had become a bit reluctant to openly about communal harmony and secular values.

Will the Yatra be able to reduce the polarisation that may have partly contributed to the BJP victory in 2019?

4. Federalism

The strongest voices on this have been Tamil Nadu chief minister MK Stalin, his finance minister Palanivel Thiagarajan, Telangana CM K Chandrasekhar Rao, West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee, Delhi chief mininster Arvind Kejriwal and former Maharashtra CM Uddhav Thackeray. Rahul Gandhi too has spoken on the need to preserve India's federal ethos.

The allocation of central funds, alleged interference by central agencies and now the proposed increase in Lok Sabha seats putting Southern states at a disadvantage, are some of the key faultlines.

When combined with a sense of regional pride and grievance, this can be a potent election issue and it can also become the glue for the emergence of a broader national coalition.

All these four narratives have significant political potential. A combination of these had contribute to the defeat of the Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led NDA in 2004.

However, it remains to be seen if the Opposition can balance the competing ambitions of leaders like Nitish Kumar, Mamata Banerjee, KCR, Arvind Kejriwal, besides the Congress' own calculations.

Then there's also the massive inequality of resources between the BJP on one hand and the Opposition on the other.


Second Big Question: Can PM Modi Maintain His Popularity?

So far, irrespective of the ups and downs of the BJP at the state level, PM Modi's popularity at the national level has been intact. According to surveys, the only exception was a brief period in April-May 2021 in which he continued to address rallies despite the COVID-19 second wave.

Will this popularity hold through 2023? If that happens then it might not be easy to displace PM Modi in 2024 even if the Opposition does well in the 2023 state Assembly elections.

A related aspect would be the BJP's ability to shape the political debate in such a way that the Opposition is unable to gain much due to the four issues mentioned above. What's the issue that the BJP will bring to try and set the narrative?

Will it be the completion of the Ram Temple, due later this year? Will it be Uniform Civil Code, that has been mentioned in a few states like Uttarakhand so far? Will it be the Kashi and Mathura disputes? Or something related to a national security threat?

Or is the BJP going to rely purely on the PM's personal appeal and his brand of populism to offset criticism over the economy?

This is the space we need to watch out for in 2023.

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