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State Assembly Elections 2023: What Matters More, Who Wins or What Wins?

It can be safely said that 'Hindutva' was an added flavour to expressions like 'Jan Kalyan' and 'Garib Kalyan'.

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Trick question: What matters more for a political party in an election: Who wins or what wins?

There are no easy answers to that question.

For those who believe that "who wins" matters more, the unambiguous triumph this week after assembly elections in four crucial Indian states is of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) which has defied pundits, pollsters, and the opposition to take Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, and Chattisgarh, leaving the Indian National Congress victor only in the southern Telangana.

However, if "what wins" is an issue based on principles or programmes, the Congress, as it licks its deep electoral wounds, can take cold comfort in the fact that it significantly shifted the agenda for the so-called semifinal elections ahead of nationwide polls to elect a new Lok Sabha in 2024.

The manifesto focus, the media noise, and much of the campaigning din in the run-up to voting were all a lot about welfare schemes targeted at various demographic categories such as women, farmers, students and backward castes or classes.
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PM Modi's 180-Degree Turn

Maybe, just maybe, the Congress party's uncrowned dynastic leader, Rahul Gandhi, can turn around to Modi and say: "Hey, you stole our thunder!"

That won't wash because stealing winnable ideas is a legitimate trick in business and certainly in politics where no patents are pending for winning propositions. It is the Congress that raised the pitch in the Karnataka assembly elections earlier this year by coming out with a five-guarantee plan on welfare schemes. But in November, the PM simply appropriated that word and started using "Modi ki guarantee" as a vote-catcher. That seems to have worked well for the BJP.

There's more. The same Modi was only a year ago speaking against 'muft ki revdi' (free sweets) as a catchy, earthy play on electoral handouts popularly called freebies (I prefer to call them 'votebies'). This year, he simply did a 180-degree turn, with his party raining welfare handouts and pretty much blunting the Congress party's campaign pitch.

In Silicon Valley, this is called pivoting, and Modi played it like a well-trained startup veteran.

It can be safely said that "Hindutva" - the code word for the BJP's religion and culture-oriented ideology that targets assurances to religious minorities as appeasement - was an added flavour to expressions like "Jan Kalyan" and "Garib Kalyan" (people's welfare and poor welfare) in this round of assembly elections.

It doesn't matter what worked. The BJP seems to have left no trick in the bag unused. From ED (Enforcement Directorate) action that it used to tarnish Chattisgarh's Congress CM Bhupesh Baghel to all the talk around Sanatana Dharma (Hindu religious tradition) being under threat from Congress allies to allegations of dynastic rule in Congress, there were all sorts of mud thrown. The BJP's energetic, well-funded, cadre-based party organisation seems to have done the rest.

Congress Became a Sleepy Hare after the Southern Comfort

Compare the internal dynamics of the Congress and the BJP to get a clear picture.

Vasundhara Raje, widely perceived to be not on Modi's favourite list, was at worst muted in her support for him during the campaign but was very much the party soldier in Rajasthan. In contrast, incumbent chief minister Ashok Gehlot and party rival Sachin Pilot fought in the open before their hasty, late patch-up. In Chattisgarh, Baghel and rival T S Singh Deo were hastily hustled into a patchy team spirit after widely perceived disagreements.

In Madhya Pradesh, opposition leader Kamal Nath was lacklustre at best, smug at worst and presided over a party machinery that has a long history of cold war between senior leaders. The word karyakarta (average worker) is a big deal in the BJP, while king-sized egos are barely concealed in the Congress.

A pertinent question: why did we not talk of all this earlier?

Answer: Karnataka suggested the Congress was on the rebound. In the southern state, party rivals Siddaramaiah and D K Shivakumar put aside differences early and breathed energy into the party machinery while the BJP was struggling to contain dissent linked to its Lingayat community leaders. The boot was on the other foot in Karnataka.

In short, Congress became a sleepy hare after the southern comfort, while the BJP became a flying tortoise in a new-age makeover of that old tale. It combined welfarism with cultural imagery and romped home.

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Madhya Pradesh deserves special mention as a case study in electoral dynamics. While Congress defeats in Rajasthan and Chattisgarh can be attributed at least partly to anti-incumbency factors that led to the ouster of chief ministers Ashok Gehlot and Bhupesh Baghel, a fourth running term for BJP's CM Shivraj Singh Chauhan is a puzzle that needs closer attention.

While Kamal Nath's smug, overbearing style undermined Congress, the BJP's extra swing for welfarism through its Ladli Behna (beloved sister) Scheme that offers cash handouts to women was only symbolic of Chauhan going that extra mile.

Some analysts say Chauhan's tenure saw irrigation capacity doubling in Madhya Pradesh, probably making farmers offer a quiet groundswell of rural support that was drowned out in the urban noise that focused on scandals. You never know which of the 4Ps work where in voting: promise, performance, persistence or party machine.

Modi is no charismatic leader. What works for him is persistence and perseverance. His willing party cadres oblige him with dollops of coordinated energy.

The Congress came to dominate the country for close to a century aided by Mahatma Gandhi's plank of secularism based on religious tolerance. The country has moved on but the Congress is using a sword blunted by BJP's campaign machine. Its famous high command seems to be practising tolerance of the wrong kind within its party ranks by letting regional chieftains arbitrarily run their shows -- reminding us of empires on the decline.

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What Next for BJP and Congress?

For the BJP, there might be moments of introspection around how welfare works better in the long run than rhetoric and dog-whistling based on culture and religion. Of course, that might entail fresh fiscal arithmetics. For Congress, it may be about what to do when the rival steals your successful formula and hits you on another that has run its course.

For the Congress, the silver lining may lie in Telangana's results not just in the victory it has won but also in the manner. With Revanth Reddy at a relatively young 54 years emerging as an articulate, unambiguous face of the party, Congress could cash in on the anti-incumbency mood. The country's young voters seem to like faces that talk and party cadres that work without a sense of uncertainty or doubt.

Whatever the details, democratic politics remains a mysterious game.

The BJP's "India Shining" campaign bombed in 2004 despite then prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee's famous oratory and charisma. Both recent history and long-term views matter in political analysis as do ideology and issues. But what seems to matter these days in every election is the current level of aspirations and needs of a large mass of voters who increasingly defy short-hand offers based on caste, community or negative campaigning.

The Modi juggernaut is ready to roll for 2024. If stock markets are any indications, bull runs often meet some negative Black Swan event. Not assuming any such thing, opposition parties may lean only on eternal hope that springs in a punch-line: You never say never in politics.

Also, defeat could make opposition parties sink suspicions and unwarranted ambitions as they see a red alert. Or should that be called a saffron alert?

(The writer is a senior journalist and commentator who has worked for Reuters, Economic Times, Business Standard, and Hindustan Times. He can be reached on Twitter @madversity. This is an opinion article and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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