Rajasthan bypolls: ?Double anti-incumbency? at play against BJP

By Amitabh Tiwari

Rajasthan Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje has received a huge jolt while stepping into an election year. The Congress has bagged all three seats from the BJP where by-elections were held in January 2018 – Ajmer, Alwar and Mandalgarh. In the two Lok Sabha seats of Alwar and Ajmer, the Congress has been leading by huge margins of over 1.6 lakh votes and 80,271 votes respectively. The scale of this victory is massive.

In the Mandalgarh Assembly seat which falls in the Bhilwara Lok Sabha constituency, the Congress won by over 12,000 votes, which is considered to be a good margin in an Assembly election. This is significant as the BJP had won the seat even in 2008 when the Congress had come to power.

Since 1980, in every Lok Sabha bypoll in the state, the incumbent party has retained the seat.

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BJP has recorded a massive loss of vote share across seats: in Ajmer (-15 percent), in Alwar (-20 percent) and Mandalgarh (-23 percent). The BJP was not able to even retain the Mandalgarh seat where Congress faced a strong rebel (independent) candidate who recorded a 20 percent vote share.

While Congress State President Sachin Pilot has worked tirelessly for these polls, the chances of him being announced the chief ministerial candidate over former CM Ashok Gehlot are slim. Gehlot had emerged as a key election strategist in Gujarat and the odds are likely to be in his favour once again.

The results are along expected lines, and this in spite of the fact that Raje has been playing the ‘Hindutva card’ hard for some time now. The state has been a laggard in terms of economic indicators of growth, inflation and fiscal position in the last five years and has ranked at the very bottom – 15th out of the top 16 states, as per a CRISIL analysis.

Comparison of Lok Sabha and bypoll results in Ajmer in 2014 and 2018.
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Comparison of Lok Sabha and bypoll results in Alwar in 2014 and 2018.

Comparison of Lok Sabha and bypoll results in Mandalgarh in 2014 and 2018.

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Four Key Takeaways

1. This trend is likely to continue and the probability of BJP losing Rajasthan in 2018 is very high.

The state will go to polls in the fourth quarter of this year. Rajasthan has a history of rejecting incumbent governments every five years since the last 25 years. These results suggest that this trend is likely to continue, unless something extraordinary happens in favour of Raje.

Rumours have been doing the rounds for quite some time that the BJP central leadership is unhappy with Raje’s performance. Staring at the prospects of a loss, the BJP has been desirous of making a change at the top, pushing Raje to the Centre and replacing her with Om Mathur. But Raje has resisted the move as she seems to have a good control over party MLAs.

BJP won all the 25 seats in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, but Thursday’s results show it will struggle to put up even a decent performance hence.

2. Popularity ratings of Modi on the decline?

According to a 2014 CSDS survey, nearly 42 percent of BJP voters said that they would not have voted for BJP had Narendra Modi not been the prime ministerial candidate. The national average was just 27 percent. Does Thursday’s loss indicate a decline in Modi’s popularity, at least in Rajasthan?

Percent of voters who would NOT have voted for the BJP had Modi not been the prime ministerial candidate at the time.

BJP sympathisers are blaming the non-performance of the Vasundhara Raje-regime for the drubbing. But elections have been held for Lok Sabha seats and national issues are usually perceived as being able to sway voters in such elections. This is something the BJP leadership will have to take note of.

NDA’s Declining Power

3. NDA performance in many states has peaked and it is impossible to repeat the same performance.

NDA performance has peaked in many states in 2014, leaving little scope for further growth – UP (73/80), Bihar (31/40), Rajasthan (all 25), Gujarat (all 26), Maharashtra (42/48), MP (27/29) and Chhattisgarh (10/11) – to name a few. The 10 states shown in the graph below account for 80 percent of the NDA’s strength.

It is likely that there will be some losses; my estimate is 30-50 seats could be lost in these states. The party has to attempt to compensate this loss by looking to West Bengal, Odisha, Kerala and Tamil Nadu, but it won’t be enough. The BJP’s foray into northeast India though spectacular, may not help much as there are very few seats up for grabs in the general elections.

4. BJP is likely to face double anti-incumbency in many states.

The spectacular performance of BJP after the Lok Sabha elections (where it won state after state) may actually turn out to be a double-edged sword for its prospects in 2019. The party is likely to face what is termed as ‘double anti-incumbency’. State governments can’t accuse the Central government of having a partisan attitude.

The Central government in turn, can’t accuse states of failing to carry on their development agenda, sitting on funds etc.

Some of the allies are not very happy with Modi’s style of functioning. The Shiv Sena, which has 18 Lok Sabha seats, has already announced that it will contest the next elections alone.

It’s going to be quite challenging for the BJP to retain its performance in Maharashtra and make up for the shortfall and for the party to win all 18 seats contesting alone. While the NCP could lend a shoulder, it would seriously damage the BJP’s stand on corruption.

TDP, which has 15 MPs, has voiced similar concerns due to lack of support from the Centre and BJP’s growing intimacy with Jagan’s party. Some junior allies like RLSP and HAM in Bihar are also reportedly unhappy. Nitish’s entry into the NDA is likely to spoil the existing seat sharing arrangement.

It seems that all-in-all, the BJP has a challenging road ahead.

This article has been published in collaboration with Bloomberg|Quint.

Featured image credit: Wikimedia