The Rajastan result is perplexing: after all, the Congress won only 1.77 lakh votes more than the BJP, which was shown the way out by voters
The Rajasthan assembly election outcome has thrown up many curious surprises. It was a near-unanimous prognosis, both of poll pundits and pre-poll surveys, that ruling BJP under Vasundhara Raje would suffer a massive defeat. The reasons attributed were that the people were angry with Raje’s style of functioning and administration, the BJP rank and file was cut up with her, and the state bureaucracy was at best indifferent. In a nutshell, the election was widely seen as the opportunity all these sections were eagerly waiting for to throw out the Raje regime lock, stock, and barrel.
In this anger vote, the Congress, they projected, would win very big, whether or not the opposition party worked hard for it. The victory would come to the party on a platter. Indeed, the BJP central leadership was deeply worried about the prospects of such a defeat and its potentially disastrous implications for the much bigger Lok Sabha electoral battle due within the following six months.
The doomsday prophecy by pundits was also grounded on trends in assembly and parliamentary byelections under Raje’s watch since the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. The ruling parties in the state usually tend to perform well in byelections. But under Raje, Rajasthan had presented a contrary picture in the past four years. Barring a solitary assembly seat, the BJP had lost every single bypoll in the state. More significantly, as if a clear forewarning, the party lost by big margins the last round of byelections held earlier this year in February – in the Mandalgarh assembly constituency and Alwar and Ajmer Lok Sabha seats, all three of which were won by huge margins in the 2013 assembly polls and the 2014 Lok Sabha polls respectively. Thus a firm conclusion was that the BJP under Raje was reeling under an anti-incumbency wave.
Now, contrast these prognoses for Raje’s BJP with the actual outcome. First the big picture. For the record, with 99 seats under its kitty, the Congress emerged as the single largest party, unable to secure outright a simple majority of 101 seats on its own in the 200-member state assembly. The BJP, on the other hand, won 73 seats, a very respectable number at the end, though its tally dropped by a whopping 90 seats from the 163 seats it had won in 2013.
But in terms of vote shares secured, what separated the victorious Congress from the defeated BJP is just half a percentage point, which makes this the narrowest margin of victory for the winner in the state in the last six assembly elections. The Congress polled just 1,77,699 votes more than the BJP.
However, beyond these respectable numbers, the outcome shows that the Congress has staged a spectacular recovery from the unprecedented slump it suffered five years ago. The BJP, on the other, has stagnated – actually suffered a marginal decline. As against 1.02 crore votes the Congress polled in 2013, it polled 1.39 crore votes this time. Whereas, the BJP tally went down from 1.39 crore in 2013 to 1.38 crore votes. In other words, the Congress is the overwhelming beneficiary of the 46 lakh additional votes polled this time as compared to the votes polled five years ago, with an accrual of 37 lakh votes. Thus, in essence, the BJP suffered a negative vote-share swing of 6.37 percent as against a positive swing of 6.23 percent. These represent a slightly above national average swing of around five percent. Therefore, neither the Congress victory nor the BJP defeat is anything spectacular.
There is a perplexing side to this unspectacular Congress victory. If the assembly and Lok Sabha byelections held earlier this year and before had suggested a disaster for the BJP, the assembly poll outcomes in those very constituencies should be telling a different story. In the Mandalgarh assembly bypolls held earlier this year in February, the Congress had snatched the seat from the BJP by a convincing margin of over 10,000 votes. But the party has turned the tables on its main rival within just 10 months. The party has wrested the seat back with a margin of over 10,000 votes. Similarly, in the eight assembly segments that make up the Ajmer Lok Sabha seat, the BJP won four, the Congress two and the remaining two were won by others. The BJP had lost the Lok Sabha byelection in February by nearly 90,000 votes. In the turnaround story here, the party established a lead of nearly 80,000 votes over the Congress in the eight segments. Similarly, the BJP lost the Alwar parliamentary byelection by almost two lakh votes last February. But seven of the eight assembly segments that went to polls, the BJP won two, the Congress two, and BSP two. While the Congress retained an advantage of 30,000 votes in the seven segments over the BJP, it is a steep decline from the big margin of byelection victory. Further, the BJP wrested two other seats it had lost to the Congress in bypolls since 2014. What these facts establish is that the bypoll trends did not hold for the assembly elections, not even those held just 10 months back.
These apparently contradictory pictures sprung up by the assembly poll outcome raise many questions. As they prepare for the Lok Sabha elections, both the Congress and the BJP should be bothered to find convincing answers to them to improve their parliamentary poll prospects in the state. Does the result reflect a failure on the part of the Congress to exploit what everybody believed was a strong anti-incumbency wave against the Raje-led BJP? Did political pundits and psephologists alike deliberately put out a misleading picture or simply fail to read the pulse of the people? Were the successive byelection reverses for the party a result of any elaborate sabotage by Raje’s detractors? Or has the BJP already staged a huge recovery due to any counter measures taken in time by the party leadership? Or is the so-called anti-incumbency sentiment against the BJP actually against the Modi government at the centre, and not against the Raje government in the state?
Hitherto, it has almost been a common conclusion by pundits that the assembly election would be against the Raje government, and not against the Modi government. From here on, much of how rivals will perform in the Lok Sabha elections will depend a lot on a correct understanding of this assembly poll verdict, the Congress though can be expected to return to power in the state to leverage its performance.
If bypoll verdicts can be reversed in less than 10 months, the assembly poll verdicts too could be reversed in six months, notwithstanding past trends.
(The article appears in December 31, 2018 edition)