The disconnect between the Delhi commentariat and political reality becomes most evident when the time comes to analyse a defeat of the Bharatiya Janata Party. This was underlined after the latest state elections, which saw three states in the Hindi belt change hands—Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. The Congress’s less-than-thumping victories, with the thinnest of margins in the two most populous states in play, were enough to get the capital talking of the end of the Narendra Modi era. In liberal drawing rooms and watering holes, many who maintained a studied silence for the last four years are rediscovering the language of dissent as they prepare themselves for what they see as an impending regime change.
But political reality has no regard for such expectations. The Delhi chatter was sustained by a blinkered focus on the number of state constituencies won and lost, which diverted attention from the data on vote share. The former numbers are the ones that count when forming governments, but the latter are the truest markers of voter sentiment. And it is the vote-share breakdowns that offer an answer to the big question that remained unanswered after the editorial pages were filled and the television debates exhausted—what explains the differences in the verdict across the Hindi belt? By the popular vote, the Congress swept Chhattisgarh, with a lead of 10 percentage points over the BJP, but in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh the two parties were essentially tied. Accounting for this is key to deciphering the vote as a whole.
There have been various root causes proposed to explain why the elections swung against incumbent BJP administrations in all the three states. The largest share of them have been economic—farmers’ distress, job losses, rising prices, poverty. Post-poll surveys by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies show that the percentages of voters concerned with economic issues were comparable across the three states, suggesting that these had broadly similar impacts everywhere. That, then, cannot account for the variation in the results between states.
Further proof that the outcome was not simply down to economic distress lies in the data on voting by caste. Staying with the CSDS figures, in the 2014 Lok Sabha election the BJP led the Congress in the Dalit vote in all the states except Chhattisgarh, where it trailed its rival by four percentage points. In the recent polls, the Congress had an advantage of 17 percentage points among Dalits in Chhattisgarh, 16 in Madhya Pradesh and five in Rajasthan. The BJP’s popularity compared to the Congress’s saw huge reversals among Adivasi voters as well. In Chhattisgarh, the Congress’s one-percentage-point lead over the BJP in 2014 grew to a 22-point lead in 2018. In Madhya Pradesh, the BJP’s advantage of 14 percentage points in 2014 became a deficit of 10 points. In Rajasthan, the four intervening years saw the BJP’s 22-percentage-point lead over its rival in the general election almost entirely wiped out.
The full impact of the shifts in each state becomes clear when we consider local demographics. In Chhattisgarh, Dalits account for 12.8 percent of the population, and Adivasis for a full 30.6 percent. In Madhya Pradesh, those figures are 15.6 and 21.1 percent, and in Rajasthan, 17.8 and 13.5 percent. This means that in Chhattisgarh, compared to 2014, the Congress enjoyed a vote swing of over 15 percent in its favour among roughly 45 percent of the whole population. Not by coincidence, this was where the BJP was routed. In the other two states, where demographics magnified the swing to a lesser extent, the contest was much closer. The difference in the overall results in all three reflects almost entirely the extent of Dalit and Adivasi flight away from the BJP and to the Congress, rather than the much less pronounced disaffection among the economically marginalised classes.