Opinion: 2023 State Polls - Last Big Test Before 2024

Election season has officially started with the Election Commission announcing dates for polls in Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Mizoram, Madhya Pradesh and Telangana. The five states will vote from November 7 to 30 and the results will be out on December 3.

Though state and national elections are fought on different issues and have different context, all eyes will be on these polls that will be held four months before the general election, starting April.

The party that has an upper hand in the state polls will be rewarded with a charged cadre, and therefore, a head start ahead of the grand finale. To use a cricket analogy, the party that wins this round will go into the finals (2024) in good form.

These elections have an interesting history. History doesn't repeat itself but it does rhyme. In 2003, the BJP won all the three states - Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh - but went on to lose the general election in 2004.

In 2008, the BJP retained two states, losing Rajasthan, but went on again to lose the general elections in 2009. In 2013, the BJP again won all three and went on to win a historic mandate in 2014. In 2018, BJP lost all four states, including Telangana, but went on to win big in 2019.

Elections are a lot about creating a buzz - "mahaul" - in favour of a party. With 12% to 15% voters finally deciding to vote on polling day, according to CSDS post poll studies, the mahaul impacts these late deciders. The BJP is in power in only one of the five states, Madhya Pradesh. The Congress is in power in two states, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, and regional parties BRS and MNF are in power in Telangana and Mizoram.

To create any positive environment in their favour, the Congress will need to win a minimum of three states, while the BJP, a minimum of two states. Regional forces, to remain relevant in southern and northeastern India during the national election, will need to retain Telangana and Mizoram.

Opinion polls predict a tight race now in all states, and are throwing up mixed results. The message that is clear is that the incumbents will not have it easy and will need to slog to retain power. These highly localised polls are turning into a seat-by-seat election, which makes the task difficult for pollsters.

Early opinion polls have to be taken with a pinch of salt, as not all major parties have declared candidates. Local faces are important in state polls, and the main voting consideration for 39% voters. Party is the decider for 35% and for 21% voters, the leadership is critical, per the CSDS post-poll study in 2018.

The main contenders, the BJP and Congress, are adopting different strategies in different states, also highlighting caution and confusion in both camps.

The BJP, sticking to its successful strategy in the Narendra Modi era in states where it is in the opposition, has not declared a Chief Minister face in Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Telangana. It has opted for a combined leadership model.

However, surprisingly, it is shying away even from projecting Shivraj Singh Chouhan as its face in the only state where it is in power, opting for combined leadership. This plan didn't work well in Himachal Pradesh and Karnataka.

The Congress, on the other hand, has declared Kamal Nath as its presumptive chief minister in Madhya Pradesh to make it a presidential-style contest taking advantage of a weaker Shivraj Chouhan.

However, whenever the Congress defeated the BJP while being in the opposition - Himachal (2022), Karnataka (2023), Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh (2018) - it hadn't declared a chief minister face. In Telangana, it is going ahead with this tried and tested model of no chief ministerial candidate.

In Rajasthan, like the BJP in Madhya Pradesh, the Congress has not officially declared Ashok Gehlot as its chief minister face. It is a move possibly to pacify Sachin Pilot, but Gehlot is all over posters. In Chhattisgarh, while the party is contesting under combined leadership of Bhupesh Baghel and TS Singh Deo, Baghel is clearly the face.

The BJP's hesitation in announcing the incumbent Chief Minister as the face of the party in Madhya Pradesh, and the Congress's reluctance in Rajasthan, cannot sit well with voters. How can voters trust these leaders when their parties don't?

In Telangana, K Chandrasekhar Rao or KCR is clearly the chief ministerial face of the BRS. There are questions about the possibility of KCR eventually handing power to his son KT Rama Rao (KTR), if the party wins. This has led to rumblings within the party's senior leadership, resulting in an exodus towards Congress and BJP.

The Congress has been able to drive the narrative, to some extent, that the BRS-AIMIM-BJP are hand-in-glove with each other and this could help the party prevent a split in the opposition vote. A hung assembly situation is not ruled out per CVoter survey, with the BJP claiming to play kingmaker.

The BJP, learning from its losses in Himachal and Karnataka, has decided to release its candidates' list early. So far, it has named 60% candidates in Madhya Pradesh, 20% in Rajasthan and all but five seats in Chhattisgarh. The BRS too has released a candidates' list for almost all the seats. The Congress list is also expected post pitru paksha. 

The BJP released its first list for Madhya Pradesh in 2018 in the first week of November, just three weeks before polling. This is a big departure for a party that used to ask voters to ignore candidates and vote in the name of PM Modi.

The BJP is also fielding many MPs in all these states to test their popularity ahead of 2024 elections, pushing them to win seats it had lost in 2018 elections. The party hopes such high profile candidates can rub off on surrounding seats and spur votes.

The Congress in Madhya Pradesh and Telangana is banking on its successful guarantees model of Himachal Pradesh and Karnataka, which includes cash doles to women and unemployed youth, free electricity, farm loan waivers and implementation of the Old Pension Scheme (OPS). It is trying to pitch its laabharthi model versus the BJP's, making it a current (Modi's central schemes) versus future laabharti battle.

In Mizoram, the battle has become triangular with the entry of ZPM. The elections are likely to be impacted by the situation in neighbouring Manipur.

Unemployment, price rise and corruption are the top three issues across states and could well decide the outcome of the state elections.

(Amitabh Tiwari is a political strategist and commentator. In his earlier avatar he was a corporate and investment banker.)

Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.