The results of the assembly elections in three Hindi-speaking states - Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan - should force all political pundits, analysts, pollsters and journalists to remove their spectacles and rethink their understanding of elections. This was one election in which most of them had predicted two wins for the Congress - in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh - and a neck-and-neck fight in Rajasthan. In fact, five of nine exit polls predicted a sure win for BJP in Madhya Pradesh and four saw a comfortable win for the Congress. For Chhattisgarh, all opinion polls and exit polls said Bhupesh Baghel would sail through. No one stuck their neck out to say Congress was losing. In the case of Rajasthan, again, pollsters were divided; a few called a BJP victory and the rest bet on the Congress. I was also of the opinion that the Congress would have easy wins in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh and that Rajasthan would go to the BJP.
The unprecedented victory of the BJP in Madhya Pradesh has surprised everyone except those behind the three exit polls that had predicted more than 150 seats out of 230 for the party in the state. This was the state where a Congress victory was taken for granted long before the campaign started. The BJP seemed to be in disarray and their only mass leader in the state, Shivraj Singh Chouhan was not even sure if he would get to contest. The speculation was that he might be moved to the Centre and a new leadership would take over in Madhya Pradesh. The same Shivraj Singh Chouhan should now be given credit for the BJP's historic victory.
After a stupendous win in Gujarat, a repeat in Madhya Pradesh for the BJP is historic. Even more so for the simple reason that in Gujarat, the Congress's humiliating loss could be blamed on the presence of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), which ruthlessly divided anti-BJP votes. The Congress has no such excuse in Madhya Pradesh. The state is bipolar, and if the BJP can achieve more than two or three seats even after 18 years of incumbency, it is nothing short of a miracle and calls for a study if what is working for the ruling party.
The Congress's biggest shock came from Chhattisgarh. This was the state for which opinion was unanimous - a no contest and a Congress win. It was even said the Congress should replicate the Chhattisgarh model of governance and politics in other states. Results show the belief had a very weak foundation.
Ashok Gehlot ran a good government in Rajasthan and opinion polls reported that there was no anger against the Chief Minister. The Congress still lost. For more than four years the state was in headlines purely for the acrimony between Gehlot and his younger rival Sachin Pilot - a feud that the Congress leadership never knew how to resolve.
A patch-up was achieved just months before the election, but it was too late. I will not totally blame Gehlot for the loss as the state has a history of oscillating between two options and a change of government every five years. The Congress has to introspect why and how top leaders refused to see that their personal fight would ruin the party's chances.
If the loss in Hindi-speaking states is heart breaking, the Congress can draw solace from Telangana. The victory in Telangana shatters the myth that if the Congress loses a state to a regional party then it is impossible for the Congress to regain the state.
The result has the following lessons:
1. The BJP is a very dominant player in North India, but its organisational strength is unlatched. Supported by Hindutva and led by Modi, the BJP has become a formidable political force in the North, just as the Congress used to be during the time of Jawaharlal Nehru-Indira Gandhi.
2. The Congress still has no clue about how to stop the BJP. If it can lose Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, both states where it was in with a chance, the party is evidently still struggling with the phenomenon called Narendra Modi, who has turned Indian politics on its head.
3. If the Congress's guarantee scheme worked in Himachal Pradesh and Karnataka, then why not in Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh? That is because it has limited appeal. Freebies have to be backed up with people's trust that the party and the leader can deliver. Modi is still trusted by people to deliver. It's a perception, but then politics is more about perception than reality.
4. Congress leaders projecting themselves as Hindu leaders has a very limited appeal with voters. That is the BJP's calling card and the Congress cannot replicate it. At the most, it helps the Congress to get rid of the perception that it is a pro-Muslim party.
5. The Congress has to learn that if it remains a divided house, it should forget about winning elections. In Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, the party's big leaders refused to accommodate others and ran state units like their empires. The fight between Ashok Gehlot-Sachin Pilot, Bhupesh Baghel-TS Singh Deo and Kamal Nath-Jyotiraditya Scindia was in the public domain and it has cost them dearly.
Finally, there is a lesson for political pundits and pollsters. There is a large section of silent voters, particularly women, who don't share their true electoral intent, which leads to wrong inferences.
This election is an eye opener for the INDIA alliance - if they are not united, cohesive and don't offer any alternative vision, they should forget elections 2024. The BJP led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi is too powerful and just "togetherness" won't cut it. They have to think out of the box.
(Ashutosh is author of 'Hindu Rashtra' and Editor, satyahindi.com.)
Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.