As has been the case in past years, the results of the state assembly elections in five Indian five states, including in what is known as the “Hindi Belt” region of Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, have been both unexpected and intriguing.

Defying the predictions of pollsters and political experts, the Congress party romped home with a massive mandate to uproot the 15-year rule of the Raman Singh-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government in Chhattisgarh.

In the desert state of Rajasthan – where the Indian National Congress was predicted to return to power with a comfortable majority – the party just managed to scrape past the halfway mark in the 200-seat state assembly.

In adjoining Madhya Pradesh, India’s two mainstream political parties – the BJP and the Congress – went down to the wire in a pulsating finish. The only states that have not bucked the current trend of a complete win for one party were Mizoram and Telangana. The Mizo National Front and the Telangana Rashtra Samithi decimated political opponents in their respective states to emerge as the unchallenged winners.

Deciphering the poll results

Obvious questions arise: Will the outcome of the assembly elections spark off a process of reconfiguring political forces against the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) in the run-up to the country’s national general elections next year? What are the lessons that both the BJP and the Congress can draw from the state assembly results?

The hard ‘Hindutva’ stance of the BJP and its affiliates has started to weaken and does not resonate as much with the masses as an electoral issue as it has in the past

There is little quarreling over these assumptions: that the hard “Hindutva” stance of the BJP and its affiliates has started to weaken and does not resonate as much with the masses as an electoral issue as it has in the past. And that while the BJP has suffered a serious electoral setback, the Congress has been granted a victory by default.

During the campaign phases, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath – called the “Hindutva poster boy” – held as many as 72 rallies in the states of Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, but failed to stir up intense levels of religious fervor among the electorate.

BJP president Amit Shah – also known for his hard Hindutva posture – was also among the party’s most visible faces during the campaign.

“Raising the Hindutva card time and again without delivery on social-welfare programs will not help the BJP cause. This is the biggest lesson for the Saffron Party [BJP] from these elections,” said Lucknow-based social scientist Dr Ramesh Dixit.

BJP has lost but Congress has not won

A common response heard from the electorate during the campaign phases in Rajasthan and elsewhere: “We want to vote out the BJP, but the Congress is not doing much to help its case. The party is resting in the belief that it would come to power by default.”

In the Congress camp, infighting prevailed; massive lapses in ticket distribution were reported, while tussles over who would become chief minister occurred throughout the campaign period.

“If the party is serious about putting up a decent fight against the BJP for the 2019 general elections, it will need to reorient itself substantially,” said H L Dusadh, national president of an organization called the Bahujan Diversity Mission.

Lessons of the TRS Telangana win

Historian Ramchandra Guha focuses on what he describes as the most significant aspect of the electoral outcome in the five states: The decision of the Telangana electorate to put complete faith in the Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) and its leader, K Chandrashekhar Rao.

“Politics in south India has remained different from what it is in the north. The TRS win reflects the Telangana sentiment, as also an endorsement of the social welfare schemes launched by the chief minister. The scale of the TRS victory should come as a lesson for the BJP, as also for the Congress,” Guha told Asia Times.

Indeed, Guha does make a valid point. For instance, had the Congress firmed up an electoral tie-up with parties including Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and Akhilesh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party (SP), its position in Madhya Pradesh or Rajasthan would have been more comfortable. A back-of-the-envelope calculation suggests that the Congress lost about a dozen seats with small margins because of the presence in these constituencies of the BSP candidates in Rajasthan.

The outlook for 2019

Past trends indicate that the party that comes to power in the Hindi heartland states of Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan normally has an edge in the national parliamentary elections as well.

By that logic, the assembly results bring serious cause for worry to the BJP. But the Congress is far from being able to pose a formidable challenge to the Saffron Party in 2019.

Taking on board “difficult” alliance partners such as Mayawati will be among the smaller challenges for India’s grand old party.