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Five things to watch for in these Assembly polls

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On Tuesday morning, voting for the state assemblies of Mizoram and Chhattisgarh will kick off a month-long cycle that will decide the next government in five states. While government formation remains the ultimate objective of these state elections, as always, this round is woven together by multiple narratives. Some pertain to these state elections. Some pertain to the broader cut and thrust of Indian politics, and its shifting lines that will lead to the national elections scheduled for the middle of 2024. Here are five narratives to watch for in this round of elections.

1. Semi-final elections

Together, India’s state assemblies have 4,033 seats. With 679 seats up for grabs, this round of state elections is the third-biggest in the five-year polling cycle, after the ones that were held in April-May 2021 (824 seats) and February-March 2022 (690 seats). But the current round has a larger significance. It is the last season before the national election. And, in three of the five states, it’s principally a contest between the two leading national parties, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Congress.

In this round, the Congress has the most to defend in terms of seats and its dwindling political capital. In 2018, it won 306 of the 679 seats. That’s about 40% of all the seats it won in the last full election in each state. It won Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, though its government in Bhopal later fell due to defections. In May this year, it wrested back Karnataka, and is looking to build on that.

 

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2. Vote cutters

In these three states, the BJP and the Congress are running contrasting campaigns. While the Congress is projecting a chief ministerial face, the BJP is not. Instead, its campaign is pivoting around Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the one hand, and a bevy of Parliamentarians from Delhi descending to contest state elections on the other, especially in Madhya Pradesh. This is being seen as a strategy to counter anti-incumbency and project a new image to voters.

In bilateral contests, especially close ones, smaller parties can play spoilers. And there’s plenty of scope in this round. In 2018, in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, nearly two in five seats saw the vote share of the third-placed candidate exceed the winning margin, indicating very close contests at the top. In about one in five seats, this was also the case with the fourth-placed candidate. Elsewhere, Mizoram was a three-way contest in 2018, and will be in 2023 also.

 

3. SC-ST pattern

In Mizoram, a Christian-dominated state, 39 of 40 seats are reserved for candidates from the scheduled tribes (STs). It’s currently ruled by the Mizo National Front (MNF), which is part of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance at the centre. In the aftermath of the ethnic violence in neighbouring Manipur, the MNF has been distancing itself from the BJP. Other parties, notably the Zoram People’s Movement and the Congress, are looking to exploit these fault lines.

It’s not just Mizoram that has a high share of ST population. Overall, across the five states, this round will see 14% of seats reserved for candidates from the scheduled castes (SC) and 22% for ST candidates—a total of 36%. By comparison, in the Lok Sabha, 24% of seats are reserved. One of the planks of BJP’s electoral success has been to draw voters from these communities. How it fares in those seats will be something to watch for.

4. High turnouts

In Telangana, nearly a quarter of the seats are reserved for candidates from the scheduled castes and tribes. The Bharat Rashtra Samithi (BRS), which has been in power in the state since 2014, has made a big outreach to SC and ST communities. Unlike 2014 and 2019, when the BRS won significant majorities, this election is predicted to be tighter.

A common thread across the five states is the high voter turnout. It’s been rising for a few elections now. In 2018, voter turnout in these five states ranged between 74% (Telangana) and 82% (Mizoram). To put this in context, the voter turnout was 63% in the 2020 Delhi election and 61% in the 2019 Maharashtra election. A high turnout is something that incumbents tend to be wary of, especially if they have been in power for long, as is the case with the BRS in Telangana and, for all practical purposes, the BJP in Madhya Pradesh.

 

5. Gender equations

This round of elections is also the first that follows the passage of a bill in both houses of Parliament that seeks to reserve 33% of seats in the Lok Sabha and in state legislative assemblies for women. While operationalization of the move is likely to take several years, these elections are a good point to assess the sincerity and intent of parties to implement such a change.

 

In elections dating back to 2008 in these five states, barely one in nine candidates fielded by both the BJP and the Congress were women. Early numbers from 2023 show that hasn’t changed. Numbers for both parties for the candidates named so far remain roughly where they were in 2018. As more candidate filings happen, will this number increase? Watch these elections for this, and more.

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Joanna Swanson

Joanna Swanson is Europe correspondent at the Thomson Reuters Foundation based in Brussels covering politics, culture, business, climate change, society, economies and inclusive tech. With specific focus in breaking news, she has covered some of the world's most significant stories.