The BJP is moving like a juggernaut. It has taken the states of Maharashtra and Haryana and is now preparing for elections in Jharkhand and Jammu and Kashmir in November.
In Jharkhand, the question is whether the BJP will be able to repeat its performance in the Lok Sabha election and get a majority of its own. After having won 12 of the 14 Lok Sabha seats, the BJP is the overwhelming favourite. Although the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha is at present in alliance with the Congress and the Rashtriya Janata Dal, the three parties might go their separate ways in the Assembly election. Differences over seat sharing aside, the parties are by no means natural allies.
Jharkhand has seen several combinations of parties in power, and the JMM, especially, has shown a readiness to make friends with any party for the sake of sharing power. The Congress and the RJD have stakes in Bihar too, but the national party might see little merit in playing the role of a junior partner in a JMM-led coalition in a low-stakes election.
The BJP’s presence is negligible in the predominantly Muslim Kashmir valley, which accounts for 46 seats, but it has a clear edge in Jammu’s 37 seats and Ladakh’s four. Currently, the BJP has 11 seats in the J&K assembly. Analyst Sanjoy Narayan says “the obvious challenge would be to make inroads into the valley”.
The Congress worry
In contrast, after losing Maharashtra and Haryana, the Congress faces a challenge in the states of Jharkhand and Kammu and Kashmir where it has a marginal presence but which were in its control for the last few years owing to UPA’s clout. The two states, in fact pose an existential crisis for the party. Insiders concede there is a real fear of the party getting squeezed between entrenched regional outfits and a resurgent BJP. The November elections are likely to have implications beyond the state boundaries to impact the national scene. With BJP trying to consolidate its recent gains, a defeat would only add to its dwindling stock nationally.
But there is the big picture worrying Congress. The two states may indicate the fate that awaits the party on turfs where it is third or fourth force – like West Bengal and Bihar. If it is Bengal and Bihar in the East, it is Uttar Pradesh in the North while observers don’t put Telangana out of the risk zone. Odisha, though with Congress as number two, is another red zone because of grand old party’s failure to challenge BJD. For Congress, the comfort zones are states where it is locked in a bipolar polity with BJP like Himachal Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Karnataka and Uttarakhand.
The problem with the Congress is that even after its defeat in the Lok Sabha election, the party’s leadership did not call a stock-taking session of its top tier in which people from the states and districts could participate. It was then thought such a conference might take place after the Assembly polls in Maharashtra and Haryana, where the party expectedly lost. But there are no signs of this happening.
The trouble is that by not being a visible Opposition, the party is hurting not only itself but the democratic system. Perhaps this is what former finance Minister P. Chidambaram meant when he told a television interviewer last Friday (24 October) that the party should be seen to be a “true Opposition”. It was in this sense that he urged the party leadership to connect with people more, interact with the media, and show urgency in the matter of revamping itself. These points are well meant but Chidambaram is not seen as the person to offer advice.
The BJP poll strategy
The BJP’s avowed mission is to achieve a ‘Congress Mukt Bharat’ (Congress free India) which means winning in as many of the state elections as it can. After the two most recent assembly elections, the party now has a majority government in six states (Gujarat, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Goa, Rajasthan and Haryana; and shares power with allies in five, including one Union Territory (Punjab, Nagaland, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra and Puducherry). Its aim is to increase that tally.
After Jharkhand and Jammu & Kashmir, where elections were announced last Saturday (25 October), state elections that are lined up over the next couple of years include Delhi (likely in early 2015) and Bihar (also in 2015); Assam, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal in 2016; and Uttar Pradesh, Goa, Punjab and Uttarakhand in 2017.
Compared to the BJP’s tally of 11 states where it either rules or shares power, the Congress has nine states — Himachal Pradesh, Assam, Karnataka, Kerala, Uttarakhand, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram and Arunachal Pradesh.
In Kerala and Assam, the BJP has no traditional base: in Kerala, it has tried to piggyback on the RSS but that hasn’t got it votes; and in Assam, the BJP would like to be a strong contender to the Congress by usurping the regional AGP’s position but it lacks a base and it has, in the Congress, a competitor for Hindu votes in that state.
But, says Sanjoy Narayan, “the outcome of the elections in one state, Uttar Pradesh, could be of special interest. Under Shah, who was in charge of UP in the Lok Sabha elections, the BJP performed spectacularly but in the recent assembly by-polls it did poorly. How the BJP fares in India’s most populous but caste-divided, communally tense and woefully under-developed state could be its real test”.
The BJP meanwhile is focussed to have an ‘India sans Congress’. Barely days after the results of the Haryana and Maharashtra polls were out, party president Amit Shah reallocated senior BJP office-bearers, putting them in charge of different states, including ones that are headed for elections soon; in November the party’s annual membership recruitment drive will kick off with emphasis in states where its presence is weak or negligible; this will be accompanied by an expansion of its district offices from around 300 now to cover most of India’s 675 districts; and in states where its base is limited teams of motorcycle-borne BJP workers have been tasked with spreading the word.
These efforts may be sharply in contrast with what’s happening in the Congress party.