Assembly Elections: BJP Seeking to Build Presence in East and South

Assembly Elections: BJP Seeking to Build Presence in East and South

Assembly elections for four states - West Bengal, Assam, Kerala, Tamil Nadu - and one Union Territory - Puducherry in the next few weeks, will indicate broad political trends that could impact BJP, Congress and a host of regional parties.  The battle is for the east and south of India. These are regions where the BJP has been traditionally weak while the Congress along with the Left, has been strong.  The BJP has mounted a massive campaign with heavy weights like Prime Minister Modi, Home Minister Amit Shah, UP chief minister Adityanath holding massive rallies. The counter by regional leaders has been equally strong, but lacks the showbiz style campaigns of the BJP.

Results for the elections will be available on May 2.


West Bengal: game on

West Bengal seems to be garnering disproportionate attention in the upcoming assembly elections.  While the BJP is going all out, Chief Minister and TMC chief Mamata Banerjee is fighting hard. Both sides seem evenly matched even as the political drama being played out has crossed limits with Mamata herself allegedly being attacked.   The game is truly on, writes Shashi Shekhar, editor-in-chief, Hindustan.  “But it will be just a game if it is stripped of all morality.”

The Hindu newspaper agrees stating that the ferocity of the combat will further increase. “The BJP’s dramatic rise in 2019, when its vote tally crossed 40%, made its ambitions for power realistic, but also prompted drastic corrective measures by the Trinamool, which has been in power since 2011. The BJP has been trying to overcome its leadership deficiency by recruiting defectors, primarily from the TMC. It still cannot match the ground game of the Left Front that is in alliance with the Congress and the ISF under the new umbrella of the ‘Sanjukta Morcha’ (United Front)……..If the ‘Morcha’ (Front) claims a segment of the anti-incumbency votes, it will weaken the BJP; if it splits TMC votes, it will help the BJP. And if a sharp communal polarisation emerges, it could benefit the TMC and the BJP…..”

BJP’s now-or-never spirit: In the view of Sandip Ghose (political observer and commentator on current affairs), with successive state governments at perpetual loggerheads with Delhi for over 50 years, there is a widespread feeling that Bengal has missed the development train. Therefore, Bengal’s voters may like to give the BJP a chance. “Like Banerjee’s call of ‘Ebar or Never’ in the 2000s, the BJP is fighting this election based on a now-or-never spirit. For the Left and Congress, however, the writing on the wall appears to be never-ever.”

Its Modi vs Mamata: The big question, writes political observer Parsa Venkateshwar Rao Jr “is whether the BJP under Prime Minister Narendra Modi will breach the final barrier, as it were, for the right-wing saffron party. It has turned out to be a battle between West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee of the Trinamul Congress and Prime Minister Modi of the BJP.”

For the BJP, West Bengal remains the big prize in the east. “It has eluded the party with its majoritarian colours. The party considers this election as the final push at the final frontier. That is why it has become much too loud and much too bitter. The CPI(M)-led Left Front and the Congress still remain marginal players. And the battle between Mr Modi and Ms Banerjee, despite the Prime Minister’s pan-Indian standing, is reduced to a local tussle. If Ms Banerjee prevails, it will be a huge blow to Mr Modi. And the bets are hugely hedged in the matter.


Assam: Hindutva rhetoric does not mean much

The BJP won the state for the first time in 2016.  Its rise was remarkable.  This time, the party has set  goal to win 100 of the 126 Assembly seats along with its allies, the Asom Gana Parishad, United People’s Party Liberal and the Rabha Joutha Mancha. The electoral landscape is significantly different this time, writes The Hindu “with rearranged alliances and the emergence of new issues such as the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA). Going by 2016 figures, the ‘Mahajot’ (United Front) of parties including the Congress, the All India United Democratic Front, and the Bodoland People’s Front has 48.81% share of the votes. The combined vote share of the Congress and AIUDF was higher in 17 seats the BJP had won last time. An alliance of regional parties, the Assam Jatiya Parishad and Akhil Gogoi’s Raijor Dal, both formed six months ago following the anti-CAA movement, could make the contest triangular, at least in the eastern parts……”

The hard fact is that though the BJP had won Assam in 2016, this time it faces a set of challenges. The Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), with its Hindutva slant, is BJP’s election mascot. But it is a sore point  for the sizeable Bangladeshi migrants — whether Hindu or Muslim. The Hindutva rhetoric does not mean much here, says political observer Parsa Venkateshwar Rao Jr.

The fear of illegal migrants overrunning indigenous populations has been a perennial issue; but this time, writes The Hindu “the focus has shifted from migrant ‘Bangladeshi’ Muslims to ‘Bangladeshi’ Hindus, whose side the BJP sought to take through the new citizenship regime. The party is now trying to underplay the CAA as an electoral issue, but the other two alliances are trying to keep the focus on it, and put the BJP on the back foot among the indigenous population. The issue is also a red flag for a majority of Muslims, who constitute 34% of Assam’s population. The BJP has been trying to mobilise sentiments around the encroachment by ‘Bangladeshis’ of forests and swathes of land belonging to Vaishnav monasteries. Floods that wash away farmland and dwelling areas, and the distress among plantation workers — a voting block, particularly in 45 seats in eastern and southern Assam — are also campaign issues. Sadly, such material questions are only secondary in a campaign  overwhelmed by identity issues.”

BJP, Congress to reckon with smaller formations: In the end, the BJP as well as the Congress in state are forced to reckon with the smaller political formations. In Assam, the BJP cannot afford to ignore the Bodos. When the Bodo People’s Front broke away from the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA), the BJP had to find place for the United People’s Party Liberal, and the Congress has to accommodate the Assam Jatiya Parishad (AJP) and Raijor Dal.


Kerala: contest between LDF, UDF;  BJP an outsider

Election to the Kerala Assembly on 6 April, will see for the first time three serious contenders to form the new government. Other than the usual fight between the Congress-led United Democratic Front (LDF) and the Marxists-led Left Democratic Front (LDF), the BJP has entered the fray as a serious contender.

The LDF and the UDF are more or less evenly balanced and the people of Kerala have been changing governments every five years. According to this pattern, it is the turn of the UDF to form the next government. Recent local body polls, however, put the LDF ahead, an indication the UDF has not done its homework, writes The Statesman.  The Congress, leader of the UDF, is in disarray while the LDF could count on good governance of the LDF under the chief ministership Pinarayi Vijayan.

Little space for the BJP: Parsa Venkateshwar Rao Jr however, rightly points out that the LDF and the  UDF, “leave no space for a new player with a north Indian ideology to break into the crowded political space in the country. Kerala is a complex mosaic of castes and communities, where the Nayars and Ezhavas on one hand, Christians and Muslims and the Communists jostle with each other. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) has been fighting a fierce and bloody battle with the Marxists in parts of northern Kerala. Political violence is as rampant in Kerala as it is in West Bengal. The RSS and the Marxists have been hacking each other’s cadres with ruthless regularity. The BJP has been trying to use the RSS’ base to make headway, but it has not succeeded in any major way.”


Puducherry: part of BJP’s southern strategy

Of all the state polls, the least amount of national attention is on the union territory (UT) of Puducherry. This is understandable,  as it is a relatively small assembly of not more than 33 members and sends just one MP to the Lok Sabha.

Power in Puducherry has alternated between Congress and the two main Dravidian parties – DMK and AIADMK. Congress and a Dravidian party were the current ruling party until  their government led by party veteran V Narayanasamy fell just as it was about to complete its full-term.  This ensured that for the first time ever, Congress was not in power in any part of South India, either on its own or in an alliance. This is a significant blow, writes Venkatesha Babu (senior journalist and analyst with a keen interest in politics, economy and culture of Southern India) “as historically South India has been the springboard for Congress’s national revival whenever the party has faced tough times in other parts of the country.

“BJP which has been a non-player in the UT till recently is sniffing an opportunity. With its local partners All India NR Congress (AINRC) and AIADMK, it hopes to come to power for the first time in Puducherry as a key ‘player’ and not a mere ‘adjunct’ to an ally……BJP is hoping that its NDA alliance of AINRC, AIADMK and itself along with the three nominated members will be able to come to power against the Congress – DMK combine.

Out that of the 130 Lok Sabha seats in South India, BJP today has 29 MP’s against the 26 of Congress. “However, 25 of the BJP’s 29 southern MP’s come from Karnataka, its beachhead in the South, and the party is assiduously working to expand its area of influence. Both in Kerala and TN – the two other states in South which go to polls – BJP’s attempt to emerge as a significant player is yet to yield results.


Tamil Nadu: BJP a minor player 

In Tamil Nadu, the BJP is a small player. It is reconciled to play second fiddle to the ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) and confined to the 20 Assembly seats allotted to it. Rao says “it would have to ride to victory on the back of the AIADMK because it has no presence of its own. The BJP cannot hope to give wings to its Hindutva ideology in the state because the Dravidian politics — (anti-Hindi and indirectly anti-North Indian variant of Hinduism represented by the BJP) and the Hindutva nationalism, again a North Indian concoction — does not pass muster. Even the Congress, with its benign pan-Indian outlook, has become a small player in Tamil Nadu and it has been given just 25 seats in these elections by the dominant regional Opposition party, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK). After the death of the icons, the DMK’s Karunanidhi and the AIADMK’s Jayalaltihaa, it seemed the spell of Dravidian politics would end, and national parties like the Congress and new entrants like the BJP would become the big players. The seat allocation for the two national parties by the dominant regional parties is a clear indication that the local in terms of ideology outflanks the national in Tamil Nadu. Tamil and Dravidian nationalism are unlikely to fade away simply because the stars who represented them have died.”


Each state has its own identity and politics

The Assembly elections are a time  to acknowledge that each state has its own identity and politics and that it is not a referendum for the ruling party at the Centre. It is this entrenched democratic pluralism, states Rao  “that checks the free run of parties such as the BJP with their regimented mindsets forged in RSS shakhas. The BJP is struggling to come to terms with the political diversity and pluralism of this country. The authoritarian populism…….serve only as a stumbling block in the Assembly elections, especially in places like Tamil Nadu, Kerala, and to a great extent in West Bengal and Assam.

“Even in Puducherry, after engineering defections from the ruling Congress, the BJP did not find it very easy to come to power. The right-wing party is learning the hard way that multitudinous India is a multipolar political field. And there is no option but to adapt to India’s political multiverse….”

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