The big takeaway from the Assembly election results in West Bengal, Assam, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Puducherry is this: the BJP objective of achieving a Congress-mukt Bharat is halfway towards fulfilment, but as much due to the growing clout of regional parties as to the BJP’s own efforts. As the Congress shrinks, the BJP is expanding.
Barring tiny Puducherry, where the Congress has made gains, the dynasty-led party has seen its footprint shrink all over: it has lost fortress Assam to BJP, Kerala to a traditional rival, the Left Democratic Front, and was in the losing team in Tamil Nadu and West Bengal. Curiously, despite being trounced by Mamata Banerjee, who got more than a two-thirds majority, the Congress, by a quirk of fate, got more seats than the Left despite a lower vote share. The Congress vote is concentrated in a few pockets, while the Left is scattered all over.
A corollary: the BJP’s national challenge will not come from the Congress, but a combination of the Left and regional parties. Nitish Kumar is thus pitching his tent in the right place, as the focus of the anti-Modi front in 2019, but whether voters will accept a hydra-headed coalition in exchange for a coherent BJP-led combo only time will tell. A lot depends on how the Modi government’s economic performance pans out in the remaining three years of its tenure.
But politically, the BJP is getting its act right. After the stunning defeats in Delhi and Bihar, the party has focused on getting both the local leadership and its alliances right in Assam and Kerala. It is no longer expecting Modi to pull the party through.
The Assam victory will allow the BJP to project itself more strongly in the North East, which has been a strong Congress bastion so far.
But the more important changes are happening in Kerala and West Bengal, where the party is executing the Kanshi Ram strategy of building the party from the ground up. Kanshi Ram famously said that the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) would enter its first election to lose, the second one to defeat someone, and the third one to emerge as a powerful actor on its own.
In Kerala, the BJP-BDJS alliance has cornered over 15 percent of the vote, making it a third force. The rise of the saffron alliance ensured the defeat of the UDF, for the anti-Left vote was divided between UDF and BJP-BDJS. In West Bengal, too, the BJP took away as much as 10.2 percent of the anti-Mamata vote, which is roughly the margin by which the Congress-Left alliance lost to the Trinamool Congress. While it would be too much of a stretch to say that the BJP ensured the defeat of the Congress-Left in Bengal and the UDF in Kerala, it is clearly emerging as the alternative third force in both these states.
In Tamil Nadu, it could have been the same except for the fragmented nature of alliances. The AIADMK faced a depleted DMK-led alliance, and three other fronts, led by the DMDK, which came a cropper, the PMK, and the BJP. Between then, these three parties got 10 percent of the vote, indicating that a third force should be within reach the next time if the BJP tries hard enough. The only issue is whether the BJP wants to play second fiddle to the local outfits, or go it alone as the lead player for some more time. The opportunities will come in the next five years, as both AIADMK and DMK face questions in the post-J Jayalalithaa, post-M Karunanidhi future.
But Tamil Nadu has broken the old mould of the DMK and AIADMK coming to power by turns; Jaya have broken the jinx by beating anti-incumbency, aided no doubt by the failure of the opposition to consolidate the anti-Jaya vote.
However, the BJP has cause for worry too.
Just as the May 2014 defeat forced the opposition to bury the hatchet and focus on defeating the BJP, the Assam and Bengal defeats may force the Congress and regional parties to reassess their go-it-alone strategies next year, when crucial elections are due in Uttar Pradesh, Punjab and even Gujarat. A version of the Bihar strategy would be for the BSP and Congress to team up, which could be a formidable force.
In Assam, Congress and Badruddin Ajmal of the AIUDF are sure to team up in 2019, and thus the BJP has to keep its coalition together and also expand it to meet the threat.
For the Congress, the lesson to learn is that the dynasty cannot carry any state on its own charisma. It has to develop local leaders. While the dynasty may be important to keep the party together, it cannot grow without federating itself and developing regional power centres. In the long run, this means the Congress will not need the Nehru-Gandhi family merely for holding the party together. The rise of regional satraps will, at some point, make the dynasty redundant once one of those satraps acquires pre-eminence.
For the Left, which has been decimated by Mamata Banerjee in West Bengal, the win in Kerala will be poor consolation for the reality is that Trinamool has taken both the ideological position and the muscle power from the Left. There is no place for two parties with the same positioning, especially when one of them is headed by a strong personality. In an increasingly presidential form of political campaigning, the cadre-based Left will be no match for Didi. This means the Left has no space left to grow in West Bengal as long as there is Didi to block it.
In Kerala too, the Left will face some attrition of its vote bank if the BJP grows in strength, especially in the Ezhava category, where it has a new ally in BDJS. Since the BJP tends to poll more in national elections than in local elections, there is a good chance that in 2019 it may improve on its 15 percent vote share, and even pick up a few seats.
The Modi pull may have played only a marginal role in 2016, but in a national election the logic will work the other way.
2016 has been a political turnaround year for the BJP, but 2017 is the big test.
Published Date: May 19, 2016 13:17 PM | Updated Date: May 19, 2016 13:24 PM