When the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) swept the Lok Sabha elections in 2014, its victory was primarily based on a staggering success ratio in India‘s north and west. But from the day it won, the party has been clear that this was the ripe moment for it to break out of the old stereotype of being seen as a Hindi heartland party — and it decided to expand, first in the east and then the south.
Over the last six years, this strategy has paid dividends, especially in the east — where the party’s win in the Assam state elections of 2016 inaugurated a period of expansion across the North-east. The party also put up a robust performance in two states where it had limited presence historically — West Bengal and Odisha — which helped it cross the 300 mark in the 2019 elections. While Karnataka has been an older stronghold and there have been some recent successes at the local level in Telangana, it has — for the most part — been unable to translate this intent to expand and corresponding political investment into actual seats in other regions of the south. And that is why 2021 is key for the BJP — to retain and expand its hold in the east, and to be able to make a mark in the south.
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For the Opposition, this is precisely what makes the year a critical turning point. If it is able to keep the BJP out of power of two eastern states (West Bengal and Assam), and force it to remain a marginal player in the south, it will come as a shot in the arm of those opposed to the central government, limit the BJP’s growth, and retain the political balance in what is otherwise a hegemonic polity dominated by the BJP. Within the Opposition, the outcome of state polls in 2021 will also determine the balance of power between the Congress and regional parties — and all signs are that this tilt further towards the regional parties, for the Congress’s individual strength and prospects in at least two of the bigger states going to the polls (Tamil Nadu and West Bengal) is limited.
But beyond the frame of party politics, the electoral battles of 2021 will also give a glimpse into the nature of identity-based politics in these regions, the tension between incumbency — where being in power has afforded an opportunity to expand power — and anti-incumbency — where being in power has generated a backlash and thus eroded power; the vocabulary of development and welfare, especially in the backdrop of a public health and economic crisis; and the key role of individual leaders in determining outcomes.
In the east
The big battle of 2021 is, of course, in West Bengal — where the Trinamool Congress, led by the formidable Mamata Banerjee, who fought for decades against the Left as a challenger, has to now defend its record. No other local leader in Bengal matches Banerjee’s brand value, her tenacity and grasp over the ground realities of the state. But while Brand Mamata is the Trinamool’s calling card — backed by welfare schemes initiated by the state government — it also now suffers from a set of weaknesses, which is being leveraged by the BJP.
The Trinamool has been portrayed — due to Mamata Banerjee’s own, arguably excessive, emphasis on the Muslim vote to be able to win it over from the Left and Congress in the initial years — as a party too close to the minorities. This, in the BJP’s campaign on the ground, throws up the allegation of “politics of appeasement” against the rival on the one hand, and on the other, leads to a conscious effort to construct a Hindu vote through a set of cultural, political, and legislative measures. After her setback in the 2019 polls, Mamata Banerjee — advised by political consultant Prashant Kishor, whose trademark signature in recent campaigns has been to ask non-BJP forces to avoid the Hindu-Muslim binary — has made a conscious effort to be seen as sensitive to Hindu aspirations. For her, this is unnatural politics — though she has, in her personal beliefs, always remained a devotee of Kali. But the BJP believes that this messaging is too little and too late, and the ground in Bengal is ripe enough for a “polarised election”. The party believes that its push for the Citizenship (Amendment) Act will help rally Hindu voters in bordering areas with links to the east. Its leaders are banking on constituencies with over 60% Hindus to be able to polarise the landscape and win.
But it is not just the politics of identity. The BJP has steadily built its organisation in the state — aided, in no small measure, by the entry of former Trinamool heavyweights, the latest being Suvendu Adhikari. In Bengal’s politics, the key is having control of the local machines on the ground. Local election machines — loose grids populated by influential panchayat leaders and others quite comfortable with using violence to intimidate rivals and coerce voters — shifted from the Left to the Trinamool, and the big question is whether they will now move to the BJP. This history of violence also makes the election particularly sensitive, and has already seen a spate of political killings, with the Opposition being targeted.
But beyond identity and organisation, the big battle in Bengal will be between Narendra Modi — who appears to enjoy a high degree of popularity in the state and, who will be the BJP’s key face in the absence of a pan-Bengal leader — and Mamata Banerjee. Modi will speak of double engine growth (of political alignment between the Centre and state), the Centre’s welfare schemes (which the BJP alleges is not being implemented on the ground), and perhaps a big promise of development package, while Banerjee will focus on Bengali sub-nationalism, the Centre’s assault on state rights, and her own achievements of the past decade.
If in Bengal, the BJP has to be the challenger to win power, next door, in Assam, it is the incumbent which has to retain power. Under Sarbananda Sonowal and Himanta Biswa Sarma, the party has deepened its organisational networks in the state, and will speak of infrastructure projects and welfare as its achievement. It is also aided, in no small measure, by the disarray in the Congress — with Tarun Gogoi’s death, the party lacks a towering leader, though the former chief minister’s son, Gaurav, is hoping to inherit his legacy.
But the BJP’s biggest hope — and challenge — comes from the decades-old, vexed question of identity. Unlike Bengal, where there is a degree of support for CAA and opposition to National Register of Citizens (NRC), in Assam, there is opposition to CAA — which is seen as an effort to provide back-door entry to Hindu immigrants from Bangladesh — and ambivalence towards NRC — it is viewed as the first step to identifying citizens and outsiders, but the flawed NRC process in the state with tremendous humanitarian consequences has led to apprehensions; it has also deepened the divide between the Brahmaputra and Barak valley.
How the BJP is able to reconcile these complex strands, portray itself as the party committed to indigenous interests, even as it cultivates the Bengali Hindu vote, while constructing the Muslim as the other, will be key. For the Opposition, the political task ahead will hinge on whether it is able to portray the BJP as opposed to the sentiments of the Assam Movement. The Congress has its own challenge — an understanding with Badruddin Ajmal can lead to a consolidation of the Muslim vote, but alienate the indigenous vote while the absence of an understanding can fragment the Muslim vote.
The southern battles
The stake is higher for the Opposition in the southern states, where the BJP knows its limits. As a top leader of the party said about the southern challenge: “It will take us a decade to establish ourselves firmly. We lacked a pool of leaders and were constrained by our past image of being seen as a North Indian party. The image is breaking now, and more and more leaders and workers are joining us in states such as Tamil Nadu and Kerala but to build the organisation and dominate the narrative, it will take a few elections.”
This does not mean that the BJP won’t unleash its shock-and-awe campaign strategies. But in Tamil Nadu, where it is still viewed with a degree of suspicion for its attachment to the Hindi language and its perceived opposition to the Dravidian movement, it is primarily relying on its understanding with the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), especially with actor Rajinikanth quitting politics even before entering the electoral fray. The challenge for the AIADMK is that it is fighting its first state election without J Jayalalithaa — and it has been in power for two terms, leading to strong anti-incumbency. The Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), too, is fighting its first election after the death of M Karunanidhi, and undergoing a generational transition with MK Stalin as the face. And while it does face its own factional struggles, and tussle over potential seat sharing, the DMK-led alliance, which includes the Congress, starts out as the favourite.
In Kerala, the contest will be fundamentally bipolar between the Left Front and the Congress-led alliance. The state has had a pattern of alternating between governments led by the two formations (much like Rajasthan in the north, which shuffles between the Congress and the BJP). But the success of the Left front in recent local elections has thrown up the possibility of this cycle breaking. This will be a high stakes election because Rahul Gandhi, as the member of Parliament from Wayanad, can be expected to invest substantially in the Congress campaign – but despite his proximity to the Communist Party of India (Marxist) leadership in Delhi, he will have to face a tough incumbent in the form of Pinarayi Vijayan, who has developed a reputation for delivery. The BJP has been making efforts to crack open the Kerala political matrix — but has had limited success and can be expected to be a distant third, primarily due to the demography of the state (it has a substantial presence of both Muslims and Christians), entrenched political loyalties, and weak organisation (ironically, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s strength in the state hasn’t translated into political advantage for the BJP.)
By the middle of next year, the political complexion of some of India’s most crucial political states will be clear. If the BJP wins Bengal and Assam and manages to retain influence over the Tamil Nadu government, it will be one more step towards its expansion — and, potentially, a more centralised Indian polity. If the Trinamool is able to retain Bengal, the BJP is pushed out of Assam, the DMK-led alliance wins Tamil Nadu, and irrespective of whether the victor in Kerala is the Left or the Congress, the political message will be the continued strength of regional forces in states against the BJP’s dominance — and, potentially, an assertion of states against the Centre.
2021’s message will last till 2024.