BJP surges, Congress falls further

While the former can now look to expand in the east and south, the latter is left with only one large state

Photo: PTI
Photo: PTI

The results of the assembly elections in four states and one Union territory send several messages for different parties. These results bring absolute cheer for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), having swept the election in Assam, bagged a sizeable number of votes in West Bengal and opened its account in Kerala with an increased vote share. This has opened the gates for the expansion of the BJP in the east as well as in the south.

The results also create a massive headache for the Congress. Having lost in Assam and Kerala, it is left as the ruling party in only one big state, Karnataka. In recent times, it has not only lost elections but also been pushed back to the third or fourth position in various states.

These results also indicate that regional parties remain important in Indian elections—with two regional parties, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) and the Trinamool Congress (TMC), headed by female leaders J. Jayalalithaa and Mamata Banerjee, respectively, registering victories.

In West Bengal, the TMC not only managed to hold on to power but increased its tally from 184 seats in the 2011 assembly election to 211 seats in this year’s election. The vote share of the party also increased from 39.8% in 2011 to 44.9% in 2016, a clear indication of its increased support base. It is clearly a vote for the personal popularity of chief minister Banerjee and an endorsement for the work done by her government over the past five years. The TMC has managed to enter the strongholds of the Left—the poor voters and the Muslim voters who had been voting for the Left in overwhelming numbers during previous elections. The decisive shift among female voters in favour of the TMC made a huge difference this time.

The coming together of the Congress and the Left in West Bengal—where they had contested elections against each other for the past three decades, violently on occasions—clearly did not go down well with the voters. It seems the Left may have managed to transfer their votes to the Congress, but Congress supporters hesitated to vote for Left candidates.

The result in Assam should not come as a surprise. The BJP had knocked on the doors of the Assam assembly during the 2014 Lok Sabha election, emerging as the biggest party. With this election, it has walked through the doors. Its alliance with the Bodoland People’s Front (BPF) and Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) not only managed to secure victory, but swept the election, winning 86 of the 126 seats.

The alliance helped the BJP in consolidating the tribal votes besides the majority Hindu votes which the party managed to attract. The projection of Sarbananda Sonowal as the chief ministerial candidate also helped the party in attracting voters.

The vote share of the Congress has not declined much compared to the previous assembly election, a clear signal that this is not a vote against the Congress, but more a vote for the desire for change. The only viable alternative before the people of Assam was the BJP, as the AGP, once the ruling party, has been completely marginalized in the politics of Assam.

The Congress may be trying to explain its defeat in Kerala as a routine change of government—a pattern that the state has witnessed for the past many decades. It may be somewhat true, but the worry for the Congress is much bigger. The state has normally seen a very small difference of votes between the winner and the runner-up. But in this election, the Left Democratic Front’s victory is much more convincing than in past elections; the vote share difference between the two alliances is much bigger than in the past. The worries for the Congress don’t stop here. Within the alliance, it performed much worse than its allies.

In a closely contested election— unlike what normally happens in Tamil Nadu—the AIADMK managed to retain power. While this is a positive vote for the party, had the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam managed to form a slightly better alliance, the results may have been different.

After the two big defeats in 2015 in Bihar and Delhi, these results will give the BJP much-needed ammunition for enthusing its party workers. This will help the party as it heads into the assembly election in Uttar Pradesh next year. But while this is a reason to celebrate, the party could be making a mistake if it thinks this success is an endorsement of the work done by the central government during the past two years.

This verdict is no such referendum. Although there are signs that people may not be unhappy with the central government’s performance, there are also enough countervailing signals of some unease and anxiety among the voters.

The Congress needs to do much more thinking about what needs to be done. It cannot take the consolation prize in Puducherry as reason to feel happy.

As for the regional parties, they will be looking in the direction of forming a non-BJP alliance for the 2019 contest—an option that is trotted out every now and then.

Sanjay Kumar is a professor and director at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies.

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