The Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP’s) steady march towards political supremacy across India has been capped with a victory in Assam. Although Assam was the only state where the BJP won in the latest round of elections to five state assemblies—in coalition with the Bodoland People’s Front and the Asom Gana Parishad—it is noteworthy nonetheless. It gives the BJP, in its unrelenting quest for a truly national footprint, a strong and important base finally in north-eastern India.
After decades of trying, the party was also able to open its account in Kerala, which means that India’s most literate state—it’s the only one that is comparable to developed countries—is no longer BJP-free. The BJP was unable to do so in Tamil Nadu but, taken together, the string of assembly elections means that the party that rules at the centre is now present—by itself or in coalition—in all corners of India.
After Assam, in other words, India’s political map shows an evolution towards a federal structure that has come under the spell of the BJP.
Today, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) that is led by the BJP rules in 14 states, the Congress in six. The remaining nine states are best described as “non-NDA”—I include in them parties ranging from the strongly anti-BJP Left to those that are not aligned with the NDA but may vote in favour of selective NDA bills.
Interestingly, if you take the latter group together as an imagined homogenous unit, you have a tally of 14 NDA versus 15 non-NDA and Congress, again a testimony to the unique evolution of Indian federalism, marked by a melding of national and regional politics.
But across state legislatures in this diverse nation today, the BJP alone has more legislators (not counting lawmakers in Parliament) than any other party—1,028 to its nearest rival Congress’s 884.
These numbers signify one thing: the BJP is closing in on what its president Amit Shah has described as his ultimate objective—“Congress-mukt Bharat” or a Congress-free India (whether at all that is a good idea for a democracy is something that is being discussed in India, but it’s not the subject of this column).
In contrast to the BJP chest-thumping, the results have set off predictable breast-beating in the Congress. “We will introspect into the reasons for our loss and will rededicate ourselves to the service of the people with greater vigour,” said party president Sonia Gandhi.
Congress party general secretary Digvijay Singh tweeted, “Today’s results disappointing but not unexpected. We have done enough Introspection shouldn’t we go for a Major Surgery?”
One widely reported round of introspection came about in 2014 after the Congress was drubbed in the general election by the BJP. At the time, an internal party committee led by former minister A.K. Antony was asked to report on the reasons for the loss. According to newspaper reports that have not been contradicted, Antony cleared the three frontline Congress leaders—Sonia Gandhi, vice-president Rahul Gandhi and then prime minister Manmohan Singh—of any responsibility.
Among the reasons highlighted by the committee that are most widely cited is that the Congress has been perceived to be pandering to Muslims. Secularism, the principle that the Congress is wedded to, was seen by voters as no more than minority appeasement.
Whether correct or not, this perception has more of a resonance in Assam than possibly any other state in India. After Jammu and Kashmir, India’s only Muslim-majority state, it is Assam that tops in the percentage of Muslim population—34.22%, according to the 2011 Census.
The BJP, sticking to the script, exploited this perception to the hilt in the run-up to the Assam election, blaming successive Congress governments—and there were three of them—for allowing illegal Muslim migrants from neighbouring Bangladesh to enter and settle down in Assam’s fertile valleys.
In the hustings, the BJP, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself, highlighted what it called vote-bank politics in Assam. There was nothing new in the move, however—the party began its campaign in Assam more than 30 years ago in the run-up to the 1985 state election, where, too, its campaign rested on immigration. In that election, the BJP supported the AGP, at the time no more than a one-point, “son-of-the-soil” party railing against Bengalis.
The BJP is, understandably and fairly, in a celebratory mood after the Assam win, which coincides with the NDA’s completion of two years in office. It allows the ruling party to shake off the memory of two bad losses in 2015, when it was trounced in elections to the assemblies in Delhi (although Delhi officially counts as a Union territory, it straddles a grey area where it can behave just like a state) and Bihar. Both threw up strong opponents to Prime Minister Modi—the Aam Aadmi Party in Delhi and the Janata Dal (United) in Bihar.
If the Congress can persuade all or some of the ruling parties in these nine non-NDA state governments to come under the umbrella of the United Progressive Alliance, or UPA, then the next general election immediately becomes a closer-fought contest than is currently projected.
But first it must deal with this matter of “introspection”, or “surgery”, some of it clearly coded language for leadership change. The need to do so must have empirical support, however. Because, looking at both the number of seats and vote share in the assembly elections, the truth lies somewhere between the narratives of a handsome BJP win and a disastrous Congress loss. The problem for the Congress is not that it lost two states (Assam and Kerala)—it was that it lost quite so badly. And as the political history of Assam shows, the BJP is in it for the long haul.
Dipankar’s Twitter handle is @Ddesarkar1