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BJP supporters light firecrackers to celebrate the party’s victory in the Assam assembly election on Thursday. Photo: PTI
BJP supporters light firecrackers to celebrate the party’s victory in the Assam assembly election on Thursday. Photo: PTI

Narendra Modi silences critics

The BJP's principal political opponent, Congress, is like a vehicle going downhill sans brakes

It seems May brings happy tidings for the Bharatiya Janata Party. Two years ago, it was on 16 May that the BJP under Narendra Modi became the first party in 30 years to win a majority in the Lok Sabha on its own and went on to form a government together with its partners in the National Democratic Alliance.

Now, May has brought the BJP good news again in the outcome of elections in four states and one Union territory. It is true that there can be no comparison between the scale and size of the victories then and now, but if one assesses Thursday’s verdict closely, the BJP’s historic win in Assam and debut in the assemblies of Kerala and West Bengal amply demonstrate its expanding political footprint.

While the seats won by the BJP in Kerala and West Bengal may be in single digits, its vote share in both the states has seen a quantum leap. In West Bengal, its vote share has more than doubled from a mere 4.14% in the 2011 assembly polls to 10.2% now. The rise in vote share in Kerala is more dramatic—it has leapfrogged to 15% (with allies) from 6.03% in 2011. In Assam, where the BJP will form a government for the first time, the votes polled by the party have nearly trebled to 30% from 11.47% five years ago.

For a party that was largely confined to the north, west and central states till about a decade ago, the election results mark a tectonic shift in the country’s political landscape with the BJP emerging as the only pan-India party.

In Assam, the BJP stitched together a strong alliance with the Asom Gana Parishad and Bodoland People’s Front and fought elections under a young chief ministerial candidate in Sarbananda Sonowal. In Kerala, the party’s growing support base and debut in the assembly shows that voters are beginning to get disenchanted with both the Left Democratic Front and the Congress-led United Democratic Front.

If the BJP builds on the latest gains and makes further inroads in Kerala, it could well emerge as a more potent force by the 2019 Lok Sabha election. While Mamata Banerjee currently holds complete sway over West Bengal’s voters, the BJP must look to cement these gains under a young, dynamic and clean leader and provide a credible alternative five years down the line.

The BJP’s principal political opponent, Congress, is like a vehicle going downhill sans brakes. The party not only lost power in Kerala and Assam, but was also decimated in both West Bengal and Tamil Nadu, where it had formed alliances in search of an elusive victory. Such was the party’s desperation that it ended up forming an alliance with the Left in Bengal even as it was fighting the same ideology tooth and nail in Kerala.

In just a few years, the Congress has shrunk rapidly and currently holds power in just six states. Of the six, only Karnataka is sizeable; it accounts for 28 Lok Sabha seats. While the party is also a part of the ruling coalition in Bihar, its role is hardly significant, with Nitish Kumar and Lalu Prasad running the show. The six states account for just 7.01% of the nation’s population with Karnataka alone contributing a little over 5%. In comparison, the BJP-ruled states make up for more than 36% of 1.27 billion Indians.

So, what will be the ramifications of these results for national politics? For one, a section of political pundits has been billing every assembly election as a referendum on the performance of the Narendra Modi government at the centre. While the BJP won four assembly elections within a year of the Modi government taking charge, it subsequently lost Delhi and then Bihar.

Armchair analysts were then quick to say that the BJP’s honeymoon period with the electorate had ended and it would be a tough road ahead for the party. While the BJP retained its vote share but still lost in Delhi due to local factors, the arithmetic in Bihar was clearly against the party, where it was defeated despite a rise in votes polled. One wonders how commentators will assess the latest round of election results.

With a first-time BJP government set to take over in Assam and a reasonable electoral performance in Kerala and West Bengal, is the Modi wave on the ascendance again? The answer can never be a straight ‘yes’ or ‘no’ because there are multiple local and regional factors that play a crucial role in assembly elections and these can never be measured or amplified.

However, two trends are evident. The Congress today is a vanquished house and the party’s pitiable state can be gauged from the fact that its leaders rushed to congratulate vice-president Rahul Gandhi when it won five wards in Delhi’s municipal by-elections. On the other hand, the popularity of Modi remains high and the series of measures his government has taken for public welfare are beginning to bear fruit.

The election results will surely give the BJP the necessary thrust to push through crucial legislation such as the goods and services tax (GST) bill in Parliament. The party can also leverage these results to push through its other reformist agenda. After her victory in West Bengal, Banerjee has already said that while there are ideological differences with the BJP, her party will go with the central government on critical issues such as GST.

The BJP has broken fresh ground. It needs to fortify this momentum and aim for big wins in these states, come the 2019 Lok Sabha election. The party had peaked in several states such as Gujarat, Rajasthan, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls and it must be prepared to cover possible reverses.

The BJP should simultaneously look to strengthen its base in states such as Odisha, Telangana and Andhra Pradesh where it has been traditionally weak. Tamil Nadu similarly remains a weak ground for the party.

As some political pundits—disconcerted by the BJP’s impressive show—have already started to point out, the party leadership’s next big test is Uttar Pradesh. That election is still some distance away. For now, the party should be allowed to savour its victory in Assam and legislative debut in both West Bengal and Kerala.

Devendra Kumar is a psephologist and a member of the BJP.

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