Home >politics >policy >Assembly election results: Saffron spreads, Congress shrinks

The biggest takeaway from the outcome of the just-concluded round of assembly polls is not the ability of two regional satraps, Mamata Banerjee in West Bengal and J. Jayalalithaa in Tamil Nadu, to fend off anti-incumbency (the former in style and the latter after a minor scare); neither was it the ability of the Left to fashion a win in Kerala.

Instead it is the audacious win scripted by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Assam and its very impressive showing in Kerala and West Bengal (not in terms of seats as much as vote share). Something that has not only provided the saffron party with a perfect launch pad to spread itself in the north-east but also further expand its sphere of political influence, which at present extends to almost half the country.

The expansion of the BJP’s national electoral footprint, coming largely at the expense of the Congress, extends from Jammu and Kashmir (where it is in a coalition with the Peoples Democratic Party) in the north to Gujarat in the west and now Assam in the north-east.

Indeed, the BJP’s ascendance to pole position in Indian politics is almost directly proportional to the descent of the Congress. So, if there is a central warning served up by the electorate, it is to the Congress. Beginning with the 16th general election (where it was reduced to a humiliating and all-time low of 44 seats in the 545-member Lok Sabha), the party has, in every election thereafter, ceded ground to the BJP.

It is now battling for survival and its leadership, comprising of the Gandhi family, suffered a severe political body blow on Thursday—which is likely to leave it politically on the defensive and bereft of leverage with existing allies and potential partners. Not a good position to be in, especially for the country’s oldest political party.

Clearly the contours of India’s polity have been redrawn; one in which the electorate, unlike in the last two decades, is inclined to give a clear mandate. While the BJP is undoubtedly the pre-eminent national party, the space of the opposition is being assumed by regional satraps such as Banerjee, Jayalalithaa, Nitish Kumar in Bihar and Arvind Kejriwal in Delhi—all of whom are regionally tough to beat, yet find it difficult to band into a coherent collective nationally.

Prior to this election, the BJP’s best performance in Assam was in the 2006 assembly elections when it garnered 12% vote share; it was, at best, a fringe player. The 2014 general election was a watershed moment for the BJP—its ‘yes it can’ moment as it were.

It managed to treble its vote share to 36%, winning seven of the 14 Lok Sabha seats. Extrapolating over assembly segments, as psephologists love to do, this translated into a lead in 69 seats for the BJP.

The trick in this assembly election was to hold onto this advantage. It did even better: winning 60 seats, leaving it just short of a majority on its own in the assembly.

This was achieved on the back of a repurposed electoral strategy. Learning from its mistakes in Bihar (where its strategy to make Narendra Modi the centre of its campaign backfired), it announced its candidate for chief minister—Sarbananda Sonowal—in advance. Modi’s presence only complemented the popularity of the local leadership, defined around Sonowal and former Congressman Himanta Biswa Sarma. In addition it sewed up an alliance with the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), which at one time had governed the state, and the Bodoland People’s Front.

It also clearly benefitted from the burden of triple anti-incumbency accruing to the Congress. On the benefit of hindsight, it seems the vote of Muslims (who account for 34% of the state’s population) split, giving the BJP and its allies a crucial edge—resulting in the landslide win.

It is almost certain that the BJP will now look to expand its presence to other parts of the north-east—which its government at the centre has already made a focus of its economic policy.

However, from the BJP’s point of view, what would be more heartening is the potential it sees in its future in West Bengal and Kerala—where it used shrewd alliances to nearly double its vote share to about 11%. Not only did it make its debut, winning from Nemom constituency, it came second (losing by just 89 votes in Manjeshwar) in seven constituencies.

Similarly, in West Bengal, it more than doubled its vote share from 4% to 10.2%, winning three seats, and was the runner-up in seven seats. With the Left suffering a meltdown in this election, the BJP can seriously look to position itself as a credible third political force in the state.

In the run-up to this round of assembly elections, it was evident that the performance of the Congress would be under close scrutiny.

Its ability to stay on as an incumbent in Assam and Kerala was under test, as was its ability to conjure up a strategy to counter the growing appeal of the BJP among the electorate.

The party’s worst fears have come true. The electorate has once again resoundingly rejected it. If this doesn’t—regardless of the consolation prize in Puducherry and the arguments its groupies put up—serve as a wake-up call, then nothing will. Business-as-usual is no longer an option; neither is the defensive strategy of waiting for the BJP to slip up.

The longer it puts off the overdue structural overhaul, the closer it slides to terminal decline. The humiliation in the general election and in the Delhi assembly polls (where it failed to win a single seat after having served out three consecutive terms) was the first warning. It is clear now that the party is increasingly out of step with the electorate. Insiders are restive, but loyalty and fear of falling foul of the Gandhis are forcing them to vent sotto voce. Something has to give.

Equally worrying for the party should be the fear of acquiring the tag of a perennial loser, something which could risk its core vote base. Its traditional support base was developed as a rainbow coalition defined around secular credentials. Beginning in the 1980s, it began to lose out on its Dalit vote base and this gradually extended to other caste groupings as well.

However, the Muslims have so far stayed steadfast with the party, convinced that it is the best bet to counter the BJP. Successive defeats may force a rethink and regional parties may be the beneficiary—a situation which, if it plays out, will all but guarantee the political demise of the Congress.

The sub-text of this election is the ability of the regional satraps to hold their own.

Banerjee has proven with her landslide win that her principal rival, the Left, is a rapidly fading political force in West Bengal. She figures that the threat would come from the freshness of BJP’s political messaging in a state traditionally made up of a Left-Congress (and now Trinamool Congress) rivalry, something that will make its relations with the Union government testy (significant, with the BJP keen to win support to overcome the logjam on key reforms forced by Congress-Left intransigence in the Rajya Sabha).

Similarly, Jayalalithaa succeeded in fending off anti-incumbency—for the first time in three decades the sitting government in Tamil Nadu was not voted out. Three exit polls had actually forecast a defeat.

Eventually, she managed to stave off a resurgent Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, winning, though, by a considerably reduced margin. Always difficult to predict, it is unclear as to what Jayalalithaa will do in her second consecutive stint at the helm.

Together with Kejriwal and Kumar, the regional satraps are emerging as the BJP’s principal challengers. Cramped by individual egos, so far they have been unable to seek out common ground. The unifying theme, if any, so far is ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend’, which definitely cannot be enduring.

So, for now, it is advantage BJP.

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