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Home >Elections 2019 >Elections Blog >Opinion: Will the East serve up a saffron surprise this poll?

In the 2014 general elections, the biggest surprise, even more than the audacious win posted by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, was the verdict in Uttar Pradesh. The BJP won 73 (including two seats won by its allies) of the total 80 seats from the state, establishing its electoral dominance in no uncertain terms. It no doubt cemented the final verdict with the BJP winning a majority of its own with 282 seats.

Fast forward to this year’s general election and the big question is whether the saffron surprise this time around will be in the two eastern states of West Bengal and Odisha. If indeed this does transpire, as anecdotal evidence and ground reporting by Mint’s reporters suggest, then this performance will be equally important—though unlikely to match the scale—to what transpired in Uttar Pradesh in the 16th general election.

To be sure, one is not forecasting any outcome, just flagging the fact that this general election may establish unprecedented trend lines in the two states of Odisha and West Bengal, stemming from the pole position that the BJP has now come to occupy in national politics. And this would define the contours of the future national electoral discourse, especially if this contest turns out to be a semi-final.

West Bengal ruled by three-term chief minister Mamata Banerji was till recently considered impregnable for all political parties, leave alone the BJP. The feisty chief minister, not one to hold back punches or tricks, has systematically taken down all the opposition to the Trinamool Congress (TMC).

Similarly, Odisha is governed by Naveen Patnaik, a four-term chief minister and boss of the Biju Janata Dal (BJD), who does not take any prisoners. Again, Patnaik has through a mix of astutely managed welfare programmes and by tapping the aura of his own father, Biju Patnaik, managed a similar stranglehold on electoral politics.

What then could possibly have changed? Both states are dissimilar. While religion and caste are big factors in West Bengal, neither serves as electoral currency in Odisha. Yet, the saffron party seems to be drawing traction in both states.

For one, both states are facing anti-incumbency; it also helps that the traditional opposition in both states is a pale shadow of itself, creating a perfect vacuum for the BJP to exploit. It is not that both states have not delivered on their welfare agenda; both leaders have ensured its success. The common thread seems to be rising aspirations and in the case of West Bengal, there is an added element of reaction against the perception that the Trinamool Congress has pursued an alleged minority appeasement agenda; this reverse polarization is exactly what the BJP had exploited in the 2017 general election in Uttar Pradesh.

The aspiration factor is one reason people are pushing for end of status quo and something that enables Modi to raise the discourse above the one defined by the binding constraints of religion and caste.

On the ground, people concede that the Patnaik government has done well, yet at the same time, they want to check into the national mood for change. The organizational strength of the BJP in both states, developed both organically and inorganically, has helped the party stay on the message, especially among the largely young electorate—many of whom are migrants and have experienced the benefits of change in their trips across the country searching for a job.

Second, all this seems to coalesce into the narrative that Modi has shaped around his campaign as an incumbent. Particular emphasis has been placed on delivering material empowerment to the bottom of the pyramid in terms of a bank account, toilets, housing and of course, cooking gas.

All these schemes may have hit hurdles, but the perception is that it has begun to reach the target audience. It reinforces the claim of certitude that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has successfully incorporated in his public persona; the air strikes against terror locations in Balakot in Pakistani territory has only bolstered this perception.

In the final analysis, it is clear that there is a visible groundswell of support in favour of the BJP in both states. Regardless of whether this will be monetized in terms of votes will be known only on 23 May. But suffice to say that the entire region, especially if we take into account the North-East, is staring at a new dawn in electoral politics.

Anil Padmanabhan is managing editor of Mint and writes every week on the intersection of politics and economics.

Read Anil Padmanabhan’s earlier columns at livemint.com/capitalcalculus.

Comments are welcome at anil.p@livemint.com

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