NEW DELHI : Many factors drove the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP’s) sweep in the 2019 elections, but perhaps none as significant as the party’s rise in the east. Until 2019, the east (West Bengal, Odisha and the eight north-eastern states), like the south, was largely untouched by the BJP. But unlike the south, in these elections, this changed dramatically in the east. Of the 88 seats on offer in the region, the BJP won 40 seats .

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The BJP consolidated recent gains in the North-East but, more importantly, broke new ground in West Bengal and Odisha—the two biggest states in the region (63 seats between them). The BJP’s performance in West Bengal was particularly remarkable where it secured 40% of the vote share and 18 seats out of 42. In 2014, it had won only two seats and secured 17% of the vote share.

One reason for this success could be the BJP’s concerted focus on West Bengal in the build-up to these elections. For instance, Narendra Modi, visited West Bengal 17 times in the election build-up, making it the second-most frequent location for the Prime Minister’s rallies after Uttar Pradesh.

The BJP also capitalized on the anti-Trinamool Congress (TMC) sentiment and the general decline of the Left in the state. Areas that had traditionally been Left strongholds all voted for the BJP. The Rarh region, which comprises Bardhaman and Medinipur divisions, for instance, voted for the Communist Party of India (Marxist) in 1999, 2004 and 2009 elections. In 2014, the region overwhelmingly voted for the TMC. This time though, the region’s voters have switched to the BJP (Chart 2).

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According to a post-poll survey conducted by the Lokniti-Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), even the self-defined hardcore supporters of the Left voted for the BJP this time around. The survey also reveals that the BJP’s popularity cut across caste within the Left. Both upper castes and lower castes within the Left chose the BJP, with only Muslim Left voters preferring the TMC.

The BJP’s broad-based support also cuts across class. According to 2015-16 data from the Multidimensional Poverty Index, a composite measure of poverty calculated by the University of Oxford, the poorest areas of the state are Purulia and Uttar Dinajpur. This corresponds to the regions where the BJP enjoyed the greatest success in these elections. Taken together, the data suggests that the BJP has emerged as the choice for poorer Hindus in the state (Chart 4).

Another factor that helped the BJP’s Bengal surge was voter turnout. Of the eight constituencies where voter turnout increased, the BJP had a vote share of 44%, its highest .

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Like in West Bengal, in Odisha too, the BJP was battling against a powerful regional party—the Biju Janata Dal (BJD)—and trying to usurp the traditional runner-up (the Congress). In Odisha, too, the BJP was successful, but not to the extent it was in West Bengal. It secured 37% of the vote share and won eight out of the 21 seats, the second-largest party in the state after the BJD. One reason for this could be that the BJD’s popularity is more ingrained than the TMC’s in West Bengal. Naveen Patnaik is a four-time chief minister and the BJD’s vote share has been consistently around 37% over the last five general elections.

As one of the states holding simultaneous assembly elections, voting differences between state and general elections provide insights into voter preferences for regional and national leaders. In Odisha, there was little correlation between how voters voted in state elections compared to general elections with many voters preferring the BJD in the state elections, while voting for the BJP in the general elections .

This is confirmed by post-poll survey data from Lokniti-CSDS. Of the voters who chose the BJD in the assembly elections, 72% wanted Modi as the Prime Minister.

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In addition to Modi’s popularity, another reason for the BJP’s gains in Odisha could be its flagship welfare schemes. Dharmendra Pradhan, the BJP’s Odisha unit chief and minister of petroleum and natural gas, had declared that Odisha would be “the laboratory for pro-poor policies" of the central government. On one scheme at least, the Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana, this seems to be true. Between 2015 and 2018, households in Odisha experienced a large increase in access to LPG connections .

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If the BJP’s gains in West Bengal and Odisha have been surges, then its gains in the North-East were more steady consolidation. Of the 25 seats on offer in the North-East, the BJP or one of its political allies in the North-Eastern Democratic Alliance won 21 seats. All this is a result of strategic policies and deft alliances since 2014, before which the BJP was a non-entity in the region.

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In Assam, the National Register of Citizens has become an important political tool for the BJP, delivering victories in polarized regions such as the Barak Valley. The BJP has converted the Assam-Bengali conflict into a Hindu-non-Hindu issue, but this could potentially deepen the Assamese-Bengali divide in the future. Elsewhere in the North-East, the BJP has secured important alliances.

In Nagaland, the BJP used the Naga Peace Accord framework to consolidate support from the Nagas not just in Nagaland, but among Naga factions elsewhere in Manipur, Mizoram and Arunachal Pradesh.

The BJP’s presence in the North-East, which borders five countries, and is India’s gateway to the Asean (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) region, could have implications for foreign policy.

For his inauguration, Modi invited leaders from the BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation) group, perhaps signalling a strategic shift away from SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation).

*This is the second of a five-part series on the Lok Sabha election verdict.

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