In the hierarchy of politics, the states of northern and western India are often perceived to be more equal than others. The massive defeats of the BJP in, first, Delhi and then, Bihar, in 2015 didn’t directly impact the functioning of the Centre. But their cumulative impact generated the impression that Prime Minister Narendra Modi was fast losing political momentum. This perception in turn contributed immeasurably to some of the parliamentary logjam that has either stalled or delayed legislation and fuelled unrest in a section of civil society.
Thiruvananthapuram, Chennai, Kolkata and Guwahati being too far from the national capital, the full impact of this latest round of Assembly elections will take some time before being reflected in the national discourse. However, and just for starters, the resounding victory of the BJP-led alliance in Assam — a state where the party was confronted with a challenging socio-demographic mix — should at least persuade the army of Modi-sceptics that there is still a lot of fight and political resolve left in the saffron camp.
Correspondingly, the outright defeat of the Congress in Assam and Kerala — leaving Karnataka as the only large state government it controls — will certainly have a severe dampening effect on the party’s hopes of emerging as the nucleus of an anti-BJP, ‘secular’ alliance in 2019. The Congress, as its loyalists didn’t tire of pointing out when confronted with all-round bad news (except from Puducherry), may still claim an all-India presence and an impressive pedigree, but its ability to translate inheritance into electoral success at the local level stands very seriously diminished.
On its part, the Left may be heartened by its convincing return to power in Kerala where it was the logical beneficiary of the state’s see-saw politics. However, the miserable failure of its audacious ‘Popular Front’ experiment in West Bengal is almost certain to create ideological convulsions in the CPI(M). It is worth recalling that the CPI(M)’s formal alliance with the Congress was negotiated by the Bengal unit, overriding the opposition of the central leadership. Indeed, so strong was the feeling that the Bengal Left must chalk its own path against Mamata Banerjee, if only for the sake of survival, that the comrades in Kolkata were actually willing to countenance a formal split in the party. These tensions were momentarily kept under wraps in the course of an election campaign where the CPI(M) felt that it was actually recovering ground significantly. Now that the results have demonstrated that the Congress benefited more from the alliance than did the Left, the ideological apostasy may lead to a vicious bout of inner-party recriminations that may impair its larger oppositional role. That is unless the CPI(M) undertakes a revisionist exercise, discards Leninism and accords functional autonomy to its state units.
Overall, Thursday’s results appear to have established — as did the elections in Delhi and Bihar last year — the primacy of regional calibration in the second tier of Indian politics. Apart from Assam where a national party prevailed, but after accommodating two important regional players, the results from West Bengal, Tamil Nadu and even Kerala demonstrated that state politics has a life of its own, sometimes totally detached from the happenings at the Centre.
This realisation has not even left the BJP unaffected. In the Assembly elections of 2014 and 2015, the BJP fought battles on the assumption that the Modi euphoria of the general election would cast its shadow and determine the outcome. Coming immediately after the big national victory, this approach worked in Maharashtra, Jharkhand and even Jammu and Kashmir. However, fighting a local election piggybacking on the national reputation of the Prime Minister misfired horribly in Delhi and Bihar. This time, neither in Assam nor for that matter in Kerala (where its alliance secured an impressive 15% of the vote in an otherwise bipolar contest) did the BJP make the same mistake. On the contrary, by positing a local leader as the chief ministerial candidate, projecting local issues and embracing a sub-nationalist sentiment through an alliance with the Asom Gana Parishad, the national party recast itself in an Assamese mould. The larger goodwill enjoyed by Prime Minister Modi served as a backdrop.
The victory of the BJP in an important state of eastern India is a momentous development in its larger evolution as a truly national party. It is as significant as its victory in Karnataka in 2008 where it took a similar approach. But this victory would not have been possible without accommodating the innate federalist impulses that govern politics at the state and local levels. The BJP’s relative lack of success in West Bengal where its vote slipped from 17% in 2014 to 10% can, among other things, be attributed to its failure to capture the Bengali ethos. It is still haunted by a Hindi image.
What is increasingly becoming clear is that there is a different logic working for parliamentary and Assembly elections. There are both unitary and federalist impulses that are at play, depending on circumstances — a reason why national parties invariably experience a bulge in their votes during Lok Sabha polls. Assembly elections are festivals of federalism where regional impulses prevail over all else. Delhi — the shorthand for unitary impulses — becomes the focus of parliamentary polls. Jayalalithaa and Mamata and, for that matter, Naveen Patnaik know this and keep their political interventions at the Centre flexible and even transactional.
With Thursday’s results, coupled with the setbacks for the Congress, bolstering the logic of such a cooperative federalism, there is a now big window of opportunity for the Prime Minister to drive home his legislative agenda and usher in a phase of consensual change. After more than a year of political turbulence, these results are potentially good news for Modi.
Swapan Dasgupta is a political commentator and Rajya Sabha MP
The views expressed are personal