Nobody was able to correctly forecast the outcome of the two assembly elections last year — in Delhi first and then in Bihar. Most pre-poll surveys and exit polls couldn’t predict that in Delhi, Arvind Kejriwal’s AAP would stun its opponents, particularly the BJP, and that in Bihar the unlikely combo of Lalu Prasad and Nitish Kumar would make a clean sweep. Most psephologists, Delhi’s dime-a-dozen political pundits and news TV channels got it horribly wrong. Now India lurches towards another season of polls — one that will begin in three months with elections in four states, West Bengal, Assam, Tamil Nadu and Kerala, and in one union territory, Puducherry. While those same psephologists, pundits and channels will soon swing into action with surveys, analyses and forecasts, it may be worth assessing why these elections, particularly in the four states, are important for the two major national parties — the BJP and the Congress.
Both have much at stake in them. The BJP would be keen to make amends after its recent humiliating defeats with some electoral gains, if not wins — it is eyeing Assam with serious intent; and the Congress, which was marginalised in the 2014 parliamentary elections, would want to consolidate its political authority as the principal Opposition party by trying to win again in Assam and Kerala, where it is now in power, and also try and gain through alliances in Tamil Nadu and even in West Bengal. But it’s not going to be easy for either of them.
To begin with, in two of these states, the fight is between regional parties with little or no presence of the two national biggies. In Tamil Nadu, it is between K Karunanidhi’s DMK and chief minister J Jayalalithaa’s AIADMK, with both the Congress and the BJP at best playing bit roles. It will be the DMK’s first state elections after the split between Karunanidhi’s two sons, Stalin and Alagiri, and an alliance with the Congress cannot be ruled out. That may be because chief minister Jayalalithaa has an iron-grip over her party and faces very little anti-incumbency sentiment among the voters. Little wonder that the BJP is keen on an alliance with her party.
In West Bengal, the main battle is between chief minister Mamata Banerjee’s TMC and the Left alliance led by the CPI(M). But the TMC could retain power — it has swept the recent civic body polls and there has been little backlash from controversies such as the Saradha scam. The middle class urban voter may be a bit dissatisfied with her government but Ms Banerjee can count on a loyal rural vote bank. The CPI(M) and CPI, although technically national parties, are almost like regional parties with footprints only in West Bengal, Kerala and Tripura. With its cadre base in Bengal rapidly depleting, the Left can hope to only improve its tally in the assembly and not really aim at winning. Both the Congress and the BJP are marginal players here with limited relevance.
It’s a different story in Kerala. In this southern state, for the past eight elections (that is, since 1980) power has oscillated between the Congress and the CPI (M), each forming the government alternately. Here the BJP can at best play a spoiler — its alliance with a local organisation representing the backward Ezhava community, and its efforts to woo the Dalits, can wean away votes from the Left, thereby, giving it some inroads in the state but more importantly weakening the CPI(M) to the benefit of the Congress.
The only somewhat head-to-head battle for the two could be in Assam, where the incumbent Congress has seen an exodus; the BJP’s influence has been rising, as has been Badruddin Ajmal’s AIUDF, a regional party representing the interest of Assam’s Bengali speaking Muslims. The BJP could play up Hindu sentiments and try to ensure that the AIUDF and the Congress don’t become allies. But for now, it’s all up in the air.
Here’s what you can expect. A near-continuous, high-decibel election season. Right into 2017. After this year’s polls, the focus will shift to next year’s in Uttar Pradesh and Punjab, not to mention Uttarakhand, Manipur, Goa and later Gujarat. India votes.
The author is the editor-in-chief of Hindustan Times. He tweets as @sanjoynarayan.