The bespoke election strategy came up trumps over the prêt version, paying rich dividends to those who fashioned it. The fact that there cannot be a national template for state elections has now been internalised by most parties, particularly the BJP, which shunned this in Assam and was rewarded for it. Other regional parties like the AIADMK and even the losing DMK, the UDF and LDF in Kerala and of course the Trinamool Congress in West Bengal all fought these elections on local issues with homegrown netas leading the charge.
The BJP appears to have learnt its lessons from Bihar and Delhi. It did not helicopter in top leaders, especially the prime minister, except sparingly and showcased local leaders, in the case of Assam Sarbananda Sonowal and former Congress leader Himanta Biswa Sarma.
Assam, the eastern state which will now become the BJP’s gateway to the northeast, did not rely on a Modi wave; it relied instead on its local arsenal with the central leadership providing the supplementary heft. In West Bengal again, it was only local development and other concerns which were raised, not grandiloquent national themes. State elections today are being fought in a distinct style. In the past we have seen parties raising national security, the foreign hand and so on in elections.
Today, in a more individualistic age, it is far more about what the voter can gain in the present. This is why the freebie culture in Tamil Nadu seems to work so well. The voter realises that it is much better to seek and get something in the here and now and leave bigger issues to the Central government. While Mr Modi, for example, is popular across India, voters in the states are far more keen to get up close and personal with the person they will hold accountable five years down the line or even earlier. In Kerala, too, the hierarchical Left leadership had the good sense to leave well alone and let the local units deploy the best man for the right job. Left leader Pinarayi Vijayan’s formidable organisational skills and the charisma of VS Achuthanandan handed over a sorely needed victory for a Left in decline across the country.
Given the Assam experience, it would seem that elections will become even more fine-tuned in future. Different and very specific issues were raised in different areas of the state by the parties in the fray, and in the case of the BJP and allies, this paid off. The lesson that all parties have learnt, some to their detriment, is that there is no cookie cutter mould for state elections anymore. It has to be customised, one size fits all is no longer an option.