The Budget session of Parliament is normally spread across two halves: February-March and April-May. But in 2011, it became so politically urgent to campaign for the impending elections that the budget session was wrapped up in March. At the time, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Assam and West Bengal were going to polls along with the union territory of Puducherry.
The two big national parties — BJP and Congress and other parties like AIDMK, Trinamool, Left and DMK were all keen to devote their energy to the polls. Five years later, the same set of states and the union territory is poll-bound once more.
And the enthusiasm among the political stakeholders is already palpable. In at least two of these four states, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal, the Congress and the BJP have a marginal presence. In Kerala, the Congress is pitted primarily against the CPI(M) with the BJP gaining ground in some pockets. The BJP and the Congress are the prime contestants only in Assam. In Puducherry too, the BJP has virtually no presence.
But for both the BJP and the Congress, stakes are very high for the upcoming round of assembly elections. After losing Delhi and Bihar in 2015, the saffron party is desperate for an electoral comeback. Victory in state elections also provides the momentum that the ruling party at the Centre needs if it is to push reforms and bold policies. For the Congress, these polls can be a stepping stone to future alliances, fuel for more aggression against the Modi government, and a consolidation of its position in the fragmented Opposition.
The regional parties also have a lot at stake. A good show in the assembly elections will earn them more bargaining power in future coalition politics and, for the ruling parties, a better negotiating position vis-à-vis the Centre.
Even before the results for Bihar had come out, Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi had left for Assam to hold poll meetings. A political storm hit Delhi when the PM went to Kerala to attend a programme organised by powerful Hindu backward class outfit the Sree Narayana Darma Paripalana Yogam (SNDP), and the state’s chief minister (Congress) was kept out.
The recent floods in Tamil Nadu saw half-a-dozen NDA ministers rush to the state in what was seen as an attempt to warm up to the ruling AIADMK.
Congress president Sonia Gandhi and vice president Rahul Gandhi held two meetings with Trinamool Congress chief Mamata Banerjee in as many months even as there is an increasing noise in the West Bengal unit of CPI(M) for a pact. April and May 2016 will not only bring the summer, but also a scorching election season for Indian politics.
All eyes on the Hindu vote bank
A common thread runs between the BJP in Kolkata and the party in Thiruvananthapuram. The new faces picked up to steer the BJP in these two poll-bound states share an RSS background and are largely seen as hardliners. The politics in these states has largely featured a contest between two main parties, leaving little scope for a third player.
The BJP wants to emerge as the third front by consolidating its grip over Hindu voters. The BJP’s six per cent vote share in Kerala in the 2011 assembly election almost doubled to over 10 per cent in the 2014 Lok Sabha election. Bengal was a bigger success story. Riding a Modi wave, the BJP won over 17 per cent vote share — several notches higher than its 2011 assembly figure of a mere four per cent.
Putting the steering wheel in the hands of Kummanam Rajasekharan in Kerala and Dilip Ghosh in Bengal helps the BJP execute its plans. “Coming from an RSS background, their presence helps the party deal with factionalism and coordinate with other affiliates of the Sangh Parivar,” said an RSS leader on condition of anonymity.
However, BJP’s secretary Sidharth Nath Singh argues that Bengal has never been divided on caste or religious lines and that whoever occupies the space against the government emerges the winner – like the TMC did in 2011. Singh said the party’s slogan will centre around the argument that 34 years of (Left) misrule has become 39 years (including the five years under Mamata) and that the poll campaign will cover four topics — terror network, corruption, law and order, and under development.
The BJP may be eyeing expansion in Kerala and Bengal – it should be happy even if it picks up a couple of seats in these states – but its real hope to form a government lies in Assam. Its vote share between the assembly and Lok Sabha elections increased from 12 to 36 cent. It has placed its trust again in union minister Sarbananda Sonowal, appointing him the new president of the state.
The BJP will try to consolidate its grip over “Hindu” voters – who have largely voted for the Congress when pitted against the AIUDF of Badruddin Ajmal. It is also trying forge an alliance with the Bodoland Peoples’ Front and the AGP, which is attempting to resurface as the true representative of the Assamese.
BJP general secretary Muralidhar Rao admits the NDA has “issues” in the assembly election in TN. The S Ramadoss-led PMO and Vaiko-headed MDMK have walked out. As the one in charge of the party, he hopes for a triangular contest. In a polity dominated by backward classes and dalits, the BJP is trying to stitch up an alliance of caste groups, who are taking the electoral plunge for the first time.
Finding strength in coalition politics
On the sidelines of Bihar CM Nitish Kumar’s swearing-in ceremony in Patna last year, Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi held a long discussion with West Bengal chief minister and Trinamool supremo Mamata Banerjee.
A few weeks later, Banerjee, whose rise in politics has been at the expense of the Congress in the state, also met Congress president Sonia Gandhi in Delhi, fuelling speculations about a possible tie up in the upcoming assembly elections.
The growing bonhomie with the Trinamool didn’t stop the Congress from maintaining close ties with the CPI(M), the party which had ruled Bengal for 34 years before being displaced by the Trinamool in 2011. CPI(M) general secretary Sitaram Yechury regularly met the Congress president and the party has now openly asked the Congress to join an anti-Trinamool alliance.
After tasting success in a coalition for the prestigious battle of Patliputra, the Congress is now looking forward to replicate the Bihar model in other states.
“The Bihar experiment should lead to possibilities in the states where elections are due,” said former minister and senior Congress leader Salman Khurshid. “Bihar was in many ways the happening of the impossible.
The Congress might have been a relatively smaller partner but it made the difference in providing the emotional glue to the alliance,” he added.
While the Congress has already cobbled together a successful coalition in Kerala, the party is busy exploring possibilities in Assam and Tamil Nadu. Party leaders point out that even after the DMK pulled out of the UPA in March 2013, the Congress had backed Kanimozhi’s candidature for the Rajya Sabha three months later with an eye on a future understanding.
Last month, DMK patriarch M Karunanidhi announced, “We will not exclude Congress while inviting alliance parties (to join a DMK-led pact),” raising hopes in the Congress for an alliance after it drew a blank while fighting alone in the Lok Sabha polls in Tamil Nadu.
In Assam, the party is exploring the possibility of a tie-up with Badruddin Ajmal’s AIUDF — a party that draws its strength from Bengali-speaking Muslims. Ajmal has demanded more than 50 seats for the 126-seat strong assembly contest. If the Congress manages to forge more alliances, it would certainly look at strengthening its position as a binding force in coalition politics.
As the party grapples to fight elections with limited resources, its thrust will primarily be on Assam and Kerala — where it has the best chances of retaining power.