The political sweepstakes in the April-May assembly polls in West Bengal, Kerala, Assam, Tamil Nadu and Puducherry could be encapsulated in two words: survival and redemption.
Hitting a low in 2015 after a dream run the previous year, the BJP is looking to redeem itself. The Congress, ousted from power at the Centre and in four major states in 2014, can ill afford to lose two more and lend steam to the BJP’s “Congress-mukt Bharat” slogan. For the Left, a failure to wrest power in Kolkata or Thiruvananthapuram would raise questions on their political relevance.
There is much at stake for these national parties as also for regional ones such as the DMK and AIADMK in Tamil Nadu and the Trinamool Congress in West Bengal.
The poll outcome would have national ramifications. It would have a bearing on the degree and pace of coalescence of anti-BJP forces, a phenomenon BJP president Amit Shah recently described as “BJP-versus-all or Narendra Modi-versus-all”.
Already hobbled by a lack of majority in the Rajya Sabha, the NDA government would be confronted with a more belligerent Opposition in case of adverse results in these polls.
The BJP’s stakes
The party has never been in power in any of the four states and one Union territory. It is said to have a realistic chance in Assam and a significant increase in its vote-share and seats in the other states would not only take the steam out of the Opposition’s onslaught but also bolster the party’s claim for a pan-India status.
Conversely, questions about the popularity of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the policies of the NDA government would surface again. After the party’s best-ever show in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the victory march continued in Maharashtra, Haryana, Jharkhand and Jammu and Kashmir.
Then it hit a trough in 2015, losing Delhi and Bihar assembly elections. Results of civic polls in five different states showed a slide in fortune. In Madhya Pradesh, after losing the Ratlam Lok Sabha bypoll, the BJP lost five of eight urban civic bodies. In Gujarat, the Congress managed to win 21 of 31 district panchayats; the BJP had won 30 of them in 2010.
There was little to cheer in the Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan and West Bengal civil polls either. The BJP is anxious to break the spell and return to the winning streak before assembly polls in seven states next year, including Uttar Pradesh, Punjab and Gujarat.
“They (BJP) don’t have to worry about these elections. Whatever they achieve, they can project as their gains,” says political scientist Suhas Palshikar.
Besides Assam and Kerala, the Congress is in power in six states that account for 42 Lok Sabha MPs. The party rode piggyback on the RJD-JDU combine in Bihar and opted for a similar arrangement with the DMK-led alliance in Tamil Nadu. Whether it would play the lead or tertiary role in any national “mahagathbandhan” in the future would depend on its performance in the 2016 and 2017 assembly polls.
Until 2008, the Left parties dictated the UPA government’s economic and foreign policies. Today, their writ runs in Tripura only. In West Bengal, they are fighting a marauding TMC. Left sources say they are only hoping for a “miracle” this election.
Political observers are not surprised to see the CPI(M) state committee proposing an alliance with the Congress last week. The CPI(M) central leadership may not be inclined to barter away the party’s chance to form the government in Kerala, where it is pitted against the Congress-led coalition, for marginal gains in West Bengal. Their individual gains and losses apart, these parties are likely to make renewed efforts to stitch non-BJP alliances. These polls could provide the contours for this.
NDA government’s stakes
The NDA’s debacle in Bihar prompted an emboldened Opposition to close ranks and disrupt Parliament in the winter session. If it harbours any hope of outsmarting the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha to push reforms, the BJP has to do extremely well in the upcoming polls.
The BJP has 48 MPs in the 242-member Upper House. There will be 11 vacancies from Assam, Kerala and Tamil Nadu by June this year, six and five from West Bengal in 2017 and 2018 respectively. None of these seats is held by NDA. They may not give the BJP the requisite numbers to push any legislation through but if it does extremely well in the coming elections, the government may get some elbow room.
If it doesn’t, parliamentary logjams and political slugfests may continue to dominate public discourse.