Four key messages from the election results
What is the big political take away from the election results for the states of Assam, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal? While the results of Kerala, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal have been in line with exit poll projections, the scale of the All India Trinamool Congress’s (TMC) victory in West Bengal has belied all predictions. At the outset, the results underline discernible pro-incumbency, with current chief ministers being returned to office convincingly in three out of the four states. And even in the fourth, Tamil Nadu, the AIADMK’s better than expected performance can be attributed to the incumbent chief minister’s record in office. However, these results will also have far-reaching implications for the politics in these states as well as in the country as a whole.
West Bengal’s political landscape has changed
There is no denying the fact that TMC’s big victory is a huge achievement for Mamata Banerjee, especially when seen in the backdrop of the reverses her party suffered in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. When disaggregated at an assembly-constituency (AC) wise level, the TMC and the BJP won 164 and 121 ACs in 2019. This has changed to 214 and 76 now. But when compared with the 2016 results, the 2021 performance signifies a huge gain for the BJP. With 38.1% of the total votes polled, and the Left-Congress alliance virtually decimated, the BJP is now the main opposition party in the state. While a comparison of seats does not show much difference between the TMC’s 2016 and 2021 performance, an analysis of seats which have flipped between 2016 and 2021 offer interesting insights. Of the 76 ACs which the BJP has won, 24 were with the Left-Congress alliance in 2016, while 47 were with the TMC. The TMC was the incumbent in 161 of the 214 ACs which it won, with 52 of the remaining 53 being with the Left-Congress alliance. This suggests that the BJP has expanded into areas of influence of both the TMC and the Left-Congress, the former more than the latter, while the TMC has made a massive dent into the support base of the Left-Congress. More than anything, this means the decimation of the Congress-Left in the state, and a possible deepening of communal polarisation as well.
See Chart 1: How West Bengal ACs flipped between 2016 and 2021
Tamil Nadu has a new Dravidian leader
J Jayalalithaa of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) broke a 32 year old pattern in Tamil Nadu when she managed to retain power in 2016 (she died later the same year). The Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) fought those polls with 92-year old M Karunannidhi as its chief ministerial candidate. He died in 2018. Those results proved that the DMK had also erred in its alliance-strategy. The DMK’s own strike rate in the 178 ACs it contested was 50%, but the Congress could win just eight of the 41 ACs it contested. When M K Stalin took charge of the party after Karunanidhi’s death he led it to a big victory in the 2019 Lok Sbaha polls, with the DMK alliance winning 38 out of the 39 Lok Sabha seats. By delivering a victory for the DMK in the assembly elections, Stalin has emerged as the rightful hei to the legacy of Dravidian political giants. This victory will also give him a larger stature in national politics.
See Chart 2: DMK’s 2016 and 2021 performance (vote share, contested vote share, alliance seat share)
Crisis deepens further for the Congress
The Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) swept the state of Kerala in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, winning 19 out of 20 Lok Sabha seats in the state. History was also on its side in the assembly elections. The two ruling groupings have alternated in power since 1977. That it has failed to win the state, a departure from established practice of the state, will only deepen the crisis in the party. Even in West Bengal the Congress has suffered a rout compared to the 44 ACs it won in 2016. In the state of Assam, where the Congress took a high-risk gamble in allying with the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF), it has not been able to make any significant gains. In fact, the combined vote share of the Congress alliance in Assam has actually come down compared to what it was in 2019, when the party contested alone. In Puducherry, N Rangaswamy of the All India N.R. Congress, a Congress rebel who allied with the BJP has managed to defeat the Congress. The only success for the Congress is in Tamil Nadu, where the DMK offered it only 25 ACs, compared to 41 in the 2016 elections. It won all 16 of these
See Chart 3: Congress seat share in 2016 and 2021 in four states and UT
The epicentre of Left politics will shift to Kerala
The Communist Party of India (Marxist) or the CPI (M) began as the breakaway group of the undivided Communist Party of India (CPI) in 1964. It gradually outgrew its parent and captured power in the states of Kerala, West Bengal and Tripura. In West Bengal (1977-2011) and Tripura (1993-2018), the CPI (M)-led Left Front had long uninterrupted stints in power. In Kerala, the CPI (M) led Left Democratic Front (LDF) has had alternate stints in power since 1977. Because West Bengal was the biggest state among these three regional strongholds of the CPI (M), the state unit had a disproportionate influence on the CPI (M)’s all-India positioning. The biggest example of this was the CPI (M)’s decision to ally with the Congress in the 2016 and 2021 West Bengal elections, even though the LDF and Congress led UDF were direct adversaries in Kerala. Such policies were justified on the grounds of improving the electoral performance of the CPI (M) in West Bengal. With the CPI (M) losing its opposition party status after allying with the Congress in West Bengal in 2016 and having drawn a blank in 2021, the clout of the Kerala unit could increase significantly within India’s communist stream.
See Chart 4: Number of CPI (M) MLAs from West Bengal and Kerala