Assembly elections 2021: What it means for key leaders

Published on May 03, 2021 10:22 AM IST

For Narendra Modi, West Bengal was the key prize among all states in his second term, just as Uttar Pradesh was in his first term

(Clockwise from top left): PM Narendra Modi; Mamata Banerjee; Rahul Gandhi; and MK Stalin. (File photos)
(Clockwise from top left): PM Narendra Modi; Mamata Banerjee; Rahul Gandhi; and MK Stalin. (File photos)

The outcome of elections in four states — West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Assam and Kerala — and the Union Territory of Puducherry will have an impact on the political fortunes of both national and state leaders. Here is a snapshot of what it means for India’s key politicians.

Narendra Modi

For Narendra Modi, West Bengal was the key prize among all states in his second term, just as Uttar Pradesh was in his first term. The PM campaigned extensively in the state, even at a time of the pandemic; challenged chief minister (CM) Mamata Banerjee; and promised a golden Bengal if the Bharatiya Janata Party won. The party made the election a contest between the PM and the CM. While it would be a mistake to see the result as a defeat of the PM — state elections are fought on a range of local issues and the PM’s popularity nationally remains high — this is definitely a political setback for him, especially at a time when the Centre is also being criticised for its Covid management. Narendra Modi has shown he can never be underestimated, but for once, despite the party’s win in Assam, the overall outcome of these elections will leave him with greater political challenges in the months ahead.

Amit Shah

When he first took over as party president, Amit Shah’s core goal for the BJP was to preserve its bastions in the north and the west and expand in the south and east. While the party has undoubtedly expanded, the outcome in Bengal — where the home minister invested tremendous political energy, predicted over 200 seats for the BJP, and along with party chief, JP Nadda, ran the campaign — is a political blow. Neither did the agenda of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, associated closely with the home minister, work in the state. While Shah will be satisfied at the party’s continued hold over Northeast’s most important political state, Assam, and the Congress’s defeat, the party’s southern and eastern expansion plans have become more challenging.

Click here for complete coverage of West Bengal assembly election

Mamata Banerjee

There is little doubt that the star of this round of state elections is West Bengal’s chief minister Mamata Banerjee. The only woman CM in India at the moment, Banerjee has also become the only leader who has now fought all three major national political streams — she first fought the Left for decades, ousting it from power in 2011; she fought the BJP, defeating its well oiled machinery in 2021; and she fought the Congress and walked out in the 1990s. Banerjee will emerge from this elections as one of India’s most powerful regional leaders and a possible glue for unity, especially among all the non-Congress and non-BJP political forces. But a new, and more formidable, challenge begins now, with West Bengal witnessing a steady spike in Covid cases and deaths.

Rahul Gandhi

If there is one leader who should be the most disappointed with the election results on Sunday, it is Rahul Gandhi. The Congress may satisfy itself with the fact that the results have undermined the BJP’s goals — but this does not take away from the fact that the Congress lost Assam, Kerala (where history and the performance in the 2019 Lok Sabha was on its side) and Puducherry, was reduced to a non-entity in Bengal, and only won in Tamil Nadu as a junior partner of an alliance. This is bound to trigger greater uncertainty about the question of leadership in the party — where Rahul Gandhi is not officially president but has been in charge of all major decisions. The party is currently focused on critiquing the Centre for its Covid management, but at some point, now or in the future, voices of disquiet will once again emerge, challenging the continued dominance of the Nehru-Gandhi family and questioning its ability to revive the party’s electoral prospects.

MK Stalin

Tamil Nadu lost two of its biggest leaders , J Jayalalithaa and M Karunanidhi, in the past five years, leaving behind a political vacuum. The answer as to who will fill this may well be provided by this assembly poll. MK Stalin, Karunanidhi’s son, who has waited for over four decades for his opportunity to claim political leadership, will finally be the chief minister of one of India’s most important states (in terms of size, political strength, social development indicators, and economic resources). Stalin’s quiet leadership style, smart alliance management, and consistent organisational work has paid off. But in a sign that the electorate remains divided, chief minister EK Palaniswami put up a credible performance, on the back of a better than average governance record. Like Banerjee, Stalin, too will have to tackle the state’s Covid challenge as soon as he takes over.

Click here for complete coverage of Tamil Nadu assembly election

Pinarayi Vijayan

Communist chief ministers are devoted to the party organisation. But only those communist chief ministers who also build up a distinctive leadership style and connect with citizens beyond the party machine have succeeded in India. While this was most obviously true of Jyoti Basu, it is now becoming more representative of Kerala’s chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan — who has succeeded in breaking what many regarded as an almost inviolable rule of state politics, where the Left and Congress replaced each other every five years. The CM led the Left to a victory largely because his government was perceived to have handled both public health (Covid and Nipah) crises and natural disasters (floods) well; he also expanded the party’s social base. As the only one with a proven ability to win elections in his party, Vijayan is arguably now the Left’s most important leader in India.

Himanta Biswa Sarma

The former Congress leader who switched to the BJP in the run up to the 2016 elections in Assam, Himanta Biswa Sarma has not only played a critical role in expanding the party in the Northeast but also emerged as a key trouble shooter with formidable election management skills. When the Citizenship (Amendment) Act was being fiercely opposed on Assam’s streets, and it appeared that this issue would defeat the BJP, Sarma worked with the Centre and local administration to neutralise the anger. He also became the most vocal critic of the Opposition alliance, particularly hitting out at Badruddin Ajmal. While Sarma’s unacceptable remarks that there was no Covid in Assam — during the election campaign, to justify the non adherence to public health protocols — will remain a black mark, politically his biggest challenge now is internal. Sarma wants a bigger political role as the state’s chief minister — but will face resistance from the incumbent, Sarbananda Sonowal. Which way the party leadership swings will determine Sarma’s future.

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