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Lok Sabha elections 2019: Will TMC, BJD rethink strategy to stave off BJP poll challenge?

Naveen Patnaik formed the BJD after the death of his father Biju Patnaik in 1997. The BJP and the BJD had pre-poll alliances in the 1998, 1999 and 2004 Lok Sabha elections, and won 16, 19 and 18 out of the 21 PCs in the state

lok sabha elections Updated: Apr 17, 2019 07:47 IST
Roshan Kishore
Roshan Kishore
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
BJP,BJD,Biju Patnaik
Sure, the BJP did win Darjeeling on its own in West Bengal in the 2009 Lok Sabha election, but this was with the support of the Gorkha Janamukti Morcha (GJM). (AP FILE PHOTO)

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is eyeing big gains in West Bengal and Odisha in the ongoing Lok Sabha elections. Its expectations are not without reason. In 2014, the BJP won one Lok Sabha seat in Odisha and two in West Bengal. This was the first time the party won a Lok Sabha seat on its own in these two states.

Sure, the BJP did win Darjeeling on its own in West Bengal in the 2009 Lok Sabha election, but this was with the support of the Gorkha Janamukti Morcha (GJM).

Also, significant parts of the Darjeeling parliamentary constituency (PC) have a demography which is very different from the rest of the state.

While the BJP had a lead in the hilly assembly constituencies (ACs) of the Darjeeling PC (Kalimpong, Darjeeling and Kurseong) with a large population of Nepali origin, it finished third in the other four ACs which have a higher share of Bengali-speaking population.

Results from local body polls held in both West Bengal and Odisha after 2014 suggest that the BJP is now the number two party and the main challenger to the dominant regional parties, the All India Trinamool Congress (AITC) in West Bengal and the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) in Odisha. Interestingly, both the AITC and the BJD have done business with the BJP in the past.

Naveen Patnaik formed the BJD after the death of his father Biju Patnaik in 1997. The BJP and the BJD had pre-poll alliances in the 1998, 1999 and 2004 Lok Sabha elections, and won 16, 19 and 18 out of the 21 PCs in the state.

This alliance helped Naveen Patnaik stabilise his new party against the Congress, which was a formidable opposition with more than one-third of the popular vote.

Mamata Banerjee walked out of the Congress to float her West Bengal Trinamool Congress (later renamed as the AITC) in 1998. Her party tied up with the BJP in Lok Sabha elections between 1998 and 2004. Unlike the BJD, the AITC did not gain much from the alliance and saw its Lok Sabha seat tally reduced to just one in the 2004 elections.

Both the BJD and the AITC changed their electoral strategy in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections. The BJD decided to contest alone in Odisha while the AITC tied up with the Congress in West Bengal. Both the BJD and the AITC gained while the BJP suffered. However, it was not the BJP which suffered long-term damage due to the rise of these two regional parties.

The BJP has managed to rebuild and even expand its political footprint in Odisha and West Bengal in the post-2009 phase. However, the Congress in Odisha and both the Left and the Congress in West Bengal have seen a significant reduction in popular support during this phase (See charts).

In fact, there is a high likelihood that the BJP will overtake the Congress in Odisha and the Left in West Bengal in terms of vote share in the 2019 elections. If this happens and the BJP emerges as the main challenger to the dominant regional parties in these two states, it remains to be seen whether the AITC and the BJP rethink their political tactics in the state.

This is important because the BJP seems to have grown more at the cost of the Opposition (Congress in Odisha and Left in West Bengal) than the incumbent in these states until now.

Politically speaking, the BJP has managed to convince the electorate that it is a better challenger to the incumbent political force than the existing Opposition.

If the entire Opposition vote were to consolidate behind the BJP, it can pose a formidable challenge to the incumbents in these two states.

If the 2014 votes of the Cong- ress and the BJP were to be combined at PC level, it would have won 13 out of 21 seats. Combined votes of the BJP and the Left would be more than that of the AITC in 31 out of the 42 PCs in West Bengal.

The BJP’s strategy of growing at the cost of discrediting the Opposition in Odisha and West Bengal is not very different from what the BJD and the AITC used in their formative years. When the BJD was formed, the Congress was in power in Odisha. The BJD’s parent party, the Janata Dal, was seen as pro-Congress after having participated in the United Front government in 1996. Same was the case with the AITC, which walked out of the Congress to challenge the Left in West Bengal. Both the Congress and the Left were part of the United Front experiment, and the latter was the dominant political force in the state. 1990s was also the period in the country when the BJP was emerging as a pan-India challenger to the Congress, which was then the dominant political force in the country.

Even if the BJP suffers losses compared to its 2014 tally in the 2019 elections, the likelihood of the Congress surpassing it in terms of both seat share and vote share is negligible.

At a time when the BJP continues to be the dominant all-India party and the main challenger to the dominant regional parties in West Bengal and Odisha, it will be interesting to see whether the BJD and the AITC rethink their political strategies to realign themselves with the weakened but bankable anti-BJP political forces like the Congress in Odisha and the Congress and the Left in West Bengal after the 2019 elections.

It can be argued that both the BJD and the AITC have a lot to gain if they tie up with the BJP in case the NDA does not have the numbers to form a government.

While it could bring them more political power and resources, which matter for poor states such as West Bengal and Odisha, it could also give a fresh lease of life to the struggling opposition parties.

Whatever the results of the 2019 elections are, political churn in West Bengal and Odisha is unlikely to end with the results.

First Published: Apr 17, 2019 07:16 IST