The five lessons from five assembly polls
Election results in India are often considered indicative of future politics. But, not this time, as it hides, more than it reveals. This is because there is no national mood connecting the results of elections to the assemblies of four states and one Union Territory. It can be, more precisely, viewed as a state-by-state verdict. In three states (Assam, West Bengal, and Kerala), incumbents returned with emphatic victories, and in two states, incumbents lost (Tamil Nadu and Puducherry). Neither the victory nor losses of the incumbents can be attributed to the governance factor alone. What, then, are the key messages from the results?
First, it would be a mistake to read the results as a verdict against the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led Centre owing to its failure in handling the Covid-19 crisis. Polling in states, other than Bengal, were over before the situation turned from bad to worse. And the scale of the Trinamool Congress (TMC)’s victory in Bengal suggests that the party was ahead even in the first five phases when normal campaigning took place. The BJP may well pay a political price in the future as the Covid-19 crisis continues to unfold. But a lot will depend on popular perceptions of how different parties responded in a time of crisis. Either way, this election was not a referendum on Covid-19 management.
Second, while the BJP may take solace in the fact that, despite a tough contest, it retained Assam and will form a coalition government in Puducherry, it knows that its performance in West Bengal is below its conservative calculation of crossing the 100-seat mark. The collapse of the Left-Congress-Indian Secular Front coalition helped the TMC improve its previous record, but the fact that the BJP lost a chunk of its 2019 vote share should be a major cause of concern.
This also, once again, exposes the limits of the BJP’s strategy of over-relying on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s charisma, without presenting a credible state-level face, and expecting it to overcome the organisational ground game, especially in a state where you have an opponent such as Mamata Banerjee. Her personal popularity, much like Modi, is greater than her party. And, she excels in situations when pushed against the wall. Despite making a formidable entry into Bengal, the loss is going to pinch the BJP for some time, as this was not just an election but an emotional project for the party. Victory in Bengal would have given the BJP a huge ideological boost and narrative advantage till 2024.
Third, the results may have masked the kind of polarising energies that have been unleashed in Assam and Bengal by both sides. India’s eastern frontier, by and large, had remained devoid of communal campaigns. However, the rhetoric used in this campaign, the alliances that were forged, and the social coalitions that were created in this election, will have far-reaching effects. The BJP did everything to inject religious polarisation into the DNA of Bengal’s political culture, and Banerjee ensured that even the most dormant identity markers in state politics were made salient. In Assam too, the communal polarisation has become stark.
Fourth, the existential crisis has deepened for the Congress and the Nehru-Gandhi family. The party lost Puducherry even before the elections were announced, performed poorly West Bengal, couldn’t make a comeback in Assam and Kerala, and is only a junior partner in the winning alliance in Tamil Nadu. The Congress, in its desperation, allied with the All India United Democratic Front (AUDF) in Assam and seems to have revived a party that was in decline. This will affect the Congress’s strength in Assam in the future. Similarly, the Congress had high odds of winning Kerala. After all, the party had won 19 of 20 seats during the Lok Sabha elections in Kerala and Rahul Gandhi (who is an MP from the state) along with Priyanka Vadra campaigned hard. Yet, the party’s vote and seat tally seem to suggest that the Gandhi family has limited pull among India’s southern voters too. Party rebels may put aside their differences in the party’s presidential elections to be held soon, and continue to rally behind the family — but for how long? Fifth, the Left, which failed miserably in Bengal, managed to beat the pattern of an incumbent not returning to power in Kerala. This is likely to ensure that the Kerala faction will now emerge dominant within the Left, which has been dominated by the Bengal faction ever since EMS Namboodiripad’s era of the 1960s. Similarly, the results from Tamil Nadu indicate that the state will continue to revolve around two Dravidian poles, with limited space for other players.
What all of this means is that nationally, the BJP will continue to remain the dominant player. The fulcrum of politics in states too will now have the BJP (and its allies) on one side and the principal state-level competitor (which could be the Congress in few states but will be primarily regional forces in most states). Banerjee, after this impressive performance, may be considered by the media as the face of the non-BJP opposition nationally, but it remains to be seen whether other players will easily privilege her with this position.
In the normal course, such high-profile state elections can be relied upon to glean the contours of the emerging national picture. In this instance, however, the forces shaping national politics have been lurking in the backdrop. Every party can rejoice in its share of victories, but the furnace that will shape the future of Indian politics is the humanitarian crisis brought on by the Covid pandemic. The second wave has opened up this furnace, which has the potential to re-mould political equations, but its ultimate political fallout will depend on the response of different political parties in the coming months.
Rahul Verma is a fellow with the Centre for Policy Research (CPR), New DelhiThe views expressed are personal