Although India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has made major gains in the four states and one Union Territory that voted in elections to assemblies over the past month, there is reason for the country’s opposition parties and alliances to draw satisfaction from the election results. In three states, non-BJP parties and alliances have successfully kept the BJP out of power.
The results reaffirm the message from various states that voted in assembly elections last year. Regional parties with strong and able leaders are able to vanquish the BJP, and importantly, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah, the party’s chief election strategists and campaigners, are not invincible.
Campaigning and voting in the just concluded assembly elections took place amid a surging second wave of COVID-19 infections in the country.
The BJP-led National Democratic Alliance returned to power in the northeastern state of Assam and has also wrested power from the Congress in the Union Territory of Puducherry. However, it will have to remain content with sitting in the opposition in West Bengal, Kerala, and Tamil Nadu.
In Kerala, the ruling Left Democratic Front (LDF) returned to power, winning 99 seats in the 140-seat Assembly. The LDF victory is historic; not only did it improve on its 2016 performance but also, this is the first time in four decades that a ruling alliance has won a second consecutive term in the state. In Tamil Nadu, the Dravida Munetra Kazhagam (DMK)-Congress led alliance swept to power after 10 years. It has secured 159 seats in the 234-seat assembly, 61 more than what it won in 2016.
In West Bengal, the ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC) has returned to power with around 213 seats. Not only has it won by a large margin – the BJP trails far behind – but also, the party has improved upon its victories in the 2011 and 2016 elections.
The TMC victory is all the more remarkable as it was achieved against the odds.
The TMC government had no great achievements on the development front. Its governance was below par and was marred by corruption scandals. Consequently, it faced a strong anti-incumbency mood in the state. In addition, its main challenger in the election, the BJP, poured in vast resources to oust TMC founder-chief and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee.
The BJP’s campaign was polarizing and communal. The party pulled out all the stops. It deployed all its top guns for the Bengal campaign; Modi and Shah as well as Defense Minister Rajnath Singh and BJP President J. P. Nadda visited the state multiple times to woo voters.
The BJP employed every trick in the book to oust the TMC. Engineering the defection of dozens of TMC leaders was an important part of its election strategy. Central investigative agencies carried out income tax raids on TMC leaders and their supporters. Investigations were opened against Banerjee’s family members and political aides as well as business houses close to the TMC.
Importantly, the Election Commission did not provide political parties with a level playing field; its decisions favored the BJP. The EC’s decision to spread voting over eight phases and five weeks, for instance, benefited the BJP. Its response to violations of the Model Code of Conduct was not even-handed.
But ultimately, neither the money, might, and muscle power that the BJP poured into its election campaign nor even its brazen misuse of state machinery was enough to secure it the prize it coveted the most — power in West Bengal.
However, the BJP has made gains in the three states where it failed to come to power. In the outgoing Kerala assembly, the BJP had just one member. It will hold three seats in the new one. The BJP had failed to win any seats in the 2016 elections to the Tamil Nadu assembly, although its alliance partner, the All-India Anna Dravida Munetra Kazhagam (DMK) was voted to power. The party now has three legislators in Tamil Nadu. In the West Bengal assembly the BJP won three seats five years ago. It will have 77 members sitting in the West Bengal assembly now.
Unlike the states in northern, central, and western India, where the BJP has a dominating presence, in West Bengal, Kerala and Tamil Nadu the party has had little support traditionally. Results to the recent elections show that is changing. The BJP has made inroads into these states. It has managed to penetrate even “Fortress Bengal,” which rejected BJP candidates consistently for decades.
The impact of the assembly election results will go beyond the concerned states. It will impact politics at the national level.
They deal the Congress yet another debilitating blow. The Congress, which is the BJP’s main opponent nationally, failed to improve its position in Assam and Kerala. It failed to exploit the anti-incumbency sentiment in both states. It will lead to more questions being raised against the leadership of the Nehru-Gandhi family; serious challenges to Rahul Gandhi’s leadership can be expected in the coming weeks.
For the Left Front, the results were a mixed bag. While the communists performed well in Kerala, they were decimated in West Bengal. With the decimation of the Left-Congress in West Bengal, it is the BJP that is now the main opposition party in the state. With the Left’s eviction from West Bengal, their decades-old bastion, the epicenter of India’s communist politics has shifted decisively to Kerala.
Although Banerjee lost her own seat in the Nandigram constituency, the TMC’s huge victory in the “Battle for Bengal” and the key role she played in it have increased her stature in national politics She is being seen as the leader who is best suited to take on Modi and the BJP in 2024 general elections. She could emerge as a rallying point for parties opposing the BJP.
In the midst of the election campaign, Banerjee wrote to leaders of several opposition parties calling for unity against the BJP. The BJP wants to establish a “one-party authoritarian rule” in India, which would reduce state governments to “mere municipalities,” she said in the letter.
Having achieved a spectacular victory, she can be expected to repeat that call for unity against the BJP with greater confidence and follow that up with more concrete moves.
She should get get a favorable response from the DMK leader, M. K. Stalin, who is likely to become Tamil Nadu’s new chief minister; the LDF’s Pinarayi Vijayan, who will return to the helm in Kerala; as well as Biju Janata Dal (BJD) leader and Orissa Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik. Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) leader and Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal and Shiv Sena chief and Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray, among others, could also seek to bandwagon with Banerjee.
Whether the tottering Congress will swallow its pride and join an opposition front that is not under its leadership remains to be seen.
Banerjee can be expected to first rally chief ministers of non-BJP ruled states against the Modi government’s distribution of resources during the COVID-19 second wave. States like Maharashtra that are not ruled by the BJP have alleged that they have been discriminated against with regard to supply of vaccines and other materials.
Efforts to forge an alliance to fight elections could follow. An early test for opposition unity efforts will be the election to the Uttar Pradesh state assembly, which is due next year.
Opposition fronts and coalitions against the government have not done too well in the past in India. They have usually come apart soon with leaders of constituent parties squabbling over leadership of the front or the coalition government they may subsequently form.
Can the changes in India’s national political arena in the wake of the stunning election results to state assemblies set in motion cooperation rather than competition and conflict among an anti-BJP front?
Banerjee’s appeal for opposition unity during the recent election campaign was mocked by the BJP. Its spokesperson Rajiv Pratap Rudy dismissed it as a “failed front,” that had emerged out of “a condition of hopelessness.”
Given her tenacity and her proven capacity to take on the BJP and defeat it, the BJP would do well to reconsider its dismissal of her initiative to forge opposition unity.