Cover Story

Battles won and lost

Print edition : June 10, 2016

Members of the Narikurava community after casting their votes in Devarayaneri near Tiruchi on May 16. Photo: M. Moorthy

Mamata Banerjee greeting party workers near her residence on May 19, when the results were announced. Photo: DIBYANGSHU SARKAR/AFP

Jayalalithaa addressing the media at her residenceon May 19. Photo: G. SRIBHARATH

Pinarayi Vijayan, Kerala's new Chief Minister and CPI(M) Polit Bureau member. Photo: C. RATHEESH KUMAR

Sarbananda Sonowal, Assam's new Chief Minister, at the BJP headquarters in Guwahati on May 20. Photo: Ritu Raj Konwar

Congress president Sonia Gandhi with Rahul Gandhi at Veer Bhumi, Rajiv Gandhi's samadhi in New Delhi, on May 21. Photo: R.V. Moorthy

Regional parties retain their importance in national politics as Mamata Banerjee and Jayalalithaa score back-to-back victories, the BJP and the Left get a mixed bag, and the Congress fails to check its decline.

Three clear trends have marked the elections in India since 2014. The first is the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the coalition that it leads, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), occupying centre stage in the national polity. The second is the sustained growth of regional political forces, challenging the dominance of the BJP-led NDA. The third is the growing marginalisation of India’s grand old party, the Congress, at the hands of the BJP and the regional parties.

In 2014, the BJP won the Lok Sabha election with a massive mandate. It followed up that triumph with Assembly election victories in Maharashtra, Haryana and Jharkhand. It also managed to get a share of power in Jammu and Kashmir by working out a post-election alliance with the People’s Democratic Party (PDP). But this runaway success story was decisively challenged the next year. In 2015, first the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in Delhi and later the Grand Alliance in Bihar—consisting of the Janata Dal (United), the Rashtriya Janata Dal and the Congress—inflicted resounding defeats on the NDA. The verdict of the 2016 Assembly elections in Assam, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Puducherry, showcased both these trends and the Congress’ decline.

In Assam, the BJP has come to power, the first time ever in a north-eastern State, albeit in alliance with local parties. The All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) in Tamil Nadu and the Trinamool Congress in West Bengal retained power with massive mandates in an impressive display of the might of regional forces.

The Congress was routed in Assam and Kerala, the two States where it was in power before the elections. Its only consolation is the Union Territory of Puducherry, which it managed to wrest in alliance with the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK).

The Left parties, which suffered major electoral losses in 2014 and 2015, reaped a mixed harvest this time. In Kerala, the Left Democratic Front (LDF) led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) removed from power the United Democratic Front (UDF) led by the Congress. In West Bengal, however, the seat-sharing agreement between the Left and the Congress did not yield the expected results, with the Left parties incurring bigger losses than the Congress.

Which of the three political trends outlined above is the most significant one is the subject of debates in political circles. The dominant view seems to point to the ascending political fortunes of the BJP and its allies as the most important development. The BJP, it is pointed out, has not only created history by emerging as the ruling party in Assam but also opened its account in Kerala, where for the first time it has won an Assembly seat. The vote share of the BJP and its allies in Kerala rose to an impressive 15.8 per cent. The BJP’s own vote share of 10.5 per cent is also a decisive improvement over the 6.03 per cent in the 2011 Assembly election and does not compare unfavourably with the 10.45 per cent in the 2014 Lok Sabha election. This is cited to argue that Kerala has ceased to be a bipolar political entity choosing between the LDF and the UDF.

Several BJP leaders, including party president Amit Shah, see the party’s performance in Assam and Kerala as reflecting its progressive prowess at the national level. Several BJP leaders point out that the BJP’s sway extends to Jammu and Kashmir in the north, Gujarat in the west and now Assam in the north-east. This expanding geographical reach of the BJP is said to be the harbinger of expansion into other north-eastern States such as Manipur, Nagaland and Meghalaya. That it has been able to win allies such as the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) and the Bodo People’s Front (BPF) is perceived to indicate the saffron party’s growing acceptance among regional players.

At the level of strategy, the alliance with these two parties in Assam showed that the BJP learnt a lesson from the 2015 debacle in Bihar, where it did not announce any chief ministerial candidate and pinned its hopes on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s image to see it through the election. The tactic did not work, and in Assam this time Sarbananda Sonowal was announced as the chief ministerial candidate. This helped the BJP to exploit the anti-incumbency mood against the 15-year-old Congress government. The agenda of communal and regional polarisation pursued by the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) and the rest of the Sangh Parivar through grass-roots campaigns against Bangladeshi (Muslim) immigrants also helped the BJP.

The political analyst Sheetal P. Singh, who has long been a close watcher of Assam politics, pointed out to Frontline that the 2016 verdict in the State was historic because of the way the BJP had used rabid communal polarisation along the sensitive border. “Several conflicts and tussles based on ethnic and community diversities have time and again wracked the State over decades, but this time all these were subsumed by the deep social divide between Hindus and Muslims. There is an unprecedented Hindu consolidation behind the march of the BJP and its allies. In that sense, this victory brings along with it a sense of foreboding not just for Assam but for the whole north-eastern region.”

The arithmetic of vote share, which looks good for the BJP in Kerala, does not, however, look too good in Assam. The BJP secured 36.86 per cent of the votes in the State in the 2014 Lok Sabha election and won seven of the State’s 14 parliamentary seats. This time, however, its vote share has fallen to 29.5 per cent. The AGP got 8.1 per cent and the BPF got 3.9 per cent, bringing up the alliance’s share to 41.5 per cent, which is less than the 42.24 per cent that these parties polled, fighting separately, in 2014. In West Bengal, the BJP’s vote share has fallen from 17.02 per cent in 2014 to 10.2 per cent; and in Tamil Nadu it has fallen from 5.56 per cent to 2.8 per cent.

The BJP, in fact, has seen its vote share dipping in almost all the States where it did very well in the 2014 Lok Sabha election. The BJP-Shiv Sena combine together secured a vote share of 47.9 per cent in Maharashtra in 2014, with the BJP alone securing 27.56 per cent. The BJP got 40.1 per cent of the votes in Jharkhand and 32.65 per cent in Jammu and Kashmir in the 2014 general elections. Though in the Maharashtra Assembly elections the BJP improved its vote share marginally to 27.8 per cent, its vote share dropped by nearly 10 percentage points in both Jharkhand (31.3 per cent) and Jammu and Kashmir (23 per cent). The trend was even more marked in the States where the party lost the Assembly elections in 2015. In Delhi, its vote share fell from 46.63 per cent in 2014 to 32.78 per cent, and in Bihar from 29.86 per cent to 24.42 per cent. Evidently, the “BJP’s consolidation of centre space” argument does not hold good uniformly across India, though the 2016 verdict in Assam and Kerala does lend it some credence.

There is, however, little doubt that whatever gains the BJP has been making are directly proportional to the Congress’ decline. In almost all the elections since the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, barring Bihar and Puducherry where the Congress contested in alliance with regional parties, the party has been trounced by either the BJP and its allies or forces like the Left, the AIADMK or the Trinamool. A variety of factors ranging from anti-incumbency and the Congress leadership’s inability to devise effective election strategies to infighting in local party units have contributed to this decline. The most crucial factor is perhaps the the lack of efficiency and creativity at the topmost-level leadership comprising Congress president Sonia Gandhi and vice president Rahul Gandhi.

There has been a long-standing demand from within the party that Rahul Gandhi should formally take over the presidentship of the party and lead it from the front. But Rahul Gandhi has followed a strange cycle of eruption into hectic political activity and lapsing into listless inaction. Many senior Congress leaders are upset over this, but to no avail so far. Immediately after the 2016 verdict, senior Congress leader Digvijay Singh called for a “major surgery” in the party (see interview). He had preceded this demand by arguing that enough introspection had been done by the leadership and it was now time for action. As of now, the topmost leadership has come up with some predictable platitudes in response to the verdict. Sonia Gandhi stated that the Congress accepted the verdict with utmost humility and that the party would introspect over the reasons for the loss. She also added that “we will rededicate ourselves to the service of the people with greater vigour”. Rahul Gandhi said that the Congress would work hard to win people’s confidence and trust.

BJP president Amit Shah’s comment characterising the 2016 Assembly election verdicts as “two steps closer to Congress-mukt Bharat [an India free of the Congress]” acquires greater credence in the background of this palpable listlessness in the Congress leadership. Some Congress leaders point out that if one takes the Assembly elections in all the five States, the Congress has won more seats than the BJP and that this has consequences for the battle for supremacy in the Rajya Sabha, where the BJP government has consistently failed to muster support for its key proposals and legislation. But this holds little consolation for a large number of Congress workers and senior leaders who want the leadership to come up with a concrete plan of action complete with clear pronouncements on political, ideological and economic policy orientation. There are suggestions that brainstorming sessions such as the one held at Pachmarhi in 1998 should be organised to redraw the party’s political and organisational structure.

The regional parties that have been challenging the BJP’s growing dominance subscribe to diverse ideological and political positions marked by political exigencies, identity politics, anti-corruption agendas, concepts of social justice and even downright populism. The AIADMK and the Trinamool Congress have returned to power on the back of populist measures and organisational muscle power combined with a selective use of money power.

The Trinamool brand of muscle power is reportedly so widespread and brutal that the Left parties and the Congress might not have been able to campaign at the ground level if they had not come together. The AIADMK and the Trinamool have certainly overcome the anti-incumbency factor, but whether they will be able to chart new paths in terms of political, social and economic policies remains to be seen.

As for the Left, its victory in Kerala accords it an opportunity to present an alternative governance model. The next round of Assembly elections is due in 2017 and will once again mark a clash with the BJP-led NDA on the one side and regional parties on the other. While it will be the AAP in Punjab, it will be the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party in Uttar Pradesh. By all indications, the regional forces are fighting fit in the run-up to both these crucial electoral battles. The big question, however, is whether the BJP and its associates in the Sangh Parivar will unfold some new communal game plan to forge an Assam-like victory.