The latest assembly election results– Assam to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Kerala to the Left, and the return of Mamata Banerjee and J. Jayalalithaa in West Bengal and Tamil Nadu – can hardly be considered a “referendum” on the performance of the Narendra Modi government at the Centre but they do confirm the fact that the Congress, once India’s pre-eminent “national” party with a commanding presence in every state and region, has reduced itself to a regional outfit.
The decline we are witnessing is more than the sum of individual electoral setbacks, though these have mounted relentlessly in the past few years and especially since 2013. Apart from Rajasthan and Delhi, the party has lost Haryana and Maharashtra, Jharkhand, Jammu and Kashmir, and now Kerala and Assam. Where it has lost governments, it has lost vote share. Wherever it has held on to – or even marginally extended – its electoral turf, it has done so courtesy of powerful allies like the DMK in Tamil Nadu, the Left Front in West Bengal and the RJD-JD(U) in Bihar. A less official but no loss potent metric of its declining fortunes is the desertion or defection of senior party leaders in Assam (Himanta Biswa Sarma), Tamil Nadu (G. K. Vasan), Arunachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand.
In the earlier stages of the Congress’s long-term decline – when it stopped being a major factor in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar – the debate within the party was on the utility of going it alone or allying with a regional player. The bad news from the latest results is that the decline has been so precipitous that the party is damned if it allies, damned if it doesn’t. In Assam, it decided not to ally with Badaruddin Ajmal’s All India United Democratic Front and ended up losing. In West Bengal and Tamil Nadu, it swallowed its pride and went in as a junior partner to the Left Front and the DMK but failed to come to power in either state. The alliance in Bengal helped the Congress win more seats than the Left but the fact that its vote share is only slightly more than that of the BJP – which fought alone – is not without significance.
The undivided Communist Party of India was once the country’s second most important national party. The Communists have wrested Kerala from the Congress but the Left Front’s rout in West Bengal – despite a problematic alliance with the Congress that was struck precisely in order to avert such a washout – has robbed that victory of its sweetness.
Though the BJP suffered major setbacks in Delhi and Bihar, thanks largely to the misplaced, divisive campaigns Amit Shah and his advisers pursued, the party’s character as India’s only genuinely national party is hard to deny.
The BJP has now come to power in Assam, even if in alliance with important regional players like the Asom Gana Parishad and the Bodo Peoples Front, with an individual vote share comparable to the Congress. In West Bengal, it has doubled its vote share – compared to the 2011 assembly elections – and appears to have polled just about one percentage point less than the Congress there. Its tally of two in West Bengal and one in Kerala may not look impressive but these seats mark the formal debut of the saffron party in the two state assemblies. Indeed, by polling nearly 10.7% of the popular vote in Kerala this time, the BJP has not only improved upon its 2011 performance but has also marginally increased its vote share beyond the 10.3% that the ‘Modi wave’ generated in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. This suggests the BJP is emerging organically in the state and not merely as an external imposition.
Tamil Nadu, however, is still inhospitable terrain for the BJP but that is because the state has been so effectively carved up by the two Dravidian parties in the past nearly four decades that ‘national’ parties do not have much of a role except as junior partners.
While there is no disputing the BJP’s status as India’s only ‘national’ party today, it is far from clear what its leadership intends to do with this status. Will it finally turn its attention to delivering on the mandate of ‘development’ that its leaders swear by? Or will it proceed with its ongoing attempts to redefine the meaning of the nation by pursuing divisive, reactionary agendas? Most likely, the Sangh parivar will proceed on both fronts, using the BJP to project high governance, while the RSS and its various front organisations, especially in Kerala, West Bengal and even Assam push the base agenda of Hindutva.
Nationally, the BJP is likely to use these results to declare that “the people” have rejected the charge that the party is promoting chauvinism and intolerance. Of course, the Bihar verdict was never seen by it as a ‘national’ verdict. Though the Sangh kept off its pet themes of ‘cow protection’ in Kerala, Assam and West Bengal – where large numbers of people eat beef in one form or the other – it is not as if the BJP campaign shied away from using other communal cards in areas where it felt this might pay dividends. In both Kerala and West Bengal, the RSS believes the BJP has a good chance of emerging as a serious contender for power over the next two decades. In these elections, there are reasons to believe it won its votes from the Congress. In the long-run, however, it will hope to eat into the Left’s vote-share. Whether the Sangh’s brand of strident chauvinism will work in states that are not just multi-denominational but also have a long tradition of civic (rather than state-mandates) secularism remains to be seen. Another imponderable is the amount of freedom Assam’s new chief minister, Sarbananda Sonowal, will get to enjoy. He is a ‘lateral entry’ into the BJP and though the Assam student movement from which he emerged has always taken a strident position on ‘Bangladeshis’, Sonowal has repeatedly stressed the secular nature of his Assamese nationalism. As and when the RSS tries to make use of its new-found influence in Assam to push its suffocating agenda, the young chief minister’s political mettle will truly be tested.
The fact that the Congress and the Left have both suffered in these elections will further embolden the RSS and BJP to up the ante nationally. The politics of confrontation in parliament and outside is likely to escalate in the months ahead as we move towards arguably the most important electoral pit-stop on the way to the next general elections: Uttar Pradesh. Assembly polls are still several months away but there are already indications on the ground that the anti-Muslim card will be deployed strategically in different parts of the state. Despite Hindutva not working for the BJP in either Delhi or Bihar, RSS hotheads believe UP is different. The likelihood of its opponents uniting as they did in Bihar is remote, nor is any one of them likely to emerge as the BJP’s principal opponent in the manner in which the Aam Aadmi Party did in Delhi.
As prime minister, Narendra Modi has operated perpetually in campaign mode. His take-no-prisoners attitude is aimed at ensuring a ‘baadha-mukt Bharat’ – a political and institutional environment that will allow the BJP to do as it pleases. The latest election results are proof that the Congress is no longer an obstacle. What remains are the regional parties, with the Left just about qualifying as one. In the long run, the BJP will seek to take on the regional parties too but for now it knows that its status as the only national party – even if it loses a state or two or fails to win Uttar Pradesh – will give it a definite advantage by the time 2019 comes around.
Note: This article has been edited to correct the name of Badaruddin Ajmal’s party in Assam. It is the All India United Democratic Front.