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The meaning of victory and defeat
Five Assembly elections, and five different winners. But the voters did not distribute their favours equitably. The Congress, the only party with a realistic chance of being part of a winning coalition in all the five elections, won only one, the least important politically, the Union Territory of Puducherry. In Assam, it ceded ground to its principal rival at the national level, the Bharatiya Janata Party, for the first time. In Kerala, where it headed a coalition government as the leading member of the United Democratic Front, it lost heavily to the Left Democratic Front led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist). In West Bengal, the party’s incongruous alliance with the Left Front failed to enthuse voters, who saw it as devious and opportunistic. And in Tamil Nadu, the revival of the alliance with the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam yielded little dividend for the Congress. The BJP, however, can take heart from its victory in Assam, where it managed to stitch together an alliance with regional parties, the Asom Gana Parishad and the Bodoland People’s Front. In West Bengal and Tamil Nadu, the two big States in which it is a minor player, the BJP will not be displeased with the success of the Trinamool Congress over the Left-Congress alliance and of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam over the DMK-Congress alliance. Both victors have better relations with the BJP than with the Congress. In Kerala, the BJP made its debut by winning its first seat, signalling that it could emerge as a third force in the medium to long term. So, in a head-to-head with the Congress, the BJP is the clear winner in this round of Assembly elections.
In Tamil Nadu, the AIADMK led by Ms. Jayalalithaa did well to overcome anti-incumbency. Not since her political mentor M.G. Ramachandran won in 1984 has any Chief Minister retained power, winning a comfortable majority despite the close contest. After decades of alliance politics, Tamil Nadu seems to be moving towards a polarisation between the two major Dravidian parties. The third front, led by the party of actor-turned politician Vijayakant, the Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam, failed to win a seat. Indeed, it was supplanted as the third force by the Pattali Makkal Katchi, which polled almost as many votes as the six-party DMDK-led front. The DMK’s allies fared worse than it did, raising the question whether it gave away too many seats in trying to win new friends. Although the alliance with the Congress seems to have worked in the deep south, where the national party retains a support base, in many other places the DMK appeared to have only made things easier for the AIADMK by handing over the seats to its allies. Two things seemed to have settled the election in the AIADMK’s favour. First, the anti-incumbency sentiment, if it existed at all, was not as strong as many observers believed it was. Second, the existence of a multi-cornered contest served to blunt anti-incumbency even further. Her biggest challenge is how to manage her revenue-sapping promise of introducing a phased prohibition without scaling down her populist policies. Also, she will have to contend with a much stronger Opposition than before, with the DMK alliance having won over 40 per cent of the seats in the Assembly.
In Kerala, the LDF, having returned with a comfortable majority, will now have to choose between its two chief ministerial aspirants, former Chief Minister V.S. Achuthanandan and former State secretary Pinarayi Vijayan. Mr. Achuthanandan is the popular face of the CPI(M), but Mr. Vijayan is the organisation man, commanding greater support within the party. Whoever is chosen will be tasked with improving governance in this politically conscious State of unforgiving voters. The Left, and the CPI(M) particularly, would have been devastated with a loss in Kerala, given how poorly the party fared in West Bengal. Kerala ranks high on most human development indices; what it has failed to do over the years is to leverage this effectively to attract industry and investment to become even more prosperous.
In West Bengal, the Trinamool Congress appears to have perfected the art, learnt from the Left Front, of managing elections. Its leader, Ms. Banerjee, has a knack for identifying popular issues and aggressively mobilising support around them. Quite remarkably, the Trinamool was able to overcome the anti-incumbency factor and improve on its 2011 tally against the combined strength of the Left and the Congress. The CPI(M) will rue the decision to ally with the Congress, despite serious reservations within a section of the national leadership. The alliance clearly helped the Congress more than the Left, which astonishingly ended up with fewer seats than its junior partner. The Left’s continually sliding electoral performance in West Bengal raises questions about how it can reinvent itself in a State it ruled for three decades. Quick-fix alliances are not the solution; if anything, it lies in winning back the support of the peasantry and the labour class, which it has lost in part to the Trinamool. In Assam, the BJP-AGP-BPF alliance was able to convince people of the importance of putting up a joint fight against their long-time rival, the Congress. By registering its first victory in an Assembly election in the Northeast, the BJP will hope to use this as a launchpad for further consolidation in the region. All in all, it is the Congress, having lost control of two States, which has reason to be most disheartened by the results; the victory in Puducherry in alliance with the DMK is small consolation. The question about how it can reverse the slide after 2014 will only become sharper now. As for the BJP, its boasts of having emerged a truly national player are vastly exaggerated. While it has repeatedly demonstrated it is better placed in direct face-offs against a diminishing Congress, there are parts of India where its presence is either marginal or very slight. This is relevant for a party looking to retain power in 2019. It is difficult, if not well-nigh impossible, to repeat its stunning 2014 sweep of the Hindi heartland; the seats the BJP will lose here will need to be compensated in States where its base is weak. It made no headway in Tamil Nadu. And while its performance in West Bengal and Kerala was much better, it needs to do a lot more before it can be regarded as a serious player in these States and a truly pan-Indian presence as the Congress once was.
Inclusion plus development
The Bharatiya Janata Party’s conquest of Assam is momentous not only for its scale but also for the hopes that accompany it. Its first electoral win in the State was comprehensive: 86 out of 126 seats in Assembly, and a combined vote share of 41.5 per cent for the BJP-led alliance, numbers that suggest the verdict was more than a mere expression of anti-incumbency against 15 uninterrupted years of Congress rule. The win has bred an air of expectation perhaps not seen since 1985, when the Asom Gana Parishad, the BJP’s junior ally this time, also reduced the Congress to the mid-20s in terms of seats, primarily on a plank of safeguarding the rights of the State’s indigenous communities against illegal immigration from Bangladesh. It is indicative of the slow pace of progress in the frontier State that the BJP’s successful campaign, three decades on, was also mounted on a promise to solve the foreigners’ issue, and usher in all-round development. Its two leading faces at the poll stump, chief ministerial candidate Sarbananda Sonowal and campaign committee convener Himanta Biswa Sarma, have the requisite credentials for this dual message. It was Mr. Sonowal’s dogged legal pursuit that resulted in the Supreme Court scrapping the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunal) Act in 2005, an Act specially legislated for Assam in 1983, and which was perceived to be a hindrance in the actual detection and deportation of illegal residents. Mr. Sarma, 23 years a Congressman before switching to the BJP in August 2015, was regarded as one of the more enterprising ministers in the Tarun Gogoi cabinet, with notable achievements in teacher recruitments and medical facilities in government hospitals.
The BJP insists that Assam has voted “for change, for prosperity, for peace, for good governance” and that the secular identity of the State would be preserved. Mr. Sonowal has also promised to seal the border with Bangladesh. The fact is, Assam shares only 263 km — of which 44 km is riverine — of the 4,096-km boundary between India and Bangladesh, and the onus of fencing and barb-wiring the border and formulating processes for the return of proven illegal immigrants back to Bangladesh rests on the Centre. In any case, there are more pressing matters at hand in a State where roughly one-third of the population lives below the poverty line and whose human development indicators are among the worst in the country. Going forward, there are other political minefields to navigate if the new government seeks to implement some of its campaign promises, such as the one to grant Scheduled Tribe status to six indigenous communities that constitute 40 per cent of the State’s population. Assam is a mosaic of ethnic and religious groups of uncommon diversity, and the BJP-led alliance must temper its poll-winning rhetoric with ground reality. The anti-immigrant rhetoric during campaigning at times virtually conflated Muslims with illegal immigrants. The new government must expressly reassure the minorities. The State needs a development narrative in its social tapestry.
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