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India’s State Elections: BJP Strategy Working, Congress At A Loss – OpEd

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By Rashmi Saksena*

The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) chief and strongman Amit Shah triumphantly stated after local (assembly)elections results from four Indian states and one union territory came in (May 19) that his party now has a footprint from “Kutch to Kamrup”. The results from four Indian states and one union territory show more than just the rising popularity graph of the rightist party that leads the government in New Delhi. As noteworthy as the political ascendancy of the BJP is the decimation of the grand old political party, the Indian National Congress. The state elections have left it fighting an existential battle.

The spread of the BJP can be measured by the fact that 69% of India’s territory now has a BJP or BJP plus allies state government. Its main political rival, the Congress, has receded to a mere 14%. The BJP has for the first time made inroads into the Northeast of India with its victory in Assam, getting 86 out of 126 seats, opened its account for the first time with one seat in Kerala and bagged six in West Bengal.

The BJP’s momentous success in the just concluded state polls goes beyond its expanded vote share and seat tally. The numbers have given much more. The BJP is expected to read into this a grant of the much needed legitimacy to push ahead with its ideological agenda. The run up to the big electoral battle in Uttar Pradesh and Karnataka may well see a more confident BJP add more vigor to its plank of emotional nationalism. It is likely to bring the saffron hand down harder on cultural issues too.

The results of the state election could not have come at a better time for the BJP. They bring for it a reassurance from the people at a juncture when it is facing flak from the Congress and Left quarters over its nationalistic agenda, making the uttering of ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai’ chant almost mandatory, Jawaharlal Nehru University controversy triggered by the arrest of students who raised voice of dissent and the beef ban. The message the voter has conveyed through the ballot will be read by the BJP as a vindication of its stand on these issues.

The results have also made another significant point. It is obvious from the tally that the development agenda resonates with a people seeking a better life. Though Mamata Banerjee and her Trinamool Congress in West Bengal as well as AIADMK queen J Jayalalitha in Tamil Nadu were under the cloud of corruption allegations they romped home belying all political pundits and rivals. They voters instead rewarded them for their welfare schemes and development promises.

The Narendra Modi government is likely to take this as a signal to press ahead with its development agenda and publicize it extensively when it is time for electioneering again in more state elections next year as well as the 2019 general elections. The state election results have shown the way to the BJP on its two-pronged campaign strategy – majoritarian cultural agenda and a reformist economic plank. It is bound to fine-tune its campaign strategy in coming elections in Uttar Pradesh, Karnataka, Punjab and Gujarat.

While the BJP strategists did target and consolidate the Hindu vote in Assam against illegal migrants (read Muslims) from Bangladesh it was more subtle than on other occasions. The BJP is unlikely to miss the fact that its raking up the Assamese “identity” issue has paid rich dividends. Assam has also shown that projecting a chief ministerial candidate, particularly a local grassroot person, pays.

Though the BJP’s historic win in Assam, opening its account in Kerala with one seat and bagging three in West Bengal will not make a significant difference in BJP numbers in the Rajya Sabha, the upper house in India’s Parliament, the victory of of Mamata Banerjee in West Bengal and Jayalalitha in Tamil Nadu should help the Modi government in getting through its reform bills in the Rajya Sabha which have been stuck because of what the BJP called Congress’ “obstructionist” tactics.. Mamata has already stated that she is in favour of passing the GST (goods and services tax) bill – that will club and rationalise multitude of state level taxes into one federal tax) – which has become a matter of prestige for the Modi government.

The BJP which is on a political ascendancy will surely be gloating over the existential crisis the national political party the Congress faces after the 2016 state polls. Clearly the BJP has little to fear from the Congress more so if it fails to shed off excessive baggage tagged Rahul Gandhi and his band of young advisors. The Congress traditional space has instead been taken up by regional parties. The challenge for BJP is now likely to come from tall regional leaders like Mamata and Jayalalith who loom large on India’s political firmament post returning to power following polls in their states. For the BJP to continue expanding its geographical and political footprint it will have to reach out to smaller entities. In Assam the BJP struck an alliance with AGP ( Asom Gana Parishad) and Bodoland People’s Front and garnered the swing votes.

Modi’s telephone call to Mamata and Jayalalitha to congratulate them on their win definitely has the right ring to it. The BJP is reaching out to regional power centres. The Modi government needs Mamata with whom Narendra Modi is nurturing a recently formed friendship. The Prime Minister has to have Mamata on board for an agreement with Bangladesh on Teesta waters.Talking of possible future alignments Amit Shah was telling when he said “in the interest of the country whoever wants to come together with us are most welcome”. Looking ahead to the 2019 contest he revealed the BJP’s thinking by saying “BJP will contest 2019 with the NDA”.

The BJP has definitely put behind it the defeats in Delhi and Bihar in 2015. But challenges remain. As the BJP draws up strategy for polls ahead it will see how strident and aggressive it can afford to be on its saffron (nationalist) agenda and how it can market its development agenda to the people of India. The Congress has to come to terms with the fact that it is no longer in a position to lead the charge against the BJP. It will have to tag along with regional parties. More important it has plenty of introspecting to do.

The Congress already facing criticism for the leadership or rather the lack of it by Rahul Gandhi finds itself at crossroads. Can it revive by shedding the Gandhis? By not looking at a credible and saleable strategy to resurrect itself not only is it doing itself a disservice but also depriving India of a credible opposition in a democratic polity.

*Rashmi Saksena can be contacted at [email protected]


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