By Dr D Suba Chandran*
On 19 May 2016, results of legislative assembly elections of four Indian states – two from South India (Kerala and Tamil Nadu) and two from the East (West Bengal and Assam) – were announced. While there were no big surprises in the results and not much in common between them, they do project certain trends.
Some of these trends reflect continuity with the past, while the others are new and need to be watched closely for their likely implications.
Challenges for the BJP
First, the election results in these four states (and a Union Territory – Pondicherry, a former French Colony) do highlight the challenges for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to penetrate into all of India. Barring Assam, where the BJP overthrew the long-standing Congress rule led by former Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi, in the other three states, the Party’s performance has been marginal and insignificant. In Kerala, it was able to win only one of the total 140 seats; and in Tamil Nadu, it could win none of 232 seats (declared so far). In West Bengal, although it has secured more seats than in Kerala and Tamil Nadu, its tally of six seats out of 294, is insignificant.
Assam has been the only exception for the BJP. The unpopularity of the Congress rule (Gogoi had been the chief minister for the past three consecutive terms) and the BJP’s sustained campaign should have tilted the voting in its favour. In the other three states, the BJP has never been strong (or even present strongly) despite its strong campaign. However, in terms of vote share, the BJP has made an important beginning. Having its leaders talking in TV shows and occupying a media space is different from having a substantial vote share.
Decline of the Congress Party
The second major trend that should extremely be worrying for those who are watching national politics is the further decline of the Congress. While the BJP never had a strong presence in these states, the Congress always had a substantial contribution to the state politics, either as a ruling party, or as its coalition, or a strong opposition. Barring Assam, its performance in all other four states has been pathetic in the recent elections. It managed to secure 26 of the total 120 seats in Assam; but its performance in Kerala, West Bengal and Tamil Nadu do not augur well either for the Congress’s future, or for national politics.
National Parties and the Periphery
The third major trend is an extension of the above two – the failure of national parties to have its presence in the periphery, and the relevance of strong regional political parties. Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress (TMC) in West Bengal, along with Jayalalitha’s All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) and Karunanidhi’s Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) in Tamil Nadu, signify the power of regional political parties. While few nationalists project this as worrying factor, in a large multi-ethnic country such as India, strong regional political parties actually strengthen federalism by playing a crucial role in the national parliament.
At times (in fact, more often than otherwise) regional political parties are accused of sabotaging national interests in terms of pursuing New Delhi’s foreign policy vis-a-vis the neighbourhood. New Delhi has to take into account the interests of Tamil Nadu vis-à-vis Sri Lanka and West Bengal vis-à-vis Bangladesh. And this should be seen in a positive framework where the Centre accommodates and works with its periphery in framing foreign policy. Strong regional parties play a substantial role in strengthening federal fabric.
In a large federal country, it is important to have strong regional presence in the national parliament. All three (federation, regional parties and parliament) should have a symbiotic relationship for successful national governance.
The fourth trend in these elections is the continuation of women power. While other political parties were looking for alliances, Jayalalitha decided to fight on her own in Tamil Nadu. Mamata Banerjee led the campaign in West Bengal for the TMC. With Mayawati in Uttar Pradesh and Mehbooba Mufti in J&K, India can boast of strong women leadership at the state levels. Significantly, they are outside the Congress family and did not come from a political dynasty. Mehbooba Mufti is the only exception in this – her Jammu and Kashmir Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) was founded and led by her father, who was earlier with the Congress. And none of the four women leaders belong to the BJP. All of them are extremely strong-willed and independent.
Strong women leadership, especially at the regional levels portends well not only for the politics, but also for social equations. Predominantly a patriarchal society, South Asia needs strong women leadership, that too evolving on their own and not from a political dynasty owing their rise to their fathers or husbands. Mayawati, Mamata and Jayalalitha have evolved from the grassroots and should be seen as a part of social evolution and not through their family connections. Male leaders not only respect leaders like Mamata and Jayalalitha, but also fear them. Undoubtedly, there is an also an element of sycophancy. For example, Tamil leaders refer to Jayalalitha as Amma (mother) and visibly carry her photo on their pockets and fall on her feet to take blessings. Such trends though do not portend well for democratic politics, do indirectly play a role in women becoming confident in an otherwise male dominated society in South Asia.
They are not only independent and strong, but also avowedly secular, liberal and even business friendly. On the negative side, they are known for their autocratic and arrogant attitude; and their earlier terms have also been marked with corruption.
Decline of the Left
The fifth trend, which is an extremely worrisome one, is the continuing decline of the Left. Though the Left front has bounced back in Kerala, it has lost completely in West Bengal, which used to be its stronghold. Of the total 294 seats for West Bengal, they came third with only 33 seats and that too below the Congress’s 44. The decline is not only taking place at the party level; there is a leadership and ideological crisis within. The fact that they had aligned with the Congress in West Bengal (while fighting them in Kerala) would highlight the hypocrisy within.
While the Left in South Asia is on the decline all over, such a trend does not portend well, as the Right has been increasing its electoral power in the Assemblies and muscle power in the streets. Given the need for a strong secular state and social equality between the classes, a declining Left bereft of a strong ideology is a disaster in waiting. The Left in India has to blame itself for reaching this situation. Preaching about Marx and harping on anti-American and capitalist critiques will not sell any further.
* Dr D Suba Chandran
Professor, National Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS), Bengaluru