Although the elections just held in four States and one Union Territory in India were provincial, they had immense national importance because national issues and national conditions impinged on them in addition to local issues.
Firstly, the elections forcefully brought into West Bengal State politics, a new force, “Hindutwa” or political Hinduism, professed by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Prior to 2019, the BJP and the ideology of “Hindutwa” were not evident in West Bengal as it had been a bastion of secular-leftist or center-left secular parties.
The BJP unabashedly campaigned on communal lines trying to get Hindu majority votes by painting the 27% Muslim minority as the “other” or as illegal immigrants from Muslim Bangladesh. The latter were derisively described by Home Minister Amit Shah as “termites” to be eradicated.
Secondly, another national issue brought to the State was “parivartan” or ‘development for the better’, which was Modi’s clarion call when he was fighting the national elections in 2014 and which had served him well. In West Bengal he was hoping to replicate his performance in 2014 exploiting the TMC’s lackluster economic performance during its ten-year tenure in office. As many as 30 of TMC leader Mamata Banerjee’s closest colleagues had defected to the BJP fearing defeat.
The third national issue which played a major role in the West Bengal elections was the raging COVID-19 pandemic. Despite the devastation that the pandemic was causing in West Bengal and many parts of North India, the BJP was organizing huge rallies, forcing other parties to follow suit. These rallies were held (allegedly with the complicity of the Election Commission) despite carping criticism in the media and also from other parties. Given the unprecedented scale of the BJP’s campaign in West Bengal, the State-level elections attracted nation-wide, and indeed, world-wide attention and much flak to boot.
Again, given the scale of the campaign by the well-funded BJP, it was assumed that it would topple the TMC or get within an ace of power in a photo-finish. But the TMC won handsomely, leaving the BJP far behind.
However, a fact to be reckoned with is that Hindutwa politics has found a firm foothold in West Bengal. Since it had secured for the BJP the second position in the State for the first time in the latter’s history, communalism will mark State politics. If not moderated and controlled it could trigger anti-Hindu and anti-Indian feelings in neighboring Bangladesh and upset the current friendly Indo-Bangla relations.
As in West Bengal, the BJP had made a bold bid to enter another bastion of secularism – Tamil Nadu. Tamil Nadu politics has been secular since independence in 1947. The Congress and the Dravidian parties (AIADMK and DMK), which had ruled the South Indian State since independence, had been secular. But given the long tenure of these parties in government, it was assumed that it was time a new force, altogether different from the existing ones, entered the field and captured power.
The BJP had been making incremental efforts to get a toehold in Tamil Nadu for sometime, but unsuccessfully. However, the death of Dravidian stalwarts J.Jayalalithaa of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) and M.Karunanidhi of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) in the last few years had given rise to a leadership vacuum in both the parties. The leadership of the AIADMK and the DMK went into the hands of persons who lacked charisma even if though they had hands-on political experience. Given the entrenched culture of hero worship in Tamil Nadu, parties lacking charisma tend to suffer at the polls.
The BJP tried to exploit this weakness by projecting Modi as the charismatic leader the people were looking for. Knowing that this was not gaining traction as Modi’s appeal was confined to North India, the BJP used its governmental power to force an alliance with the AIADMK. But the alliance proved to be the AIADMK’s Achilles Heel. The alliance with the BJP, combined with a somewhat indifferent performance of the AIADMK government in the State and lack of a charismatic leader, led to the defeat of the AIADMK-alliance.
Pondicherry is a different kettle of fish. The tiny Union Territory, adjacent to Tamil Nadu, is known for non-ideological factionalist politics. Here, a regional party, the AINRC, formed by a dissident Congress leader, teamed up with Modi’s National Democratic Alliance to win the elections.
This time, Kerala saw the breaking of a unique State tradition. For the first time in decades, a ruling party got a second consecutive term. The Left Democratic Front (LDF) retained power. The Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) was mauled. So was the BJP which was hoping to get a foothold in the State.
The LDF had won kudos for the way it fought the COVID pandemic in the State. Its lady Health Minister had become a celebrity.
As expected, the BJP retained power in Assam as the issues that it took up when it fought the elections five years ago, still remained unresoved and it was believed that only the BJP could solve them. The main issue in the State is the alleged large scale illegal immigration from Muslim Bangladesh upsetting the communal profile of the State. The BJP’s strong stand on the issue, with no background of being soft on illegal immigrants, has given the party the color of an Assamese nationalist party in addition to being known as an Indian nationalist party.
All India Impact
The electoral defeat in West Bengal and to an extent in Tamil Nadu combined with the failure to prevent large scale deaths in the pandemic, has dented the image of the BJP, Modi and Amit Shah. But whether the denting is deep or not and whether it can be redeemed or not, would depend on how they perform from now till the next elections in 2024.