All eyes are focussed on the Gujarat Assembly election, and next year they will shift to some half a dozen States that vote for new Assemblies. Arguably there is more at stake for the Bharatiya Janata Party than for the Congress. Gujarat is a prestige battle since Prime Minister Narendra Modi ruled the State from 2002 till the time he took charge of the Union Government. The BJP will have to protect its turf in 2018 from a variety of factors including anti-incumbency in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan. It needs to demonstrate that words can be turned into action in Karnataka, which votes next year, and replace the Congress regime. Then there are the northeastern States which will test the BJP’s Look North-East political drive.
Since the 2014 Lok Sabha triumph, the BJP has, State after State barring exceptions, consolidated its position. The magnitude of its success is evident from the fact that the party has peaked or very nearly peaked in north and west India which put together contribute to the largest chunk of parliamentary seats. But this has also led to a new kind of challenge. The first is to maintain that hold, which is difficult if not impossible, given that there is bound to be some dissipation in the peaked numbers. The second is to look for greener pastures because there isn’t very much that can be achieved in numerical terms in the saturated regions.
It is this realisation which explains the BJP’s aggressive thrust in the east —West Bengal and Odisha — and the south — Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala, where the party has a weak presence in the Lok Sabha. Together they account for 150 seats, and the BJP presently has less than two dozen seats. Of these, Karnataka is waiting to be plucked by the BJP. While the party had fared poorly in the 2013 Assembly election, winning just 40 out of the 224 seats as against 122 of the Congress, it did well in the subsequent parliamentary election, bagging twice the number of seats the Congress did and emerging the winner.
The return of veteran BJP leader BS Yeddyurappa to centre-stage, the various controversies that surround the Congress regime led by Siddaramaiah and the entry of senior Congress leader and former Union Minister and Chief Minister SM Krishna have aroused hopes in the BJP camp of a return to power. But the BJP has to grapple with two factors — caste calculation and the Janata Dal (Secular). Besides, there is some factionalism within the party that could jeopardise its prospects if it is not handled soon.
The ground situation in Kerala is interesting. In electoral numbers, the Congress-led UDF and the Left Front occupy the majority space. But there is a simmering discontent among the electorate, a good section of which is upset with not so much with governance in general but the brazen appeasement of minorities in the State by the two prominent outfits and the politics of violence which the ruling Marxists have unleashed on the Right. BJP president Amit Shah recently launched the high-profile Jan Raksha Yatra to highlight such violence and the rising fear of Jihadi-embedding in the State. The Yatra’s scale and impact was such that the Left could not ignore it as some insignificant rant; it promptly organised a counter-movement.
And yet, Kerala will be a hard nut to crack for the BJP. Although it can depend on a wide network of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) in the State, it does not have credible and tall regional leaders to take the momentum forward. This absence is primarily because the party was virtually non-existent there, with the communists and the Congress dominating the scene.
Tamil Nadu is the other south Indian State that BJP strategists have puzzled over for long. Dravidian politics over the decades have pushed out everyone else. As a result, even the Congress which had some tall leaders during the freedom struggle from this State, has been compelled to tie up with either the DMK or the AIADMK to remain relevant. The same is the story with the BJP. It has done business with both these regional Dravidian outfits, but never, like the Congress, gained the upper hand.
The situation has become additionally complex for the BJP today, with serious internal dissent within the AIADMK following J Jayalalithaa’s death. In all probability, the BJP would have been happy to work alongside the AIADMK, but it finds itself in a quandary because of the regional party’s failure to be cohesive. Prime Minister Modi’s surprise meeting with DMK supremo M Karunanidhi in Chennai recently indicates that the BJP wants to keep the option of aligning with the DMK open in case the AIADMK fails to sort out its problems.
The BJP faces a ‘friendly rival’ in Odisha but a bitter one in West Bengal. With its surprise success in the Odisha local body elections, held some months ago, the BJP is working with renewed confidence to take on Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik’s Biju Janata Dal. The Odisha Chief Minister has always been guarded in his criticism of Prime Minister Modi and the Union Government, and even seemed to extend support on measures such as demonetisation and the implementation of the Goods and Services Tax regime. But such bonhomie could be replaced with real rivalry once the Lok Sabha election draws near (more so since the State will also be voting for a new Assembly around the same time). The BJP needs to win seats here to boost its numbers nationally.
But it is West Bengal promises which promises the most explosive battle. Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and her Trinamool Congress will leave no stone unturned to deny entry to the BJP, even if it means doing business openly or surreptitiously with rivals such as the Left and the Congress. On its part, the BJP believes that the ground situation has never been more appropriate than now for it to strike forcefully. As in the case of Kerala, the party thinks the people are disgusted with the minority appeasement of the Mamata Government and senseless populism. The BJP’s hopes have been further strengthened with the arrival of Mukul Roy in its ranks. Roy is widely credited with having done the organisational work for the Trinamool’s success in West Bengal. However, as in the Kerala instance, the BJP has a tough job at hand. It cannot forget that Mamata Banerjee has ground to dust both the Left and the Congress in the State.
(The writer is Visiting Fellow at Vivekananda International Foundation, political commentator and public affairs analyst)
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