The verdicts in the Assembly elections hold different lessons for different parties
Elections present an opportunity for political change, but voters at times prefer the familiar comfort of continuity and reward performance over promise. Assam, West Bengal and Kerala have voted for the incumbents, while Tamil Nadu and Puducherry have voted for change. There is no one theme that can explain how the voters responded to the myriad political choices before them. Parties with strong and visible leadership might have the same appeal as leaders that show empathy for their daily struggles. While Hindutva nationalism won Assam for the BJP, in West Bengal, Tamil Nadu and Kerala, its limits became apparent. In fact, M.K. Stalin in Tamil Nadu, and Pinarayi Vijayan in Kerala, both known critics of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, offered an ideological alternative to the politics of the BJP although it was not a direct contender for power directly in either State. In contrast, the Congress’s efforts to arrest its slide and gather its wits did not yield much. The results have exposed more chinks in its armour, while regional parties offered robust resistance to the BJP.
In West Bengal, Mamata Banerjee mobilised Bengali sub-nationalism that stopped the rampaging march of Hindutva at the borders, at least for now. This was the first serious bid of the BJP for power in Bengal. Though it fell far short of its boasts, the BJP’s rise is remarkable — from three seats in 2016 to 81 now. With the Left and the Congress nearly obliterated, the BJP is now a force to reckon with in the State. But what got it so far may not necessarily take it any further. In fact, the popular reaction against the BJP’s crude communalism and deployment of its workers from other States was so intense that people left aside all their complaints against the incumbent Trinamool Congress government. The BJP’s strategy for West Bengal has been costly in terms of public health, institutional credibility, social harmony and even bilateral ties with a friendly neighbouring country, Bangladesh. Though the BJP lost, the damage caused by its maximalist campaign cannot be easily undone. The State is staring at an explosion in COVID-19 infections, and Ms. Banerjee has her task cut out, entering into her third term as Chief Minister. She must take serious note of the public resentment against her party rather than read this victory as public approval of its high-handedness and corruption. The style and substance of the Trinamool’s politics and governance must change for the better. In Assam, the BJP reaped the benefits of its government’s proactive measures to provide relief to people badly impacted by the lockdown last year, and of a slew of welfare schemes. While the Congress-AIUDF partnership failed to live up to its promise, the BJP inflamed communal passions by suggesting that AIUDF leader Badruddin Ajmal could become Chief Minister if the alliance won. As the party’s key strategist in the victory, Finance Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma will likely make a claim for the top post, and the BJP will have an internal power tussle to handle.
Mr. Stalin led the DMK to power in Tamil Nadu after a hiatus of 10 years. With his son also now an MLA, Mr. Stalin has taken full control of the DMK. His victory is not aided by any strident public resentment against the AIADMK government, and therefore can be considered a positive verdict in his favour. Moreover, the results also prove the resilience of Dravidian politics, modified to new challenges. Now in the Opposition, and its leadership still in a flux, the AIADMK will have to adapt to survive. There are other aspirants at play, and outgoing Chief Minister Edappadi K. Palaniswami might have to again beat off challenges from within the party to his leadership. In Kerala, the second consecutive victory of the Left Democratic Front led by the CPI(M) marks a departure from the anti-incumbency verdicts since the 1980s. For Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, the Congress, rendered aimless by its antediluvian leaders, was easy prey. But Mr. Vijayan also retained his support base through a mixture of political acumen and administrative measures. Having managed two floods and the pandemic with considerable efficiency, he also made some daring moves in social engineering that will continue to ripple. All that paid rich dividends for him, but the path ahead is going to be tougher as Kerala faces a fresh surge in COVID-19 infections. Finances are also challenging for the State. Mr. Vijayan’s complete command over the party has eclipsed other leaders, a situation that can turn out to be a crisis in the future.
These results also hold some messages for national politics. For the Congress and its leader Rahul Gandhi, this is a grim reminder that they have no viable politics at the moment. Mr. Gandhi spent a disproportionate amount of time and energy in Kerala. That turned out be a counterproductive strategy. The party lost Kerala and Assam, the two States it had a chance to win. Mr. Gandhi has to rethink his freelancing, footloose politics. For the BJP and its leaders, Mr. Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah, these results must be sobering. In Kerala, the party scored nil, losing the lone seat it won in 2016; in Tamil Nadu, it might even have damaged the prospects of ally AIADMK. The notion that there can be a nationalist straitjacket into which the diversity of India will fit is irresponsible. They must consider a softer pursuit of power. The Left tasted historic victory in Kerala but faces extinction in Bengal. Experiments in exclusive Muslim politics are not worthwhile, the results show. The Indian Secular Front, founded by a cleric in West Bengal hardly had any impact; in Assam, the AIUDF and Congress appear to have failed to aggregate their individual tallies of 2016. The BJP might have lost more than it won, but Sunday’s verdicts are no indication that a national-level alternative to it is in the making. That is still some distance away in time and effort.