Saturday, May 21st, 2022 17:14:43

Elections 2021: What’s ahead for Modi & BJP?

By Shekhar Iyer
Updated: May 14, 2021 7:45 pm

So devastating has been the impact of the second wave of Coronavirus that it would be an understatement to say even that Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his government face very serious questions relating to public confidence in them– because of the current health emergency, which is bound to have political implications till the Lok Sabha polls in 2024.

Actually, there is widespread disbelief that Modi’s administration and the state governments could have been taken so completely by surprise that they could not do much about it.

Images of people gasping for breath, waiting for admission into hospitals, doctors and nurses overwhelmed by their inability to save lives and patients dying because hospitals ran short of supply of oxygen are going to remain with us for a long time.

Even as they grapple with the complex issues involved in the current crisis, Modi and the BJP government are facing most stringent criticism for perceived acts of omission and commission including the failure to anticipate the magnitude of the infection and its spread.

Therefore, one is not surprised that so many critics of  the BJP, who have been very upset since its coming to power in 2014, are reading too many signals of an imminent end to the domination of Modi in national politics. Some even called for the exit of Modi, suggesting that the ruling party find someone else to run the government of India.

It is in this context that the impact of the results for assembly elections in Assam, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, and West Bengal and the union territory of Puducherry have been studied by political pundits and others alike thus far.

Only in Assam, did the BJP recaptured power by leading an alliance that won 75 of the 126 assembly seats. It was a history of sorts because the BJP had faced a “grand alliance” or “mahajot” of the Congress, All India United Democractic, the Left and other smaller parties. The BJP overcame the challenge of the sheer arithmetic of this opposition alliance because of better chemistry with the electorate, thanks to development record of the Sarabananda Sonowal ministry and the political dexterity of Himanta Biswa Sarma, who has now been named the new chief minister.

In Kerala, the BJP failed to win a single seat and even lost some votes compared to the local body elections last year. In the outgoing assembly, it had held one seat. If you consider that the BJP has been trying to make its mark in Kerala despite the demography of the state which favours the Congress-led United Demoratic Front (UDF) and the CPI(M)-led Left Democratic Front (LDF), it was a stupendous task. But the big picture from Kerala is not the failure of the BJP but that of the Congress, which was better placed to win the elections.

Led by Rahul Gandhi, who is a Lok Sabha MP from the state, the Congress should have easily displaced Pinarayi Vijayan-led CPI(M) from power. Kerala is not known to repeat a party in power in 1977. Such was the dismal performance of the Congress despite campaigning by Rahul Gandhi as well as Priyanka Gandhi that it failed to make good the advantage it had when the UDF had swept all but one Lok Sabha seat in the 2019 parliamentary elections.

In Tamil Nadu, the BJP won four seats, which is a feat by itself –if you consider that it was part of an alliance led by the AIADMK, which has been in power since 2011. The AIADMK itself managed to put up a good fight though the electoral mood was in favour of the DMK led by M K Stalin. Not just the absence of Jayalalithaa (who passed away in 2016), the AIADMK was plagued by internal factionalism even though outgoing CM Edappadi K Palaniswami did a lot to recover ground.

In Puducherry, the BJP was part of a National Democratic Alliance (NDA) led by former CM N Rangaswamy, which won the elections and became a part of a coalition government.

The BJP’s biggest loss, of course, is in West Bengal where the party had unleashed all its resources and energy with the hope of dislodging Mamata Banerjee from power. Crowds at Modi’s rallies or Amit Shah’s “road-shows” failed to transfer into votes.

The outcome raised doubts over whether all the issues of governance, corruption and political extortions raised by the BJP in its campaign against Mamata’s decade-old rule fell flat because her party won 213 seats — two more seats than she had won in 2016. Then, what explains the BJP’s tally going from three seats won in 2016 to 77 seats in 2021?

In terms of vote share, the BJP increased it from 10.16 per cent in 2016 to 38.13 per cent in 2021. Is it not a phenomenal success? The alliance of the Congress and the Left Front and the Indian Secular Front led by Furfura cleric Abbas Siddqui failed to make any impact.

Of course, a closer reading of the results show a variety of reasons for the BJP being unable to perform better  than Mamata. The BJP, perhaps, faulted in the selection of its candidates and also depending too much on the possibility of polarisation of Hindu voters  when the Muslim voters turned to more polarised and consolidated in favour of the Trinanmool Congress (TMC) in over 100 constituencies where they are a decisive factor.

In the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, a number of Hindu voters, who were formerly supporters of the Left or the Congress, had switched over to the BJP. But they seem to have gone back to these parties. That is why the BJP’s voter support dipped by three percent in the assembly polls as compared to the 2019 Lok Sabha polls.

Secondly, the BJP did not gain much from importing leaders and candidates from the TMC to bolster its chances. Barring three, all former TMC leaders and legislators who were fielded as BJP candidates, lost in the assembly elections.

Of course, Mamata’s protégé-turned-adversary Suvendu Adhikari defeated her in Nandigram. Adhikari had joined the BJP in December 2020. Also, BJP national vice president Mukul Roy, who joined the party after quitting TMC in 2017, won from Krishnanagar defeating TMC’s actor-turned-candidate Koushani Mukherjee. At Natabari in north Bengal, former TMC legislator Mihir Goswami, who joined BJP in November 2020, was a big success.

But one cannot ignore the fact the verdict in Bengal has an impact beyond the state. Suddenly, Mamata who was fighting the polls with her back to the wall, is now seen as the fulcrum for an opposition of sorts ahead of the 2024 parliamentary elections.

For once, Modi and the BJP seem not an invincible combination when it comes to state elections because they are not able to help the BJP transcend cultural insecurities. However, we also know that Mamata will not be acceptable beyond the borders of West Bengal  and to many other opposition leaders.

True, the electoral outcome suggests the BJP, whose dominance over Indian politics has recently seemed almost unbreakable, may have faltered. Definitely, some of its campaign strategies went awry.

That brings us back to the main issue of the mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic, which could have impacted the last three phases of voting in Bengal. In other poll-bound states, the elections had been completed before the second surge.

But, will the situation remain the same when the BJP faces elections in key states like Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand next year?

Modi and his team can still salvage the situation–by focusing entirely on the coronavirus, vaccination and the economy and re-writing the political script of the BJP.

With the next Lok Sabha polls three years away, the scene could still change for the better across the country–when the war on the pandemic is won and excellent medical infrastructure is put in place. Other plans of Modi for this country could take concrete shape on the ground, making the BJP look not so bad a performer though the painful memory of the present moments will remain with us for long.

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