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May 11, 2021

Elections in India

Four Indian states --West Bengal, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Assam -- and one union territory, Puducherry, went to the polls from April 6 to April 29 in different phases. The counting took place May 2.

May 2 was a good night for anti-BJP forces as they made gains in several key battleground states. Even though the BJP increased its share of seats in West Bengal, it fell short of getting a simple majority to form the government. The BJP increased its seats in West Bengal from 3 to 79; it also won 4 seats in Tamil Nadu. In Kerala, the BJP failed to win a single seat.

The Mamata Banerjee-led Trinamool Congress defeated the BJP in West Bengal, and the Left Democratic Front led by the Communist Party of India Marxist (CPIM) trounced the Congress-led United Democratic Front in Kerala.

The MK Stalin led DMK/Congress/CPIM alliance defeated the AIADMK/BJP alliance in Tamil Nadu, while the BJP retained power in Assam and claimed back control of Puducherry.

It was another disappointing night for Congress, which did make some gains in Kerala and Assam but overall put up a poor show. The party was routed in West Bengal where it failed to win a single seat, and it also failed to retain power in Puducherry.

May 2 was a mixed night for the Left, which successfully defended its last fort in Kerala. The LDF became the first government in Kerala to retain power in the last 40 years. It trounced both the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) and the BJP. Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan will thus retain power for a second term, as the new public face of Left politics.

However, West Bengal was a big disappointment for the Left. The Left Front failed to win a single seat in Bengal, which it had ruled – led by the CPI-M – for 35 years in a row. Since 2011, though, the Left has witnessed a dramatic collapse. The Left can only blame itself for this sudden collapse, and needs to do some soul searching. The rise of the BJP in West Bengal is a failure of Left politics.

Even though the BJP retained power in Assam and increased its seats in West Bengal and Tamil Nadu, it failed to repeat its staggering performance in the Lok Sabha elections two years ago. The BJP is still weak in South India and trying to make inroads into these states. It has gained some ground in West Bengal.

These state assembly elections have made one thing clear: the Modi/Amit Shah combination has worked well for the BJP at the national level but at state levels it is not as effective. One reason might be the different attitude of voters towards national and state elections.

At the national elections, the performance of the central government and the national agenda dominates the campaign. But when it comes to state elections, the performance of the state government and immediate issues in the state dominates the campaign. That is why Modi and Amit Shah were successful in the national elections but failed to make the same impact in state elections.

Let’s take the example of Bengal: the BJP made big gains in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections when it won 18 out of the 42 parliamentary constituencies in Bengal and secured a vote share of over 40 percent. The BJP has secured 38.1 percent of the votes in the assembly elections this year.

The BJP just got 10.1 percent votes in the 2016 state elections, but made big inroads in the 2019 national elections. It was hoping to improve its performance in the 2021 state assembly elections and to topple the ruling TMC. On the other hand, the TMC's vote share has risen to nearly 48 percent in the 2021 elections. This is not only a healthy increase of 4 percentage points over 2016, but also a massive gain compared to its Lok Sabha vote share of 43 percent.

Another example of this trend is Kerala, where the Congress-led UDF failed to consolidate on its Lok Sabha gains in 2019. The Congress was hoping to perform well in the state elections but failed to consolidate the gains made in the general elections. In the Lok Sabha election, the Congress-led front had swept the state after winning 19 out of the 20 seats while the Left front managed to secure just 01.

But the trend didn't hold in the assembly elections, held just two years later. Chief Minister Comrade Pinarayi Vijayan held on to power in the southern state with his LDF winning 99 seats and the UDF just 33.

Even on the national level, the Modi/Amit Shah electoral machine is not as strong as it appears. It is not the strength of the BJP but the weakness of the Congress that helped BJP consolidate its power on the national level. The BJP is still weak in many Indian states and it relies on its allies to win seats. The party is also targeting Dalit votes through the RSS and other Hindu hardline organisations. For instance, in Bengal, the BJP won half of the seats reserved for lower castes.

The well-organised RSS network is also helping the BJP in many states to build local networks and alliances. The party is taking advantage of the weakness of Congress and the Left parties. The weak, leaderless and unpopular Congress is a blessing for the BJP, and the Modi/Amit Shah combine is rallying rightwing Hindu nationalist forces on the basis of the Hindutva agenda on the one hand, and big sections of the Indian capitalist class and urban middle class on the basis of the neoliberal economic agenda, on the other.

Regional parties are much more effective in state elections compared to national elections. One reason is the limited appeal of most regional leaders. But the BJP has national appeal due to the Modi/Amit Shah leadership and the corporate media which has played an important role in building the image of Modi as a strong leader. The opposition parties lack such leadership at the moment. The powerful regional parties can pose a serious challenge to the BJP and its allies if they form an electoral alliance including the Congress and the Left parties. This alliance can compensate for the weakness of the Congress.

A clear break with neoliberalism, communalism, soft Hindutva and politics of hate will help the opposition challenge the BJP. A progressive, pro-people economic, social and political agenda and programme can push back the BJP/RSS offensive.

The exponential rise in Covid-19 cases has exposed the Modi government. Its performance and crisis management have come under the spotlight for the first time. This public health and economic crisis will further expose the Modi government and its popularity might plummet in the coming period.

The writer is a freelance journalist.