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Verdict 2016

How the States Polled: Lessons for BJP, INC

Special umbrellas carrying election symbols on display at shop in Palakkad, Kerala, on April 19, 2016. File photo: K. K. Mustafah | Photo Credit: K_K_Mustafah -

Notwithstanding the fact that the BJP/NDA appear to be on a strong wicket in national politics after the elections to five States, these poll results should not be construed as an endorsement to the policies and programmes of the NDA government at the Centre. After all, the verdict in State elections is more often guided by State-specific issues, writes The Hindu Centre's former Public Policy Scholar and retired Intelligence Bureau officer, K.V. Thomas.

The verdict of the recent elections to five States unfolds crucial trends that could have an impact on the national polity over the next three years. While the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), the All India Trinamool Congress (AITC), and the Communist Party of India (Marxist) [CPI (M)]-led Left Democratic Front (LDF) won two-thirds majority in Assam, West Bengal and Kerala, respectively, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) retained power in Tamil Nadu, and the Indian National Congress (INC)-Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) alliance scraped through in the 30-member Legislative Assembly of the Union Territory (UT) of Puducherry.

Table: Seats won by Alliances/Parties (percentage vote share in brackets)

(Source: Election Commission of India Results- Assam, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal and Puducherry)

* In Tamil Nadu, elections have been countermanded in two constituencies due to reports of distribution of huge sums of money, gifts and alcohol to voters.

BJP - Bharatiya Janata Party UDF - United Democratic Front

INC – Indian National Congress LDF - Left Democratic Front

AGP - AsomGana Parishad AINRC - All India NR Congress

BPF - Bodo People’s Front AIUDF - All India United Democratic Front.

IUML - Indian Union Muslim League DMK - Dravida MunnetraKazhagam

AITC – All India Trinamool Congress AIADMK - All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam

In fact, the verdict in these elections was guided by state-specific issues. In Assam , a State considered a mosaic of diverse ethnic and linguistic groups, the BJP, which was in direct fight with the INC, successfully played the slogan of ‘Assamese identity’ and the sub-nationalist aspirations of different ethnic/indigenous groups that were engaged in various struggles beginning with the ‘Foreigners’ Movement’ of the late 1970s. The BJP’s alliance with Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) and Bodo People’s Front (BPF), who were in the forefront of such struggles for decades, helped the party win the confidence of large sections of indigenous Assamese population. The BJP’s vision document reiterating the party’s commitment to issues like Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunals) Act, 1983, sealing of international borders to check illegal migration, and the detection and deportation of illegal migrants who came to India post-1971 has created considerable impact among these sections.

The projection of Sarbananda Sonowal, the Union Sports Minister and a tribal leader from the State, as the Chief Ministerial candidate worked to the electoral advantage of the party. Sonowal, who came to active politics through the All Assam Students Union (AASU) and the AGP, became a symbol of Assamese identity and aspirations. Similarly, the party’s success in roping in Himanta Biswa Sharma, a senior leader of the INC, along with a group of MLAs helped the alliance make inroads into the citadels of the INC. Side by side, the BJP‘s campaign and propaganda were focused on peace, development and Assamese identity with the active participation of local faces like Sarbananda Sonowal, Himanta Biswa Sharma, Prafullah Kumar Mohanta, and Atul Bora. Such strategies and tactics paid rich dividends to BJP led alliance that secured around 56 per cent of polled votes.

On the contrary, the major bottlenecks in the election strategy of the INC led to its dismal performance in the polls. The party that completed three successive five-year terms in Assam failed to read the writing on the wall. Neither could it properly assess the anti-incumbency factors nor formulate a sound strategy to retain the support of its traditional vote-banks — the Muslims, Adivasis and the tea-garden workers who constituted around 40 per cent of the total population in the State. The party leadership having a soft approach on the vexed issue of illegal migrants took for granted the bulk support of Assamese and Bengali Muslims. Thus, the INC did not go for any pre-poll alliance with any parties, including the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) of Maulana Badruddin Ajmal, which won 13 seats with a vote share of 13 per cent. Had the INC entered into an electoral alliance with the AIUDF or similar groups, they could have avoided the humiliating defeat in the elections. Its apprehensions on the likely majority consolidation against it deterred the party from entering into any alliance/understanding with Muslim parties or groups. The INC had to pay heavily for this ill-conceived tactics. Yet, the party’s vote share was 31 per cent, more than that of BJP (29.5 per cent).

In West Bengal , the ruling AITC virtually decimated the Left-INC combine and swept the polls with a dazzling vote share of around 45 per cent. Significantly, the party has successfully tided over the anti-incumbency and the ‘Saradha Chit Fund’ 1 scam and a sting operation (‘Narada’) in which its Ministers and senior leaders were involved. No doubt, the credit goes to ‘Didi’ [Mamata] who established excellent rapport with West Bengal’s rural masses. In fact, the CPI (M)’s tie-up with the INC, a party that has been violently opposed by the rank and file of the Left party for many decades, could not work at the ground level, resulting in the poor performance of the Left-INC alliance in the State. Except for half a dozen districts, such as Murshidabad, Malda, Burdwan, Bankura, North 24 Paraganas and South Dinajpur, the alliance was wiped out in the rest of West Bengal. Though the CPI(M) could translate bulk of its cadre votes in favour of INC, the latter could not do so in the case of the Left Front, resulting in their worst performance in the State. However, the INC which won 44 seats with a vote share of 12.3 per cent, was marginally benefitted by the alliance. Though the BJP could not maintain the gains made by it during 2014 Lok Sabha polls, the party, which won three seats, improved its vote share from 4.06 per cent in 2011 to 10.20 per cent. One noticeable trend was its improved performance in North Bengal districts, characterised by higher proportion of Scheduled Castes and tribal population, where the party could poll 25-28 per cent votes in a number of constituencies. This was largely due to the systematic activities and campaigns by the Sangh Parivar and their socio-cultural organisations among the tribals and the approach of the party on the migrant issue.

The CPI(M), which was routed in West Bengal, could keep its flag flying high in Kerala where the party-led Left Democratic Front (LDF) won a clear mandate, bagging 91 seats in the 140-member State Assembly with a vote share of 43.54 per cent. The ‘soft Hindutva line’ of the INC was the major factor for the dismal performance of the INC-led United Democratic front (UDF). There was a growing feeling among the minorities that the CPI (M)-led Left Democratic Front (LDF) was more sincere and better placed than the UDF to take on the BJP/Sangh Parivar bodies in the State. Thus, a major chunk of religious minorities, notably Muslims and Christians, drifted away from the UDF adversely affecting their electoral fortunes in almost all districts. Another major factor that worked against the front was the inability of the INC leadership to check corruption, scandals and the degeneration and decay among the rank and file. More than half a dozen ministers and MLAs, including the Chief Minister Oommen Chandy himself, were named in scams and scandals, like the solar scam and the bar license bribery case.

The decision of the INC to shield the corrupt and incompetent leaders and field them as candidates solely on the grounds of ‘winnability’ created widespread resentment among the voters. This resulted in a sharp decline in the vote share of the UDF (down by nearly seven percentage points compared with 2011 figures), which eventually ended up with a tally of 47 seats in the 140-member State Assembly. But the BJP/NDA has emerged as a third force in the bipolar politics, which has been the norm in the State for decades. The alliance won one seat with a vote share of over 15 per cent. This signals the creation of a new political space, which could be a precursor to a major shift in the State’s politics.

In Tamil Nadu and Puducherry , the Dravidian parties continued to dominate the electoral politics. In the multi-corned contest in Tamil Nadu, the AIADMK supremo, Jayalalithaa, became the first Chief Minister since 1989, after the iconic AIADMK leader M.G. Ramachandran, to retain power. The DMK-INC alliance did not fully succeed to translate its entire strength into votes in a number of keenly contested constituencies. The scars left in the body politic of these parties, especially on issues such as the DMK’s pull-out from the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government in the Centre on the Sri Lankan issue in 2013, the 2G scam, and other controversies led to such trends.

Detractors of the alliance argue that the DMK, the traditional opponent of the AIADMK, might have improved their performance had they contested the elections on their own or in alliance/understanding with other splinter Dravidian parties. Further, the Pattali Makkal Katchi(PMK), which fielded candidates in all the constituencies, has pocketed traditional votes of the DMK in Vanniyar-dominated areas leading to the defeat of the DMK candidates in closely fought constituencies. Above all, the Jayalalithaa government’s various social welfare schemes that created pro-AIADMK sentiments among large sections of rural women worked to its electoral advantage.

Perhaps the only consolation for the INC was their victory in Puducherry where the party emerged as the single largest party winning 15 of the Union Territory’s (UT) 30 seats with a vote share of 30.6 per cent. The party’s alliance partner, the DMK, won two seats, enabling the alliance to form a government in Puducherry.

A morale-boost for the NDA

The 2016 mid-summer polls were historic in many respects. No doubt, the BJP/NDA has enough reasons for jubilation. In the electoral game, the NDA, which lost the crucial States of Delhi and Bihar in 2015, is now on a strong wicket after their sterling performance in the recent polls. This has given more confidence to the BJP/NDA to face the next set of electoral battles in states like Uttar Pradesh (UP), Gujarat, Punjab, Uttarakhand, and Manipur in 2017. Further, the party could expand its geographical base from Kanyakumari to Kashmir and from Kamrup to Kutch, including the newer territories like Kerala and West Bengal.

On the other hand, the INC continues to face debacle, which started during the 2014 Lok Sabha polls. With its humiliating defeat in Kerala and Assam, two important States where the party has traditional vote banks, the party finds itself at a loss. The INC is now in power in only six States, with just one major State, Karnataka, under its rule. “So, in large parts of India, the Congress is now identified as a totem of the past representing a corrupt old order that offers limited space to surging new talents and energies of 21st Century 2 . Thus, a jubilant BJP President Amit Shah sees the verdict as a clear indication of the BJP’s progress towards their goal of ‘Congress-mukt Bharat’ 3 .

Meanwhile, the regional leaders with their emotive slogans and populist agenda continue to be a decisive force in the polity, despite the BJP’s fairy tale ride across the length and breadth of the country during the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, followed by successes in State Assembly elections. Their victories in West Bengal and Tamil Nadu clearly demonstrate that desperate electoral alliances or understanding among political parties on the eve of elections would not hold much water.

High stakes for regional parties in national politics

The emergence of regional parties as a major political force has provided a new momentum to the idea of a federal front comprising these regional parties. Mamata Banerjee has indicated that she would try for a front of non-BJP, non-Congress and non-Communist parties that she could ‘do smooth business’ with. There were mixed responses to her call. The key regional players, more keen to safeguard their turfs through popular slogans and convenient political adjustments, were lukewarm to her call.

Moreover, serious differences exist among them on the concept of a ‘third-front’. For example, the Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar and his colleagues like Lalu Prasad Yadav favour a Bihar type ‘ mahagathbandhan ’ of all likeminded parties opposed to NDA/BJP. On the other hand, the Aam Admi Party (AAP), which is opposed to the idea of a ‘third front’, is of the view that cobbling together various parties will not help fill the vacuum in terms of a worthy opposition to the BJP.

The other regional leaders such as Mulayam Singh Yadav of the Samajwadi Party (SP) or Mayawati of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), who are more keen to gear up for the upcoming polls in Uttar Pradesh (UP), are less enthusiastic to endorse the idea. Above all, Jayalalithaa, who has set her own long-term political agenda, may not easily identify with such ‘quick-fix’ fronts or alliances.

Whether the federal front materialises or not, the heart of the matter is that regional parties have now high stakes in the national polity. Consequently, they have drastically improved their bargaining power with the BJP, which is still riding high on the pro-Modi wave of 2014 Lok Sabha polls. As the political space of the INC is rapidly shrinking, it has lost much of its sheen to attract regional parties to its front. In many cases, it plays second fiddle to such parties, as happened in states like Bihar, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, and Telangana. Thus, the upcoming elections to around half a dozen States in 2017 would be an opportunity for the INC to refurbish its eclipsed national image.

Notwithstanding the fact that Verdict 2016 puts the BJP/NDA on a strong wicket in national politics, these election results should not be construed as an endorsement to the policies and programmes of the NDA government at the Centre. After all, the verdict in State elections is more often guided by State-specific issues. For example, in States such as Kerala, sections of Muslims or Christians, opposed to the ‘soft-Hindutva line’ of the INC, exercised their franchise in favour of the Left during State polls. But, the same sections are likely to think on different lines during the Lok Sabha polls, especially in the wake of the dwindling influence of the Left in national politics. Such changing perceptions and patterns of voting are not unusual among the ‘uncommitted’ sections, the Dalits, the Adivasis or other marginalised sections.

Equally important is the approach of regional parties that now have considerable stake in national politics. If concepts like the federal front—though having serious initial impediments—take a concrete shape with the sincere and active participation of the key players, a new history may be written in the electoral politics of India in 2019. That reminds us the Bihar experiment of 2015 when the mahagathbandhan virtually swept aside the Modi wave. On a lesser plane, the alliance, or otherwise, of some of these parties with the BJP or the INC, no doubt, will change the electoral equation in 2019 polls.

That doesn’t mean that NDA may fail to achieve its mission 2019 or UPA will not improve its position. Much depends on the policies and programmes of those fronts and the Machiavellian electoral strategy that they work out depending upon the fast changing socio-economic political climate in different regions or states. No doubt, the BJP/NDA is now much ahead of the INC/UPA in such strategies as clearly manifested by the impressive electoral gains by the party in Assam, West Bengal and Kerala.

But, at the same time, it has many vulnerable spots. The Hindutva agenda of the BJP and its allies and the highly provocative propaganda and statements by the fringe elements undermining the concepts of secularism and freedom of expression have created genuine apprehensions among the minorities and those aspiring for tolerance, harmony and open society. Attempts to silence the students and professors of reputed educational institutions, like the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) or the Hyderabad Central University, in the name of nationalism and patriotism has fomented resentment and concern among all right-thinking people.

The situation is precarious in the case of the INC/UPA. Despite repeated reverses and debacle, the party leadership is yet to wake up from deep slumber. Gone are the days when the ‘Nehru-Gandhi legacy’ paid rich dividends for the party in the elections. The party in the past had a plethora of prominent central and State leaders who saved the party from great crises. Now, the party is flooded with opportunists who think and act more on personal and group lines jeopardising the overall interests of the party. The high command, which in the past was all powerful and led by veteran leaders like the late Indira Gandhi, has now downgraded to a toothless body yielding to the pressures and coercive tactics of corrupt leaders. The result is that the party in many States have become centres of corruption, indiscipline and moral decay.

Needless to mention, the INC urgently needs to rejuvenate and revitalise itself ideologically and organisationally. The first and foremost task is revamping the party leadership. Young potential and dynamic leaders need to be elevated in the party hierarchy. Internal democracy should be strengthened in the party with an internal mechanism to eradicate corruption, malpractices and moral degeneration among the rank and file. Those involved in corruption and scandals should be shunted out of the party, sending a clear message to the people that it is sincere and committed to fighting corruption in public life. Only then would the party come out of its recent legacy of scams and scandals and win the faith of the masses.


1. ^ The Saradha Group financial scandal was a major financial scandal and alleged political scandal caused by the collapse of a Ponzi scheme run by Saradha Group, a consortium of over 200 private companies that was believed to be running collective investment schemes popularly but incorrectly. The former TMC minister Madan Mitra who was named in the scam was subsequently arrested by the CBI. Mitra who fought the recent elections in TMC ticket was defeated.

2. ^ Sagarika Ghose, 2016. ‘Congress Mukt Bharat’, The Times of India , Kochi, May 20.

3. ^ From the interview of Amit Shah, reported in The Times of India , Kochi, May 20, 2016.

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