Setback for Narendra Modi’s BJP in state elections

The failure of the Indian prime minister’s right-wing party to wrest control of three crucial states could signal an increasing regional threat to his leadership.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of regional political rivals in high-stakes elections in three states: West Bengal, Kerala and Tamil Nadu.

In West Bengal, the right-wing Hindu-nationalist BJP’s entire election apparatus was pitted against Mamata Banerjee, who is the state’s chief minister for the third consecutive time. The only female chief minister in India, Banerjee is a vocal anti-Modi critic, which forced the prime minister to personally lead an intense campaigning effort that included dozens of speeches and rallies despite a massive surge in Covid-19 infections.

The poll results on 2 May saw Banerjee’s All India Trinamool Congress (TMC) winning 213 seats in a 292-member legislative assembly, up from 210 seats in the 2016 state polls. However, the BJP won 77 seats, up from just three previously, signalling the party’s rise in a state that it has never governed as well as West Bengal’s ideological switch from a left-leaning bastion to the Hindutva right.

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The TMC’s landslide victory was also soured by Banerjee’s personal defeat in the city of Nandigram, where she lost her seat to Suvendu Adhikari, her former aide-turned-BJP rival, by a thin margin. “I accept whatever mandate comes in Nandigram,” she said. “For me that is not a big thing. We win, we lose. It’s okay. What matters today is that Bengal is saved [and] that Trinamool has been given a decisive mandate … That is a big win for democracy and for Bengal, and a humiliating defeat for the BJP and its kind of politics.”

The Left Front and the Indian National Congress party, which between them had dominated the state for nearly six decades, suffered an unprecedented defeat, with neither able to secure a single seat. The Sanjukta Morcha, an alliance of the Congress and the newly floated Indian Secular Front, won just two seats. For the first time since India’s independence, the West Bengal assembly will have no representative of the Left.

A historic win

In Kerala, however, the ruling Left Democratic Front (LDF) registered an emphatic win. The LDF, led by Kerala’s chief minister, Pinarayi Vijayan, won 99 of the 140 seats, increasing its 2016 tally of 91. The opposition Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) won 47 seats while the BJP, which had a single legislator in the state assembly, failed to secure any seat. The result is deemed historic because the state has alternated between the LDF and the UDF every five years, without fail, for decades.

“Kerala is not a place for the BJP. Kerala will not accept communalism or religious divisiveness,” Vijayan told Delhi-based television news channel NDTV. The Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPI(M), leader Thomas Isaac wrote on Twitter: “We have closed the account that the BJP opened in the Kerala assembly in the 2016 election. Kerala has become the only assembly in India that has no representative from the BJP. Kerala will remain the citadel of secularism in the country.”

The Left government in Kerala rode to victory on a slew of social welfare programmes, including free ration kits during the pandemic and a promise of laptops for all. A housing scheme for impoverished residents also created a favourable wave for the LDF.

In neighbouring Tamil Nadu, the opposition alliance led by the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) took 156 seats in the 234-member assembly. The DMK, which comprises the Congress and two Left parties, registered an unequivocal win over the ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and its allies, including the BJP. The DMK has regained power in Tamil Nadu after 10 years in the opposition and its leader, MK Stalin, will become the state’s chief minister for the first time.

“As three strongly anti-BJP regional leaders have emerged victorious, they are likely to be the nucleus of the opposition challenge to Modi in the months ahead as he battles the backlash to his mismanagement of the Covid crisis,” Arati Jerath, a Delhi-based journalist who has written about Indian politics for nearly three decades, told NDTV. She noted that the results indicated “huge political and constitutional challenges ahead for Modi”.

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The BJP was, however, successful in retaining Assam, where the Citizenship Amendment Act spurred protests across the state in 2019. The BJP won 60 of the 126 seats, while two allies, Asom Gana Parishad and the United People’s Party (Liberal), won nine and six respectively. The Congress bagged 29 seats and two of its allies got another 20 among them. The CPI(M) secured a single seat while one went to an independent candidate. According to the Election Commission of India, the BJP garnered 33.21% of the votes while the Congress registered 29.67%.

The BJP has been consolidating its Hindu vote bank in Assam by politicising the influx of migrants to the state, accusing the previous Congress governments of harbouring “illegal Muslim immigrants” in exchange for political patronage. This narrative propelled it to power in 2016, and the party used the fight for “Assamese identity” as its election plank this time as well. Assam’s BJP government has established at least six detention centres for holding “convicted or declared foreigners” – migrants who are convicted of entering India illegally or those who are no longer considered to be Indian citizens.

The Bengal shift

West Bengal, in particular, witnessed a bitter battle. The TMC’s slogan was “Game On” while the BJP called for “Change”. Banerjee lost many leaders, including her most trusted strategists, to the BJP before the polls. She accused the BJP of using central investigating agencies to hound her party men through multiple inquiries.

Despite the defeat in Bengal, the BJP has made considerable inroads in the state and consolidated the Hindu vote bank. It boosted its vote share to 38%, a significant rise from 10.16% in 2016. It received 4.14% of the vote in 2011 but did not win any seats.

Modi, in his congratulatory tweet to the TMC leader, highlighted his party’s surge in the state. “I would like to thank my sisters and brothers of West Bengal who have blessed our party. From a negligible presence earlier, BJP’s presence has significantly increased. BJP will keep serving the people. I applaud each and every Karyakarta [worker] for their spirited effort in the polls.”

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A key BJP tactic during the campaign was to concentrate consistently on communal identity issues. It focused on citizenship legislation and other Hindu-centric proposals, rather than the government’s efforts to deal with the pandemic or rekindle economic growth or job creation. The BJP dispatched top leaders, including Modi, Minister of Home Affairs Amit Shah and BJP president JP Nadda to campaign in the state, where they held massive rallies using strong sectarian language.

Ashutosh, a journalist and former spokesperson of the Aam Aadmi Party, wrote on the NDTV website that the BJP had been hampered from the start by its own politics and philosophy of not courting Muslim voters but rather investing in polarising the Hindu voters. “In Bengal, Muslims command 27% votes; some estimates put this at 30%. That means the BJP can win if it succeeds in polarising more than 50% of the rest of the population,” he said.

He further noted that Banerjee had been effective in leveraging Bengali nationalism and portraying BJP politicians as outsiders unfamiliar with the state’s rich traditions and culture. “To her advantage, the BJP leaders proved themselves equally ignorant of Bengali tradition. ‘Jai Sri Ram’ (Glory to Lord Ram) is a political slogan for the BJP which worked well in North India, but it has very little resonance in Bengal. Durga, not Ram, is the religious icon in Bengal.”

The demise of the Left  

What is noteworthy in the West Bengal result is the demise of the Left in the political landscape. Its vote share has plummeted consistently over the years, from 50% in the 2006 polls and 40% in 2011 to 26% in 2016. Now it has shrunk to just 6%. The Left contested the elections in an alliance with the Congress, which did not stage an intense campaign compared with the BJP. A senior Congress leader, Rahul Gandhi, called off his rallies in the wake of coronavirus cases rising alarmingly.

But the TMC was able to consolidate the Muslim vote and the party won 58 out of the 61 Muslim-dominated constituencies. The Congress lost all the seats in its strongholds such as late stalwart Ghani Khan Chowdhury’s Malda and Bengal Congress chief Adhir Chowdhury’s Murshidabad, constituencies that it had held through the Left’s dominance in West Bengal and, later, Banerjee’s rise.

Chowdhury accused the TMC of polarising politics. “Mamata Banerjee successfully instilled fear psychosis among Muslims. We failed to convince people that the Congress is the only force constantly fighting against the BJP and its communal ideology. The Sitalkuchi incident helped Mamata polarise voters too,” Chowdhury said, referring to the incident on 10 April when at least five people died in election violence. “If this divisive politics prevails, it will be tough for us.”

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