State assembly elections are often used by political observers to gauge the national mood and understand the ever changing political equations at the national and state level. The assembly elections of 2016 in 4 states Assam, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and 1 union territory Puducherry was keenly observed for their significant impact in setting the national picture before the high voltage assembly elections of 2017 of states like Uttar Pradesh, Punjab kick in. With the results declared on May 19, the 2016 round has gone to the BJP and regional parties while the slump of Congress continues across the country.
The National Picture
BJP: Despite being a national party, earlier BJP’s strength was mostly concentrated in the north, west and central India. BJP had never been a major force in the states which went to polls in 2016 (spread over the east and south India). While it had only 5 seats in Assam assembly, WB assembly had only one legislator from BJP in 2011. It had never won a seat in the southern state of Kerala. On May 19, BJP led alliance not only won two third majority in Assam also expanded its footprints in other states with opening account in Kerala assembly & garnering 15% of total votes in the state.
Formation of its first government of North East in Assam may open the gateway for the party to gain foothold in the north eastern states. The Narendra Modi government has been giving special attention to this region since it came to power which is part of the larger strategy to expand BJP’s base to make it a pan India party. Apart from NE, Kerala with 15% vote share will play a major role in its 2019 Lok Sabha election strategy.
BJP can also take a leaf out of the splendid campaign it ran in Assam with its local leaders as the face of the campaign with PM Modi in the background. Social engineering at micro level (gaining support from Tea estate workers, Rabha and Tiwa communities) and broader alliances (with AGP and BPF) were two significant elements of the BJP strategy in Assam which it would like to replicate in other states especially in the crucial election of Uttar Pradesh next year.
The results will embolden the Modi govt. at center which seemed derailed after the losses in Delhi and Bihar. With Mamata and Jayalalithaa’s victories in West Bengal and Tamil Nadu respectively, the central government will be relieved as it is easier to garner issue based support from regional parties in order to pass important bills in Rajya Sabha where it lacks the majority. Mamata has already declared her support to GST in her first press conference after the win while Jayalalithaa shares a personal friendship with Modi. No wonder, few days ago, Arun Jaitley sounded confident of passing the GST bill in Rajya Sabha in the coming Monsoon season.
The leadership has not been able to arrest the decline of Congress which roughly started from 2012. It lost all the 4 states on its own or with its allies. Among many things, the series of defeats prove the unpopularity of the party all over the country. It may be increasingly difficult for it to find new allies for upcoming elections. In fact, most of the space Congress is receding in the states is being captured by the regional parties making Congress insignificant.
After being thrown out of power in Assam and Kerala, Congress rules in 6 states with only 7% of India’s population residing in those states. Karnataka is the only big state in these 6, other states being Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Mizoram, Meghalaya and Manipur. At present, the party faces certain defeats in Karnataka and Himachal Pradesh in 2018, while it’s far from competent to retain Uttarakhand in 2017 after the rebellion by 9 of its MLAs. It may win Punjab but even a new player AAP is spoiling its chances in the northern state. On the other hand, BJP led NDA is expanding at rapid pace and in power in 15 states. The grand old party is in need of bitter medicine otherwise the idea of ‘Congress Mukt Bharat’ is not very far from reality.
The message beyond
There was a phase in Indian politics when Indian voters were confused and distrusted the electoral system. This phase was marred with low voter turnout and hung assemblies. The 2016 elections process and the results support the recent trend of more electoral participation with high turnout at polling booths. The voters are also rewarding the parties with absolute majority with hung assemblies being a thing of past.
While the winning party workers are jubilant and losing side is back to the drawing boards, one pressing issue needs immediate attention of political parties. The run up to the 2016 assembly elections were far from ideal with instances of violence and rampant distribution of cash and alcohol. Such practices can again affect the new found trust in the system among the voters. Political parties need to ensure fair election process of which the largest democracy in the world can be proud of.