Politics has been largely been immune to the pandemic, says A L I Chougule

The past year was devastating for India, as the Covid-19 pandemic impacted practically everything. In terms of economic activity, loss of jobs, incomes, hunger and impoverishment, the pandemic’s impact on lives and livelihoods has been quite disruptive. But its impact on Indian politics has not been as disruptive as it has been on the economy. Though it halted the Modi government’s Hindutva agenda, politically the Prime Minister seems to have navigated choppy waters, despite the government’s poor response to the spread of virus, the migrant workers’ crisis, inadequate health infrastructure at large and the poor state of the economy.

As the pandemic turned the page on Hindutva, the opposition had the perfect opening to change the social and political narrative in its favour. However, the opposition wasted the opportunity. Instead, the Prime Minister used the Covid-19 crisis into an opportunity to solidify his political appeal. Now the question is whether in the upcoming assembly elections to four states and a Union territory, the BJP will succeed in expanding its footprint beyond the Hindi heartland.

Lotus bloom in Bihar

The question acquires significance in the light of the BJP’s impressive performance in the October-November Bihar poll, in the assembly by-elections in several states and the various local body elections of the last six months. After all, if the lotus blooms far beyond the BJP’s traditional stronghold, it will have a significant impact on India’s democratic polity.

In the Bihar poll, the BJP, despite a formidable challenge from the Tejaswi Yadav-led grand alliance and other headwinds in the form of a massive GDP slump, rising unemployment, migrant crisis and strong anti-incumbency against the Nitish Kumar-led alliance government, Modi and his party played a stellar role in the NDA’s victory. Besides Bihar, the BJP also performed well in the assembly bypolls in several states in November.

Urban body polls

This was followed by the two local urban body elections in the South, the Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation and in Kerala, where the BJP was a marginal player but conquered considerable ground, particularly in Hyderabad. The trend suggests that BJP is expanding its influence in new territories where it has had little influence. Will this trend continue in the forthcoming assembly elections in West Bengal, Assam, Tamil Nadu and Kerala and the Union Territory of Puducherry?

Of the four state polls, West Bengal has already become a raging battleground, where the BJP has sensed an opportunity to capture power from the Trinamool Congress (TMC). Given the intense rivalry between TMC and BJP, particularly after the 2019 Lok Sabha poll, in which the saffron party gave its most impressive performance in Bengal, the state is possibly headed for a drama-filled and perhaps a violent election, of a kind never seen before.

Battle for Bengal, Assam

While the two main adversaries spit fire at each other and the Left-Congress-ISF alliance threatens to make the outcome unpredictable, the election in Bengal is likely to become a no-holds-barred battle for political power. With the TMC and the BJP leaving no stone unturned in a tempestuous electoral battle, the eastern state, known for its syncretism, is already looking divided on religious lines.

Like West Bengal, Assam also promises to be an intriguing battle, more so in the aftermath of the contentious National Register of Citizens (NRC) and the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) mess. For a long time, Assam has been marred by ethnic, religious and linguistic divisions; it is a troubled state for over four decades and continues to be in a state of conflict over the issue of illegal migrants.

After a 15-year-rule under Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi, the Congress lost Assam to BJP in 2016; the Congress lost because it was not magnanimous and foresighted enough to form alliances. The BJP’s maiden victory in Assam was a result of deftly crafted alliances and breaking into ethnic groups. After Gogoi’s death recently, the Assam election seems to be a game of alliances led by the BJP and the Congress, in which regional parties will play a crucial role in consolidating and even polarising the voters of Assam.

CAA & NRC

Assam and Bengal have been the BJP’s laboratory of the CAA and the NRC. Assam had witnessed violent protests against the CAA and NRC; in West Bengal too, there were massive protests against both. If the motive behind the CAA was to divide people on the basis of religion which has happened in Assam, in Bengal it managed to achieve just the opposite: it has united people of different communities in protest and outrage.

Though the CAA was put on the backburner since its passage in Parliament in December 2019, the contentious law is back as a potentially powerful plank in the BJP’s election campaign in Assam and Bengal. However, as Opposition parties have reiterated their opposition to the controversial Act, political pushback against the CAA can be expected from the Congress, the CPM, TMC and regional parties in Bengal and Assam.

If a recent opinion poll is any indication of the likely outcome in Bengal, the TMC has a clear edge over the BJP. According to an ABP C-Voter pre-poll survey released after the Election Commission announced the dates for elections, Chief Minister and TMC chief Mamata Banerjee is likely to score a hat-trick, with 148 to 164 seats in the 294-member assembly and the BJP may get 92 to 108 seats; the Congress-Left Front alliance may get 31 to 39 seats.

However, in Assam, the C-Voter survey has predicted the return of the NDA government to power, with 72 seats and a 43 per cent vote share, while the Congress-led alliance is predicted to win 47 seats with 41 percent vote share. The two per cent difference in vote share is likely to make Assam a very closely fought election; reports also suggest that it’s going to be a neck and neck contest, which can go either way.

Southern prospects

Moving down south, Kerala is a swing state that alternately elects the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) and the CPM-led Left Democratic Front (LDF) government every five years. Worryingly for the Congress, it seems Kerala might buck its conventional flip-flop this time and the LDF government might retain the state. A pre-poll survey has predicted a majority for the LDF in a 140-member assembly: 83 to 91 seats against 47 to 55 seats for the UDF.

On the other hand, Tamil Nadu is expected to go the DMK-Congress way and the BJP has little to lose in a state where the dominant parties are the AIADMK and DMK. According to the pre-poll survey, the ruling AIADMK-led NDA alliance is set for a jolt, with 58-66 seats, while the DMK-led UPA is expected to come to power with 154 to 162 seats.

Not too long ago, south India, except for Karnataka, looked barricaded to the BJP. Now, it seems the BJP has a definite strategy to make a breakthrough, though immediate electoral gains may not be sizeable in terms of seats. So, for now, West Bengal and Assam are the big battles for the BJP. Whether Mamata will succeed in stopping the BJP juggernaut remains to be seen. Equally crucial for the BJP is the battle in Assam against the backdrop of the NRC and the CAA.

The author is an independent senior journalist.

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