Assembly Elections 2021

T K Arun

Mamata Banerjee emerges as the tallest figure of these round of elections, trouncing a BJP that had used every trick in the book, and then some, to oust her, and had boasted of winning more than 200 of the state’s 294 seats. The BJP has retained Assam, lost the single seat it had in the Kerala assembly and come out on the losing side in Tamil Nadu. Its victory in Puducherry is neither here nor there. However, on balance, it is advantage BJP in this round of five state assembly elections. These Assembly Elections were indicative of a battle beyond Bengal.

This is because its principal Opposition, the Congress has lost out badly in the elections. The one state it had every hope of winning, Kerala, with its tradition of rotating parties in office, has chosen to re-elect the Left Democratic Front to lead the state, and rejected the Congress. In Assam, a leaderless Congress could do little to channel popular anger over the National Register of Citizens that cast lakhs of people into manmade wretchedness with few parallels. Rahul Gandhi’s leadership of the party takes a particular knock, too.

Picture Curtesy: Hindustan Times

The damage to the status of the Congress as the potential alternative to the BJP is the principal story of these elections as far as national politics is concerned. And the sole gainer from the disappearance of an alternative that could take advantage of emerging popular resentment against mismanagement of Covid is the BJP.

It is only when measured against the hype the BJP had created over its expected tally in Bengal that its performance looks dismal. Objectively speaking, the BJP has emerged as the principal Opposition, decimating both the Congress and the Left in the state.

The BJP’s share of the vote hovers around 38%, some two percentage points lower than what it had drummed up in the atmosphere of hyper-charged nationalism in the 2019 Parliament elections, but a quantum leap ahead of the 10% of the vote it had drummed up in the atmosphere of hyper-charged nationalism in the 2019 Parliament elections, but a quantum leap ahead of the 10% of the vote it had secured in the 2016 assembly elections.

While the BJP failed to open its account in Kerala, it has secured around 11% of the vote and managed to change the even temper of the state’s inter-community relations, with new undercurrents of anti-Muslim sentiment that often break out on the surface, aided by radical Islamic outfits and the mainstream parties’ failure to confront them squarely.

In Assam, the difference in vote share between the Congress and the triumphant BJP is some three percentage points. However, that does not prevent the party’s loss in the state, coupled with its loss in Kerala, making it look less and less like a party that is the alternative to the BJP at the Centre.

The DMK has a majority on its own in the Tamil Nadu assembly and hails the victory as a victory of Dravidian politics. As the ruling party of the state, it would be keen to maintain good relations with the central government and is unlikely to share the Congress’ enthusiasm for active, constant opposition to the BJP and the central government. It is unlikely to walk out of the alliance with the Congress, but is equally unlikely to help strengthen and spread the alliance to other areas.

The Left faces an existential challenge. True, the CPI(M) has done spectacularly well in Kerala. But it has never been under one man’s thumb as it is today. Pinarayi Vijayan now controls not just the purse strings of the party but also its key decision making.

The party centre already was too weak to convince its Bengal unit to prioritize national politics over its local concerns and contribute to the defeat of the BJP in Bengal. The party undertook a futile alliance with the Congress that split the anti-BJP votes and helped the BJP’s campaign by forming an alliance with an Islamic cleric. Now, the party centre would lose whatever clout it had over the Kerala unit and, instead, cleave closely to the Pinarayi line.

Vijayan’s decision to not renominate as candidates several of his sitting MLAs, including capable ministers, shows his authority and control over the party in the state. The net result of the morphing of Comrade Vijayan into Captain Vijayan is a personality cult that fits well with Communism’s Stalinist past, but not with the democratic challenges of the present. The weakening of the party as an organization, concomitant with the rise of a strongman leader, will take its toll in the future.

The mainstream Left in India has represented three distinct streams, although it has rarely been recognized as such: harbingers of functional democracy in Kerala, with a social agenda that all of society bought into; proponents of a liberal sensibility in north India, comprising intellectuals, artistes and poets; an authoritarian patronage network in Bengal.

The Bengal stream is dead. Kerala’s Left is morphing into what failed in Bengal. And the secular liberals fail to appreciate they need to be more rooted in India’s own heritage and culture beyond syncretic Sufi, going all the way back to the Bhakti, the classical and the pre-classical Buddhist periods, and confront caste head on.

Sniping at the BJP on its many failures, which Rahul Gandhi believes to be the sum total of Opposition politics, cannot halt the BJP’s advance or provide an alternative to it. Only a sustained movement to democratize India’s cultural sensibility can do that.

The Congress under Rahul Gandhi as Rahul Gandhi is incapable of doing it. Rahul Gandhi as Rahul Gandhi believes the traditional Congress leadership is useless and a hindrance, takes impetuous, unilateral decisions on key personnel appointments in different state party units, goes off AWOL. The present series of setbacks is an incentive for the Congress to stop relying on Rahul Gandhi as Rahul Gandhi.

If Rahul Gandhi is persuaded to become a new kind of Rahul Gandhi, become more collegial in his decision making, understand that politics is about organizing and empowering people, especially in times of their need, and not primarily about issuing statements, and build a party that sees its mission in building democracy in this country and not in helping itself to power and pelf, there is some hope of a sustained counter to the BJP.

The pressure on the Congress leadership that would emerge to account for the party’s miserable showing in this round of elections could, just might, forge a new avatar for Rahul Gandhi.

In Assam, the difference in vote share between the Congress and the triumphant BJP is some three percentage points. However, that does not prevent the party’s loss in the state, coupled with its loss in Kerala, making it look less and less like a party that is the alternative to the BJP at the Centre.

The DMK has a majority on its own in the Tamil Nadu assembly and hails the victory as a victory of Dravidian politics. As the ruling party of the state, it would be keen to maintain good relations with the central government and is unlikely to share the Congress’ enthusiasm for active, constant opposition to the BJP and the central government. It is unlikely to walk out of the alliance with the Congress, but is equally unlikely to help strengthen and spread the alliance to other areas.

The Left faces an existential challenge. True, the CPI(M) has done spectacularly well in Kerala. But it has never been under one man’s thumb as it is today. Pinarayi Vijayan now controls not just the purse strings of the party but also its key decision making. The party centre already was too weak to convince its Bengal unit to prioritize national politics over its local concerns and contribute to the defeat of the BJP in Bengal.

The party undertook a futile alliance with the Congress that split the anti-BJP votes and helped the BJP’s campaign by forming an alliance with an Islamic cleric. Now, the party centre would lose whatever clout it had over the Kerala unit and, instead, cleave closely to the Pinarayi line.

Vijayan’s decision to not renominate as candidates several of his sitting MLAs, including capable ministers, shows his authority and control over the party in the state. The net result of the morphing of Comrade Vijayan into Captain Vijayan is a personality cult that fits well with Communism’s Stalinist past, but not with the democratic challenges of the present. The weakening of the party as an organization, concomitant with the rise of a strongman leader, will take its toll in the future.

The mainstream Left in India has represented three distinct streams, although it has rarely been recognized as such: harbingers of functional democracy in Kerala, with a social agenda that all of society bought into; proponents of a liberal sensibility in north India, comprising intellectuals, artistes and poets; an authoritarian patronage network in Bengal.

The Bengal stream is dead. Kerala’s Left is morphing into what failed in Bengal. And the secular liberals fail to appreciate they need to be more rooted in India’s own heritage and culture beyond syncretic Sufi, going all the way back to the Bhakti, the classical and the pre-classical Buddhist periods, and confront caste head on.

Sniping at the BJP on its many failures, which Rahul Gandhi believes to be the sum total of Opposition politics, cannot halt the BJP’s advance or provide an alternative to it. Only a sustained movement to democratise India’s cultural sensibility can do that.

The Congress under Rahul Gandhi as Rahul Gandhi is incapable of doing it. Rahul Gandhi as Rahul Gandhi believes the traditional Congress leadership is useless and a hindrance, takes impetuous, unilateral decisions on key personnel appointments in different state party units, goes off AWOL. The present series of setbacks is an incentive for the Congress to stop relying on Rahul Gandhi as Rahul Gandhi.

If Rahul Gandhi is persuaded to become a new kind of Rahul Gandhi, become more collegial in his decision making, understand that politics is about organizing and empowering people, especially in times of their need, and not primarily about issuing statements, and build a party that sees its mission in building democracy in this country and not in helping itself to power and pelf, there is some hope of a sustained counter to the BJP.

The pressure on the Congress leadership that would emerge to account for the party’s miserable showing in this round of elections could, just might, forge a new avatar for Rahul Gandhi.

The farmer’s agitation could be an indirect beneficiary of the dent that the BJP’s two tallest leaders’ prestige has received in Bengal. The setback in Bengal came before the comprehensive mismanagement of Covid became manifest in shortage of oxygen and vaccines.

The BJP would not want to add peasant disgruntlement to lingering resentment over Covid mismanagement and avoidable deaths to spoil its chances in Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Goa and Manipur early next year — Punjab is already written off for the BJP. Some effort could be made to end the strike now, in a departure from the current strategy of letting it wither.

First Published in The Economic Times View: Surprise, surprise, BJP is a net gainer from these assembly elections on April 28, 2021.

About the Author

T K Arun, Consulting Editor, The Economic Times, New Delhi.