Pride at stake from Left to Right

Assembly polls: Outcome of 2016 state elections will largely depend on arithmetic of coalition politics

Pride at stake from Left to Right
Elections to Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Pondicherry, Assam and West Bengal assemblies that are likely to be held during April-May, are a crucial test for several parties. After the successive drubbing in Delhi and Bihar, BJP will be all out to do well at least in Assam while Congress will fight hard to ward off scam taint in Kerala and return to office. Trimamool Congress in West Bengal and AIADMK in Tamil Nadu are seemingly comfortably placed to retain power.

Left to Right, there is anxiety and hope in New Delhi. The next round of Assembly elections in West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Assam have implications for all the major parties across the ideological spectrum.

For the nation’s pre-eminent political party it’s simple: the BJP has lost its way in the states where it got an enhanced vote share in the 2014 Lok Sabha election. But the party believes it has a chance in Assam and winning that state, albeit small, would be a matter of saving its face after two successive defeats in Delhi and Bihar. The party’s growth plan, post 2014, has stalled in the states, and it would like to change that trajectory via the largest north-eastern state.

Ideologically, too, from the perspective of the Sangh Parivar, the north-east has always been a significant territory both because of the large presence of Muslim migrants in the region and active Christian groups and populations.

 Internal party assessments currently range from emerging as the single-largest party in Assam to getting the numbers for government formation. The party has certainly recalibrated its strategy by declaring Union Sports Minister Sarbananda Sonowal as the chief ministerial candidate. This is a definite change from just positing Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Yet it is also interesting to note that BJP president Amit Shah continues to campaign personally, something that was counterproductive in Bihar. On February 10, in a Bodo-dominated territory, he said if voted to power, the BJP would make Assam migrant free. The party has made an alliance with the Bodoland Peoples’ Front (BPF) of militant-turned-politician Hagrama Mohilary. There is a history of fierce ethnic clashes between Bodo tribals and settlers from Bangladesh and one can have little doubt the BJP would like to fish in these troubled waters.

Still, as in other states, it is early days yet as alliances and seat adjustments have not been worked out in Assam. The three term Congress Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi should logically have come to an early understanding with Badruddin Ajmal’s AIUDF, that has a hold on Bengali-speaking settlers, but he has so far spoken against such an arrangement. Gogoi has instead adopted the strategy of attacking Hemanta Biswa Sarma, a powerful Congressman who has now joined the BJP, of polarising Hindus, while accusing Ajmal of doing the same with Muslims. It’s possible that Gogoi’s strategy is to present himself as the only representative of the middle ground.

Meanwhile, it’s not clear yet if the Asom Gana Parishad will align with the BJP. Given the complex arithmetic of tribal and community groups, alliances are critical to assessing the final shape of things to come. According to informed sources, in spite of all the rhetoric, an informal arrangement between the Congress and AIUDF is still in the realm of possibility.

In West Bengal, on the face of it, the TMC government led by Mamata Banerjee seems unbeatable. But since the arithmetic is again the critical factor, there are talks between sections of the Congress and Left promoting an alliance in the state. Within the CPM, there is a complete division on this as a section of the leadership from Bengal wants it while those from Kerala believe it would be a political suicide. The CPM state committee failed to arrive at a consensus on this, the party central committee will now take a decision on February 18.

There is a certain tone of desperation in the actions of the Bengal units of both the CPM and the Congress who do not have a chief ministerial candidate of their own, but somehow believe that if they unite, they can save themselves from being utterly crushed by Mamata. In a sense, they are both fighting for their very existence.

In the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the CPM won just two seats out of the 42 in its bastion, as was the case with the Congress which won four seats. Even if they come together, a victory for the Trinamool Congress still seems almost like a forgone conclusion.

Traditional strongholds

What must also be noted in both West Bengal and Kerala, the two traditional bastions of the Left, besides Tripura, is the movement of some of their cadre to the BJP. Still, the BJP remains a marginal player in both states and one can also surmise that the nosedive in their electoral fortunes has also led to some scepticism in new members. All the same, a party in power at the Centre should have some leverage.

In Kerala, a state that alternates between the CPM-led Left Democratic Front and the Congress-led United Democratic Front, it should logically be the turn of the Left parties. But Congress sources say they are still confident of holding on to the votes of the Muslim and Christian communities. The large crowd at a recent rally addressed by party vice-president Rahul Gandhi is also cited as evidence of the possibility.

Kerala and Tamil Nadu are two states where elections are won with narrow margins and/or can swing in one direction. Hence it would be foolish to predict outcomes so early. In Tamil Nadu, till the other day, the ruling AIADMK seemed unbeatable but after the recent floods, there is some rethinking of the scenario. The Congress has entered into a pact with the DMK, but the seat-sharing formula is still unclear.

The clutch of state elections will naturally affect the health of the parties that win or lose. But there are a few realities that are emerging. First, while national parties are facing a crisis in some states, regional parties such as the Trinamool, the AIADMK and the DMK have shown great resilience in winning, retaining power and bouncing back. The ensuing round of Assembly elections therefore reinforces the picture of India as a federation of states.

The other reality is that the people of India are increasingly voting very differently in state and national elections. No verdict is ever the last word in the kaleidoscope of Indian politics.

(The writer is a New Delhi-based senior journalist and political commentator)
 

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