After a tough 2015 with defeats in Delhi and Bihar state polls and inroads by Congress in Gujarat and Chhattisgarh municipal polls, the 2016 elections calendar could well reverse the fortunes for BJP. Elections are due in Assam, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal this year. Historically, the party has been weak in these eastern and southern states. It has 5 MLAs in Assam and it opened its account in West Bengal by winning a seat in by-polls held in 2014. It has never won a seat in Kerala (despite having the highest number of RSS shakhas – 4,500 out of total 51,335). It has no representation currently in the Tamil Nadu assembly (best performance of 4 seats in 2001 in alliance with DMK).
Low expectations and underdog status of BJP in these states (except Assam) could work to its advantage. Though, BJP has set ambitious targets to win in all these states, except Assam, it is not in reckoning in any other state, though its performance may significantly improve compared to 2011.
1. Strong Performance in Lok Sabha elections
In the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, BJP significantly improved its performance in all these states (in terms of vote share) compared to last state polls as shown in the table below.
Vote Share of BJP in 2011 (assembly) and 2014 (central) elections
It can be argued that voting patterns in Lok Sabha and State Elections are not the same and Modi factor attributed to this much improved performance. In the six state elections held after Lok Sabha polls, BJP on an average has recorded 16.7% lesser vote share in state polls compared to central polls. Even after adjusting for this factor, the expected vote share jump in 2016 (if this trend continues) would be significant.
Ratio of State polls to Central Polls Vote Share of BJP in 6 State elections
2. Municipal Polls – Sweep in Assam, gains in Kerala and loss of ground in Bengal
In the municipal elections held in Assam in Feb. 2015 (touted as semi-finals to the assembly polls in 2016) BJP captured more than 20 town committees and 23 municipal boards while ruling Congress managed to win only 7 and 9 respectively. In 2009, Congress controlled over 50% of the 74 committees and boards.
In the West Bengal municipal elections, BJP ceded some ground it had captured during Lok Sabha polls and failed to open its account in the 91 municipal bodies across the state. It did however manage to win 7 seats in Kolkata Municipal Corporation.
BJP for the first time gained power in a local body in Kerala in Nov. 2015, taking control of the Palakkad municipality. The party also made inroads in Thiruvananthapuram, Palakkad and Ernakulam. In the 100-member Thiruvananthapuram City Corporation, BJP won 34 seats, pushing Congress led alliance to 3rd position with 21 seats.
3. Electoral Dynamics in these states
1. Assam – The strong performance in 2014 Lok Sabha and following municipal polls brings BJP to a reckoning position in Assam. 60%+ Hindus (both Bengali speaking as well as Assamese speaking who once constituted Assam Gana Parishad’s backbone and account for 61% of state population) voted for the BJP due to its consistent stand against the Bangladeshi Muslim immigrants. The 15 year old Gogoi government will have to handle serious anti-incumbency (as did the Maharashtra and Haryana Congress regimes of 15 years and 10 years respectively). He is already juggling with rebellion amongst party members for some years culminating in the exit of Himanta Biswa Sarma with 9 MLAs to BJP in August 2015.
A Maha Gathbandhan of sorts of Congress and AIUDF could pose a serious challenge to BJP in its bid for power. Combined they enjoy a vote share of 44.9% (+8% lead over BJP). Muslims account for 34% of state population and 81% voted for Congress (42%) and AIUDF (39%) fighting separately in LS polls. BJP would need to counter this by forging an alliance with smaller parties like AGP or Bodoland’s Peoples Front. The elections could witness significant polarization – counter polarization amongst the two communities if AIUDF manages to form a front with Congress. Prodyut Bora’s LDP is also making its debut and targeting the youth voters.
2. Kerala – Hindus account for 55% of state population (Ezhavas 20% & Nairs 13% are the prominent sub-caste groups). Christians (18%) and Muslims (27%) account for the balance and have been traditional vote-bank of Congress (c. 60%+ voting for the party) in last two state elctions. The Left Front has got the majority of the Hindu votes (60%+ Ezhavas and Nairs 40%+) in 2006 and 2011. BJP has strengthened its position over the years among the Hindu community and a section of the community now sees it as an alternative to the 30 years of Congress / Left alternate rule.
I was in Kerala for a vacation last month and spoke to many people on the prospects of BJP. My driver from Allepey to Thekkady (who has been a voter of Left Front) conceded that he would vote for BJP and it may well open its account this time. He gave the example of Allepey by-pass road which was stuck for years (despite many state leaders from the area like A.K. Antony and Vayalar Ravi in central cabinet) and got the clearance in months after BJP came to power.
Another set of drivers during Thekkady to Munnar and Munnar to Kochi trips opined that Left Front would come back to power in line with the trend as people are fed up of the corruption in the current regime. As the state is 100% literate, it is very difficult for governments to hide their scams. BJP may bag a few seats especially in Thiruvananthapuram.
BJP vote share among two top Hindu Groups in Kerala
3. West Bengal – In West Bengal, BJP surprised political pundits by bagging 2 seats, the same tally as CPM in 2014 Lok Sabha polls. Absence of fresh faces in the Left Front and Modi factor led to this performance (20% respondents in CSDS survey preferred Modi as PM compared to 17% for Mamata). BJP made major inroads among the upper caste voters accounting for 10% of population (24% in 2014 vs 9% in 2009). Modi’s impact was most prominent among the young, especially the first time voters.
If BJP emerges as the main opposition, it will change the nature of politics in the State; it would add to the national stature of the BJP but above all, it would mean a serious challenge to the long time Left citadel in the country as Jyotiprasad Chaterjee and Supriyo Basu opine in their article in Hindu “West Bengal: Mamata holds onto her fortress” (July 1, 2014).
Afraid of BJP making inroads in the state, the Left is warming up to Congress to forge an alliance to topple Mamata and check BJP’s rise. Mamata, too, is wary of rising BJP influence because of an overlap of section of vote bank (young / educated / liberal class). She has also openly advocated a Maha Gathbandhan of like-minded parties JDU, RJD etc. like in Bihar. It is noted that these parties have almost nil presence in the state and won’t make any difference to TMC’s fortunes.
4. Tamil Nadu – BJP formed a 6 party coalition in Tamil Nadu with Vijaykant’s DMDK, Ramadoss’s PMK and Vaiko’s MDMK amongst others garnering 18.8% vote share. The alliance has already split post the central elections. Vaiko (3.5% vote share) has left NDA due to differences over handling of Sri Lanka issue and has joined a Left led alliance. DMDK is holding a meeting in New Year to decide which alliance to join or stay with BJP and is insisting on declaration of Vijayakanth as CM nominee.
BJP could try to form an alliance with AIADMK (its partner in 2004 Lok Sabha). It is well accepted in RSS that AIADMK has ideological similarities with BJP. This alliance would help BJP tide over its Rajya Sabha minority to some extent (AIADMK has 12 seats in RS). However, it all depends on Amma’s mood. She has not much to gain at state level from this alliance. However, at the national level, this alliance may prove to be strategic for her – friendly relations with govt. at the centre will help Tamil Nadu. This could also help her in the disproportionate assets case (though CBI is an independent body successive governments have used it as a political tool to harass opponents and help friends).
5. Challenges for BJP in these states
1. Lack of strong organizational strength – As evident from the graph, the party has fewer members in the four states going for polls. The national average for the party is 8.2% and all the states going to polls have members below this average.
Membership of BJP in various states
2. Lack of CM candidates – The party doesn’t have many tall leaders of the stature of Mamata, Jayalalitha, Buddhadeb, Gogoi, Chandy and Achuthanandan in these states. As has been clear with Delhi and Bihar verdicts, strong local leadership is increasingly becoming a deciding factor in state polls (for e.g. Kejriwal, Nitish).
3. Lack of clarity on alliances – With a national fervour building up against BJP at least among regional parties and parties ganging up to take on Modi, BJP is seen to be slowly reacting to this. In Assam, there is no concrete talks on alliance with AGP / BPF. In Tamil Nadu also party is still contemplating if it can pact with AIADMK with MDMK having left NDA and DMDK threatening to do so.
Whether 2016 is a success or not for the BJP electorally would eventually depend upon the outcome of the following questions.
To sum up, there is nothing to lose for BJP in Kerala, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal. These elections could serve as potential launch pad and give it a chance to emerge as a potent force in next elections (2021) if it manages a decent score. In Assam, it is in with a chance to win. The decline of Communist parties’ performance nationally could provide some help to BJP in Kerala and West Bengal. The party has enthused fresh leadership (state Presidents) in Assam, Kerala and West Bengal showing its seriousness in its bid to power. It has left (at least evident from press statements) much of the strategy / seat distribution decisions to the local leadership taking a cue from Bihar. Will BJP be able to reverse its electoral fortunes in 2016? Only time will tell…