Verdict Of Polls: BJP Expands, Cong Shrinks, Modi’s Challenge Is Regional 

R Jagannathan

May 19, 2016, 10:52 AM | Updated 10:52 AM IST

BJP flags/Getty Images
BJP flags/Getty Images
  • To sum up the overall results in one line, it is this: the BJP’s prime challengers will be the regional parties, and not the Congress. The dynasty cannot deliver the vote anymore.
  • It is all over bar the shouting, recriminations, mea culpas and hindsight analysis in India’s mini-general elections of 2016. Even as counting was just past the mid-way mark, it is clear who the winners will be: the Trinamool Congress by a wide margin in West Bengal, the BJP in Assam, the LDF in Kerala and Amma in Tamil Nadu.

    The pollsters were right in three states, but got it fairly wrong on Tamil Nadu, where two of the three exit polls saw the DMK front ahead.

    To sum up the overall results in one punch line, it is this: the BJP’s prime challengers will be the regional parties, and not the Congress. The dynasty cannot deliver the vote anymore.

    In West Bengal, Mamata-di was heading for a clean sweep, with a two-thirds majority. The Left-Congress marriage of convenience hit the rocks in the state, with the minorities obviously voting massively for Didi to avoid splitting their clout. The Left-Congress alliance, despite the favourable arithmetic, apparently failed to convince the voter that it could form a viable government even if it won. Rubbing salt in the wounds, it appears that the Congress is doing better than the Left in the state, indicating that the Left space has been taken over fully by Didi. There is little place for a second Left party. The BJP appears to have made some headway in the state, and looked set to win at least a handful in seats.

    The biggest upset was in Assam, where the BJP alliance made a dramatic entry to power by projecting Sarbananda Sonowal as Chief Minister, correcting the mistakes of Delhi and Bihar, where the party hoped to win purely on the basis of Narendra Modi’s charisma. Voters in states obviously look for signs of local leadership, and this change in strategy carried the day for the BJP. Amit Shah and the party clearly did the right things. The Assam win is also a triumph of practical strategy, where the BJP got its alliances right – with AGP and Bodo parties in tow. In terms of vote share, the Congress was still about 1 percent ahead of the BJP in the state, but the alliance won. This means the next time the Congress will have to ally with the Muslim party AUDF to snatch back power.

    The combination of anti-incumbency and a consolidation of the non-Muslim vote behind the BJP-led Front helped it win, but the next time could be another story.

    In Kerala, the usual LDF-UDF switch happened, with the LDF taking its turn at power. But the interesting fact is the BJP’s good show in terms of vote share, which looks likely to cross 15 percent this time, a marginal gain even from the Lok Sabha vote (in combination with the BJDS). The party is expected to break the jinx and get at least one seat in the assembly this time.

    The biggest upset was in Tamil Nadu, where two of the three pollsters indicated a possible win for the DMK front, but the actual trends followed commonsense logic: with two fronts and smaller parties chipping away at the anti-incumbency vote, it should have been an easy win for Amma. While the DMK has made gains in Chennai, Jayalalithaa has won a clear majority on her own. Clearly, the smaller parties got crushed between the two fronts bigger fronts. The BJP has lessons to learn from this.

    The key takeouts are the following:

    One, the BJP is spreading its wings on the periphery of India, outside the cow-belt. The win in Assam and significant vote share gains in Kerala and West Bengal are huge gains. These improvements in performance have been built not on the Modi wave, but local factors – and hence sustainable.

    Two, the regional parties are the real challengers to the BJP’s rise, as the Left’s victory in Kerala, Didi’s in West Bengal, and the AIADMK/DMK dominance in Tamil Nadu shows. An anti-Modi front in 2019 will require the Left and the regional parties to combine before the elections to provide a leadership face and an overall alternative.

    Three, the Congress’ footprint in shrinking, and is soon likely to be no better than a regional party. The lesson for the party is the same as that for the BJP. It cannot win on the basis of charisma at the top or a high command culture. If Modi can’t win a Bihar or Delhi all by himself, the Congress cannot win any state using the dynasty as crutch. The Gandhi family may have high media visibility, but it has no direct electoral clout anywhere. The only consolation is a Congress gain in Puducherry.

    Four, the Left is a force only in Kerala, for Mamata has stolen the Left’s goon-squad and its ideology in West Bengal. West Bengal cannot dance with two Left feet.

    Five, Modi now may be able to do deals with regional parties to get legislation through, as the Congress looks like a has-been. This means mainly Mamata Banerjee and Jayalalithaa, apart from Samajwadi Party. The Left and the Janata Dal (U) may not play ball. However, GST may not find an easy path, as a rejuvenated AIADMK is against it. Congress will oppose it for its own narrow reasons. A wounded Congress is not going to be in any mood to cooperate.

    The biggest gainer from this election is the BJP, which recovers some of its old confidence, but to really make this win worthwhile, it must stop its swagger and focus on delivering governance. The excessive bravado and hubris of 2014-15, which helped forge opposition unity against it, will be counter-productive. Modi should use this opportunity to rein in the loud-mouths of the parivar, and focus on performance.

    Jagannathan is Editorial Director, Swarajya. He tweets at @TheJaggi.

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