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BJP & State Elections 2021: Saffron Surge?

12-04-2021published_dt 2021-04-12T12:15:23.442Z12-04-2021 17:45:23 IST
Updated On 16-04-2021 15:48:38 ISTmodified_dt 2021-04-16T10:18:38.882ZUpdated On 16-04-20212021-04-12T12:15:23.442Z12-04-2021 2021-04-12T12:15:23.442Z - 2021-04-16T10:18:38.882Z - 16-04-2021

Hello and welcome to Midweek Matters.


In less than a month we will know the outcome of the bitter electoral battles that are underway now. Four states and one union territory are in the midst of a no holds barred election campaign. Two major national formations - the BJP and Congress - and three important regional formations - the TMC, AIADMK and DMK - are testing their political fortunes. A once national formation which  is now reduced to a regional outfit, the CPM, is in the fray: as an incumbent defending its position in Kerala and as a minor contender in Bengal. Versatile actor Kamal Haasan is also in the fray leading his own party in Tamil Nadu.

Let’s take a look at what’s at stake in these elections, what could the outcome signal for our polity and for the major political parties that are locked in a bitter political battle.

One thing is clear. It’s not just about electing or re-electing governments in these states and the union territory. These elections mean a lot more than that. If the BJP is able to return to power in Assam, it would mean that its victory in 2016 was not just an outcome of anti incumbency against a three times CM. It should be understood as a clear indication that the BJP's footprint in Assam is for real, and the party has been able to strike a chord with the people of the largest state in the Northeast. It spells disaster for the Congress, not just in Assam but nationally. If this happens along with its unsuccessful bid to recapture Kerala, the grand old party can be seen as hastening its walk into sunset. Anything short of recapturing both these states or at least one of them with decisive mandate can mean doom for  Congress. A decent or respectable performance in Assam will mean nothing for it.

I will come to Bengal towards the end of the episode. Please bear with me. I want to quickly deal with the rest of them before dealing with Bengal and the general saffron surge in detail.

Puducherry has very minor bearing on the national political scene. While loss of the UT for Congress makes the party's situation worse, it could give only a small consolation to the BJP that it was able to dislodge Congress with the help of some disaffected former congressmen.

Reports coming from Kerala indicate that the state is likely to buck its own trend of alternating between the two major alliances. Pundits are increasingly coasting to the idea that the LDF led by Pinrayi Vijayan is all set to be re-elected. Chief Minister's stature is apparently unaffected by the gold scam. The government's competent response to the two natural disasters earlier and the current pandemic seems to have earned it the voters' nod. However, an upset for LDF is not as costly to it as a failure to recapture the state by UDF might prove to Congress. It could signal the atrophy of Congress in Kerala, yielding place to  BJP in the southern tip of peninsular India.

This brings us to the prospects of BJP in Kerala. It’s evident that BJP has been taking Kerala seriously for sometime or for more than a decade now. The state finds a special place in the party's priorities. In south India, it is only second to Karnataka. Much higher than Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, and Telangana. The state's religious demography, the Sabarimala issue, the traction that the Party's ideological mentor, the RSS, could gain over the last few years have infused a new morale into the party cadre. It suffers from one important handicap, however. It lacks a credible CM face. It tried   to send a hesitant message, or was it a subliminal message, that the octogenarian technocrat Metro Sreedharan was its mascot. But that would not cut much ice. However, the BJP's campaign in Kerala has much more vigour in evidence this time round. The political ground is not yet ready for a true triangular contest. But this election could be a stepping stone for BJP if Congress comes a cropper now. Next time it could be a straight match between LDF and BJP. With Congress on the fringes. Only a Congress-led  UDF victory now can avert that kind of an otherwise impending scenario.

Tamil Nadu seems to be locked in a tight contest. Before the race began, most reports suggested that it was going to be a cake walk for Stalin-led DMK. But analysts are now hedging their bets.

They’re not any more willing to write off AIADMK. In terms of stature the incumbent CM is yet to match the DMK leader Muka Stalin. But Edappadi Palaniswami is proving to be no pushover, with his hitherto undiscovered skills as a campaigner now gradually revealing.

The most important feature of the election scene in Tamil Nadu is BJP's striking presence. It’s more visible and audible this time than ever before. The national leadership of the party is investing more time and resources in the state now. It is punching much above its weight, although it’s riding piggy back on AIADMK. The AIADMK is not fully comfortable to be seen in the company of BJP. Their manifestos seem to be at odds with each other on many issues.

However, its alliance with the ruling party at the centre is a bit of help in organising IT raids on its opponents and also probably in augmenting its financial resources to fight the election.

Now let’s turn to Bengal.

Whatever might be the outcome of the contest, BJP has now become a formidable political force in Bengal. There can’t be two opinions on this. If Mamata Banerjee wins this contest, and if the victory is not decisive and comfortable, her victory could be short lived. She will have to take a lesson or two from Kamalnath of Madhya Pradesh. Sooner than later after the election, enough number of TMC MLAs might find their leader impulsive and authoritarian and could be attracted  to the developmental agenda of Modiji. It's been happening in many other states. The standard post-election template of BJP.

I’ve heard political commentators wonder whether Bengal will stay an exception and stave off the saffron surge. I think they’re wrong. Bengal is already very much in the midst of a saffron surge.

Irrespective of the electoral outcome. First, the principal challenger in the state today is not CPM, the party ousted by Mamata Bannerjee a decade ago; nor is it the Congress, the party ousted by CPM about three decades prior to that. It’s the BJP. Make no mistake about what it means. Isn’t that enough to see how the tide is turning?

The BJP’s supreme ability to release the animal spirits in our polity is most clearly visible in Bengal. It’s making Mamata sweat. Lose her cool. Robbed her off her self confidence and made her look a shrieking victim rather than a self assured defender of a citadel.

BJP is now the most vigorous political party in the country, an electoral juggernaut. It combines   the energy and passion of a regional party and the resourcefulness and reach of a national party.  It has an energetic and skilful leadership, capable and willing to put in hard political work. Which has the ruthlessness and single mindedness to do whatever it takes to execute its plan. And reach its goal. It has the ideological backing of a plethora of organisations - the Parivar - that can recruit support from a civilised Sanskrit lover as much as command the blind allegiance of a club   wielding vigilante roaming the streets.

The BJP of Vajpayee-Advani-Joshi should not be confused with the BJP of today. It is completely recast. It is now Modi-Shah Party. It’s muscular, financially well endowed, has the ability to use large digital armies to psychologically numb large numbers of voters and influencers and make them unwilling to see job losses, increase in poverty and inequality, closing down of small and medium enterprises, economic hardships, repressing dissent, enacting identity based laws as electoral issues. It’s not burdened by constitutional norms and democratic niceties. It’s willing to use government as well as independent institutions to advance its goals. It’s not hesitant to summon the dark elements that swim below the surface, and to tap into the animosities and cleavages that always lie dormant in a stratified and diverse society like India. It’s devotion to and worship of state power is unmatched by any political party in the history of the country. It’s cadres are fired by an agenda. By the idea of a grand project. Other parties today, particularly those who oppose this project, lack the ability to articulate a coherent alternative idea. There’s no evidence   of a narrative. They are weak in passion. Have no fire in their belly.

It is this huge energy of Modi-Shah BJP that is at full play in these 4 states and one union territory today. Whether these states from the northeastern corner of the country to the southwestern tip of the peninsula allow this energy to shape their politics? On that depends the nature of Indian polity in the coming years and decades.

Therefore, to B-jp or not to B-jp, that’s the question in these state elections of 2021. That’s all we have time for this week.