Assembly elections: For whom the bell tolls

Women voters stand in queue at a polling booth in Silchar during the first phase of the Assam assembly polls on April 4, 2016

Source: PTI

Voting begins today (April 4) in Assam and West Bengal, touching off a 45 day marathon that will see assembly elections in five states – Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Puducherry being the others. At first glance, this set of elections may not appear to be of national consequence. After all BJP and Congress – the two national parties – are not in direct competition, except in Assam. Two of the states, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal, are run by formidable chief ministers who are predicted to win, and can do a deal with anybody in Delhi.

While that may be true, it would be unfair to the energies, concerns and sociology that any assembly election represents. Every election – whether Lok Sabha or panchayat – throws up a message. This will be so of the quintet of state elections beginning today as well. Of course, the actual message and impact will be known only on May 19 when votes are counted. For the moment, we need to satisfy ourselves by asking leading questions.

The two most piquant elections are probably in Assam and Kerala. In the north eastern state, BJP has its best chance. The crucial question is whether the BJP-led alliance will cross the halfway mark – 63 seats in a house of 126. It would require BJP’s two regional allies to deliver their seats. This is especially valid for the Asom Gana Parishad, a shadow of the force it was 20 years ago and contesting 24 seats.

What is working to BJP’s advantage is the fatigue in Congress after three terms in office. While a well-regarded figure, chief minister Tarun Gogoi is ageing. There is no obvious successor to him; he is the banyan tree who has not allowed the next generation leadership to grow beyond a point. One likely replacement, Himanta Biswa Sarma, left Congress and joined BJP in 2015. The absence of credible regional leaders of a relatively younger age is not a problem Congress faces only in Assam. Himachal Pradesh, which has elections in 2017, poses a similar challenge for the party. But that is another story.

Kerala politics has generally seen a close, two-way fight between a Congressled alliance and a CPM-led alliance. The two parties exchange positions every five years and this time it is the Left’s turn to win. While this may still happen, and Congress may pay for incumbency, an imponderable has entered the fray in the form of BJP. The BJP is not expected to win many seats but its vote share should rise. It won 10% of the vote in the 2014 Lok Sabha election and believes it can do even better.

As it happens, BJP cuts into specific communities and voter groups that have traditionally backed the Left. Congress on the other hand is banking on a consolidation of religious minorities. As such, it is possible that BJP may win enough votes to damage CPM and allow Congress to squeeze back to power. That this prospect cannot be summarily dismissed makes the Kerala election that much more exciting.

Commentary_AshokMalik_AssemblyPolls

Opposed to each other in Kerala, CPM and Congress are in partnership in West Bengal, keen to stop Mamata Banerjee and Trinamool Congress. In terms of arithmetic, the combine is strong in north Bengal. CPM’s desperation to regain power seems to suggest that it has the ability to transfer votes to Congress candidates. Congress’s capacity to reciprocate remains questionable.

BJP’s decline in the state – the party had won 17% of the vote in the 2014 parliamentary election but that number is set for a steep fall – adds to the puzzle. Will BJP’s lost votes go to any one group or will they find their way to all of the other major parties, a bit here and a bit there? Despite all this though, Trinamool should be comfortably placed for a second term.

In Tamil Nadu, Jayalalithaa’s AIADMK must be similarly optimistic. The opposition is divided between DMK under M Karunanidhi, who turns 92 in June, and a new front put together by two regional politicians, the actor Vijayakant and Vaiko. A three and in some places four way fight, would give the leading party, AIADMK, some advantage.

What would the national parties hope to gain from these elections? For BJP, a victory in Assam and a forceful performance in Kerala are priorities. If Mamata wins in Kolkata – and more importantly, CPM-Congress lose – and if Jayalalithaa comes back in Chennai, it will add to the Narendra Modi government’s hopes for deals in Parliament. This could also provoke another attempt to have the Goods and Services Tax constitutional amendment passed this summer.

For Congress a victory in Kerala, stopping BJP in Assam and giving Trinamool a hard fight in Bengal are the three motivations. More than that, the party is striving for relevance. It’s been two years since BJP won a famous victory in the Lok Sabha election, capturing space from Congress and from regional parties. Since then, in local elections, regional parties have begun to claw back. Congress has continued to lose ground. Will May 19 change that perception?

This commentary originally appeared in The Times of India.

The views expressed above belong to the author(s).

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