The year that will be: the political battles of 2021
When the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) swept the Lok Sabha elections in 2014, their victory was largely based on an astonishing success rate in North and West India. But since the day it won, the party has been clear that this was the right moment to break with the old stereotype of being seen as a Hindu party of the heart, and decided to expand, first in the east and then in the south. .
Over the past six years, this strategy has paid off, especially in the east, where the party’s victory in the 2016 Assam state elections inaugurated a period of expansion in the northeast. The party also performed strongly in two states where it historically had a limited presence, West Bengal and Odisha, helping it cross the 300 mark in the 2019 elections. While Karnataka has been an older stronghold and has There have been some recent successes at the local level in Telangana, for the most part it has failed to translate this intention to expand and the corresponding political investment into real seats in other southern regions. . And that’s why 2021 is key for the BJP: retain and expand its control in the east and be able to make a mark in the south.
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For the opposition, this is precisely what makes the year a critical turning point. If he is able to keep the BJP out of the power of two eastern states (West Bengal and Assam), and force it to remain a fringe player in the south, it will be a shot in the arm by those who oppose the central government. , limit the growth of the BJP and maintain the political balance in what would otherwise be a hegemonic politics dominated by the BJP. Within the Opposition, the outcome of the state elections in 2021 will also determine the balance of power between Congress and regional parties, and all indications point to this leaning even more towards regional parties, by individual force and Congressional prospects in at least two of the largest voting states (Tamil Nadu and West Bengal) are limited.
But beyond the framework of party politics, the electoral battles of 2021 will also take a look at the nature of identity-based politics in these regions, the tension between ownership, where being in power has provided the opportunity to expand power, and incumbency – where being in power has generated a backlash and thus eroded power; the vocabulary of development and well-being, especially in the context of an economic and public health crisis; and the key role of individual leaders in determining outcomes.
In the East
The great battle of 2021 is of course in West Bengal, where the Trinamool Congress, led by the formidable Mamata Banerjee, who fought for decades against the left as a challenger, now has to defend its record. No other local leader in Bengal equals Banerjee’s brand equity, tenacity and understanding of the basic realities of the state. But while Brand Mamata is Trinamool’s calling card, backed by welfare plans initiated by the state government, it now also suffers from a number of weaknesses, which are being exploited by the BJP.
Trinamool has been portrayed, due to Mamata Banerjee’s possibly overemphasis on the Muslim vote in order to win it over to the left and Congress in the early years, as a party too close to minorities. This, in the BJP campaign on the ground, throws the charge of “appeasement policy” against the rival on the one hand, and on the other, leads to a conscious effort to build a Hindu vote through a set of cultural and political politics. policies. and legislative measures. After her setback in the 2019 polls, Mamata Banerjee, advised by political consultant Prashant Kishor, whose trademark in recent campaigns has been asking forces outside the BJP to avoid the Hindu-Muslim binary, has made a conscious effort to be seen as sensitive. to Hindu aspirations. For her, this is an unnatural policy, although, in her personal beliefs, she has always been a devotee of Kali. But the BJP believes that this message is too little and too late, and that the ground in Bengal is ripe enough for a “polarized election”. The party believes its push for the Citizenship (Amendment) Act will help rally Hindu voters in border areas with ties to the east. Its leaders trust districts with more than 60% Hindu to polarize the landscape and win.
But it’s not just about identity politics. The BJP has steadily built its organization in the state, aided, to a large extent, by the entry of former Trinamool heavyweights, the latest being Suvendu Adhikari. In Bengal politics, the key is to have control of the local machines on the ground. Local electoral machines – loose grids populated by influential panchayat leaders and others who are comfortable with using violence to intimidate rivals and coerce voters – moved from the left to Trinamool, and the big question is whether they will now pass. to the BJP. This history of violence also makes the elections particularly sensitive, and has already seen a series of political assassinations, with the opposition on target.
But beyond identity and organization, the great battle in Bengal will be between Narendra Modi, who seems to enjoy a high degree of popularity in the state and who will be the key face of the BJP in the absence of a pan-Bengali leader, and Mamata. Banerjee. Modi will speak of dual-engine growth (of political alignment between the Center and the state), the Center’s welfare schemes (which the BJP alleges is not being implemented on the ground) and perhaps a great promise of development package, while that Banerjee will focus on Bengali Subnationalism, the Center’s attack on state rights, and his own achievements of the last decade.
If in Bengal, the BJP has to be the challenger to win power, next door, in Assam, it is the incumbent who has to retain power. Under Sarbananda Sonowal and Himanta Biswa Sarma, the party has deepened its organizational networks in the state, and will speak of infrastructure and welfare projects as its achievement. It is also helped, to a large extent, by disorder in Congress: With the death of Tarun Gogoi, the party lacks an imposing leader, although the former prime minister’s son, Gaurav, hopes to inherit his legacy.
But the BJP’s greatest hope and challenge comes from the decades-long controversial question of identity. Unlike Bengal, where there is some support for the CAA and opposition to the National Register of Citizens (NRC), in Assam, there is opposition to the CAA, which is seen as an effort to provide back door entry to immigrants. Hindus of Bangladesh. and ambivalence towards the NRC: considered the first step in identifying citizens and outsiders, but the flawed process of the NRC in the state with tremendous humanitarian consequences has led to arrests; it has also deepened the division between the Brahmaputra Valley and Barak.
How the BJP is able to reconcile these complex tendencies, presenting itself as the party committed to indigenous interests, even while cultivating the Hindu-Bengali vote, while constructing the Muslim as the other, will be key. For the opposition, the political task ahead will depend on whether it is able to portray the BJP as opposed to the sentiments of the Assam Movement. Congress has its own challenge: an understanding with Badruddin Ajmal can lead to a consolidation of the Muslim vote, but alienating the indigenous vote while the absence of an understanding can fragment the Muslim vote.
The battles of the south
The stakes are higher for the Opposition in the southern states, where the BJP knows its limits. As one top party leader said of the challenge from the south: “It will take us a decade to establish ourselves firmly. We lacked a group of leaders and we were limited by our past image of being seen as a North Indian party. The picture is breaking down now, and more and more leaders and workers are joining us in states like Tamil Nadu and Kerala, but to build the organization and dominate the narrative, some elections will be necessary. “
This does not mean that the BJP will not unleash its campaign strategies of awe and wonder. But in Tamil Nadu, where he is still viewed with a degree of suspicion for his attachment to the Hindi language and his perceived opposition to the Dravidian movement, it relies primarily on his understanding with All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), especially with the actor Rajinikanth leaving politics even before entering the electoral race. The challenge for AIADMK is that he is fighting in his first state elections without J Jayalalithaa, and has been in power for two terms, leading to strong opposition to the charges. Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) is also fighting in her first election after the death of M. Karunanidhi and going through a generational transition with MK Stalin as her face. And while it faces its own factional struggles and a dispute over the possibility of sharing seats, the DMK-led alliance, which includes Congress, starts out as the favorite.
In Kerala, the contest will be fundamentally bipolar between the Left Front and the alliance led by Congress. The state has had a pattern of alternation between governments led by the two formations (like Rajasthan in the north, which is shuffled between Congress and the BJP). But the success of the Left Front in recent local elections has opened up the possibility of breaking this cycle. This will be a high-stakes election because Rahul Gandhi, as Wayanad’s MP, can be expected to invest substantially in the Congressional campaign, but despite his proximity to the leadership of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) in Delhi , there will be to face a tough starter in the form of Pinarayi Vijayan, who has developed a reputation for delivery. The BJP has been making efforts to open up Kerala’s political matrix, but it has had limited success and can be expected to be a distant third, mainly due to the demographics of the state (it has a substantial presence of both Muslims and Christians). entrenched political loyalties and weak organization (ironically, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s strength in the state has not translated into a political advantage for the BJP).
By the middle of next year, the political makeup of some of the major political states in India will be clear. If the BJP wins Bengal and Assam and manages to retain influence over the Tamil Nadu government, it will be a further step towards its expansion and potentially more centralized Indian politics. If Trinamool can retain Bengal, the BJP is driven out of Assam, the DMK-led alliance wins Tamil Nadu, and regardless of whether the victor in Kerala is the left or the Congress, the political message will be the continued force of regional forces in the states against the dominance of the BJP and potentially an assertion of the states against the Center.
The 2021 message will last until 2024.