New Delhi: In normal politics, a party that retains power in a state — Assam — gains in a union territory where it didn’t have a single elected legislator — Puducherry — would celebrate. Instead, Sunday’s poll results brought gloom to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) camp.
Not that it was expecting any miracles in Kerala and Tamil Nadu. But West Bengal was crucial, howsoever ambitious it might sound for a party that won three seats in the 294-member assembly in 2016.
If Narendra Modi and Amit Shah embarked on a rather successful journey to attain a Congress-mukt Bharat in 2013, they were determined to raise the stakes eight years later — achieve a BJP-only Bharat by vanquishing regional parties. And West Bengal was to be the most important milestone.
It’s for this reason that Sunday’s defeat was their biggest in eight years. It showed that Modi’s popularity and Shah’s much-vaunted ‘Chanakyan’ strategy made a lethal combination for the Congress, but weren’t good enough for a regional satrap who possessed the skill and the will to fight. Arvind Kejriwal had shown it in Delhi earlier, but that was too small an arena to hold much significance. A pre-poll grand alliance like the one in Bihar in 2015 or Maharashtra’s post-poll grouping of three parties didn’t give the full picture either.
West Bengal was the real fight. Here was a doughty regional leader, Mamata Banerjee, who looked vulnerable to the BJP’s tried-and-tested strategy. So, pit her against Modi, and you get her dynastic politics versus his sadhu-like renunciation; her failures in governance vis-à-vis his development vision and governance model; and the Trinamool Congress’ alleged minority appeasement record contrasted with the BJP’s majoritarian credentials. This strategy worked wonderfully well against the Congress, and its success against Banerjee would be the beginning of the end of regional satraps.
Will satraps come together?
So, how do Sunday’s poll results change national politics? First, regional satraps are likely to get emboldened. They were too fearful of the BJP to counter it. So, in Uttar Pradesh, after the Akhilesh Yadav-Mayawati-Ajit Singh alliance failed in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, they parted ways and went into a cocoon, choosing not to offend the BJP. Mayawati declared her decision to go it alone in 2022 assembly elections.
In Karnataka, after the H.D. Kumaraswamy government’s fall, the Gowdas chose to befriend the BJP. Odisha CM Naveen Patnaik fended off the danger from the BJP in the 2019 assembly elections and could still see it lurking, but has chosen to keep the saffron party in good humour. So has been the case of many others such as Jagan Mohan Reddy in Andhra Pradesh and K. Chandrashekar Rao in Telangana.
The West Bengal poll results may change that, bringing all these regional parties together to rally around Mamata Banerjee. Rahul Gandhi of the Congress couldn’t inspire their confidence to take on the BJP, but Banerjee’s triumph over Modi and Shah would inspire them to come out of the closet and fight — on their home turfs as also at the national level — against the BJP.
It’s only a matter of time till the Congress also comes around, howsoever reluctantly. The BJP has a proven success rate against Rahul Gandhi’s Congress but it hasn’t had much success against regional parties. It must worry the BJP now. Anyone who watched the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government’s fall closely in 2004 wouldn’t ignore them.
Marginalised BJP leaders could push back
The second fallout of the West Bengal results could be within the BJP. Since late 2013, Shah, with Modi’s backing, has had an iron grip over the party and has continued to run it even after J.P. Nadda became president last year. This has meant that the leaders who couldn’t please the duo had to fall by the wayside. And they weren’t just spent forces like L.K. Advani and Murli Manohar Joshi. They include mass leaders such as Vasundhara Raje Scindia and Raman Singh. Even former party presidents, including Rajnath Singh and Nitin Gadkari, chose to play it safe, keeping their own counsel.
Not that Sunday’s setback, which exposed the limitations of Modi’s popularity and predictability of Shah’s electoral strategy, would trigger any rebellion in the ruling party. BJP leaders know that Modi still remains their only hope in the 2024 general elections, no matter how ineffective he may become in assembly elections. But a pushback from leaders who find themselves on the margins today may not be ruled out.
Next year’s elections in UP & other states
The third fallout of the BJP’s big failure in West Bengal could be in the next round of assembly elections in February-March next year — in Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Punjab, Goa and Manipur. Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh are scheduled to go to polls towards the end of 2022. With Covid mismanagement already casting a big shadow on the credibility of the BJP-led governments at the Centre and in states — all except Congress-led Punjab — the party has lost the momentum in West Bengal.
Besides, the BJP usually enters the poll arena as a putative victor, with leaders deserting the opposition camp en masse and BJP workers setting the agenda on the ground. The aura of invincibility around Modi-Shah works as an amplifier. All that is lost now as the BJP goes to another round of polls early next year.
So, what are Modi-Shah’s options? If they were to learn their lessons from Sunday’s results, national politics could be in for a massive change. Apart from Modi’s popularity, the BJP’s success has been largely attributed to its polarising Hindu-Muslim politics. But this doesn’t seem to work in states where strong regional satraps are in control. And this all-too-predictable strategy also seems to be increasingly getting a thumbs-down from voters. Agencies such as the Central Bureau of Investigation, the Enforcement Directorate, the Income Tax Department and even the Narcotics Control Bureau also seem to be losing their electoral value and credibility.
If Modi and Shah, therefore, decide to take a hard look at their political and electoral strategies and work on restoring and refurbishing the PM’s image as a ‘vikas purush’, Indian politics may be in for a big change. In the immediate context, it may mean a break from political blame-game and single-minded focus on mitigating the Covid crisis.
(Edited by Shreyas Sharma)