A look at developments in four states going to the polls over the next few months
West Bengal: A dance of comrades and Congress
A partnership between the Left Front and the Congress is taking on the Trinamool Congress juggernaut and fighting to keep the Bharatiya Janata Party at bay. Both parties have been reduced to spectral presences in Bengal – the Congress for decades and the Left since 2011, when it was routed by the TMC. Faced with large-scale defections among their cadres, both parties seem to realise they would need a partnership to make a dent in these elections.
But the road to an alliance does not run smooth. The Congress and the Left are adversaries in Kerala, which also goes to the polls in May. Many from the Communist Party of India (Marxist) in Kerala are unhappy about the growing warmth with the Congress in Bengal. While CPI(M) veteran and former Kerala Chief Minister VS Achuthanandan seemed open to a pragmatic alliance, most of the party’s Kerala unit parroted the line laid down at the party's conclave in Visakhapatnam last year: no alliances with the Congress. Central leaders like Prakash Karat were also known to be unhappy about the prospect. In the end, the alliance is more of an understanding than a formal tie-up.
Now, the two parties are playing a delicate game of pehle aap. The CPI(M) had already said that it would withdraw from seats where the Congress candidate was stronger, so as to avoid splitting the vote. On Thursday, the Congress indicated it would return the favour. Out of 294 assembly seats, the parties have a tacit understanding on 276. The problem areas include Malda, which the Congress’s Khan Choudhary family has treated like a fiefdom, and Naxal-affected Jhargram, where the Left supports the Jharkhand Party (Naren) over the Congress candidate.
Tamil Nadu: O Captain! My Captain!
The Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam talks seat-sharing with the Congress while the Bharatiya Janata Party scotches rumours of an alliance with Jayalalithaa’s All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam. Sandwiched between the two Dravidian titans is a valiant third front, led by the swashbuckling “Captain” Vijayakanth, the film star turned politician.
The Captain’s Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam has tied up with the fledgling People’s Welfare Front, comprising the CPI, the CPI(M), Vaiko’s Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and T Thirumavalavan’s Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi. So the third front combines Left politics with the Dalit assertions of the VCK and the Captain’s star power. Of course, the alliance could turn out to be the mouse that roared, since none of the PWF parties command a significant vote share. In addition, the Captain lost his position as leader of the opposition after eight DMDK legislators resigned from the state assembly last month.
The alliance could, however, split the anti-AIADMK vote and hurt the opposition’s chances. DMK patriarch M Karunanidhi claims he is not worried by the Captain’s army. But the prevailing nonchalance does not square with his hopeful pursuit of the DMDK over the last few months.
Kerala: BJP goes celebrity shopping
What do you do when you want to break into a state that has traditionally alternated between two powerful political formations? You go out hunting celebrities. What you lack in cadre strength and support base, you make up for in glamour. The Aam Aadmi Party collected celebrities when it was trying to spread across the country in 2014. So did the TMC when it toppled the Left bastion in Bengal in 2011. Now, the BJP is deploying the same strategy in Kerala.
Earlier this week, party president Amit Shah reportedly instructed the state unit to cobble together a candidate list that was both “inclusive: and “appealing”. By inclusive, he apparently meant all communities should be represented. And the state unit seems to have interpreted “appealing” as “well-known face”. Dutifully, the Kerala BJP has made overtures to cricketer Sreesanth and activist Rahul Easwar. It has also approached actor Suresh Gopi, film producer G Suresh Kumar and other luminaries.
The celebrity effect, though, has produced varying results in the past. It boosted the formidably organised TMC in 2011 but did nothing for the AAP in 2014. A celebrity’s popularity does not always translate into gains for the party. As of now, the BJP’s assiduous wooing of the famous and the popular has miffed party members, who feel sidelined.
Assam: The dark horse
In Assam, there is surface noise and there are deeper undercurrents. Creating a storm on Friday, a faction of the separatist group United Liberation Front of Asom accused Sarbananda Sonowal, the BJP’s chief ministerial candidate and a former member of the Asom Gana Parishad, of being involved in the notorious “secret killings” of Assam. And, of course, the gloves are off between the Congress and the BJP. The BJP has communalised the migration issue, making a distinction between “Hindu refugees” and “Muslim infiltrators”. In retaliation, Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi of the Congress has called the BJP a party of “fake Hindus”. He, the “real Hindu”, had learnt the values of secularism from his religion.
But there is another party that stands to gain from insecurities around migration: The All India United Democratic Front, led by perfume baron Badruddin Ajmal. What is more, its support bases overlap with those of the Congress in several constituencies. The AIUDF’s strongholds are in Lower Assam, home to a large number of Bengali Muslims, parts of the Barak Valley and pockets of the Bodoland Territorial Area District. The AIUDF has thrived on the perception that it was formed in 2004 for the protection of Bangladeshi migrants. This could take a toll on the Congress’ appeal. For years, the ruling party enjoyed the support of a captive votebank by extending political patronage to insecure migrants.
The AIUDF has made significant gains in the last two elections, winning 10 seats in 2006 and 18 in 2011. If the BJP and its allies do not manage to conjure up the magic 64 seats, this is one political player the Congress would want to keep happy as it could play a significant role in the formation of the next Assam government.