The current Assembly elections won't just determine how the five states that participated in the exercise shape up over the next five years: they will also mould the remaining three years of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s tenure.
The results will be declared on May 19. Of the states whose fates hang in the balance, the Bhartiya Janata Party is an inconsequential presence in West Bengal, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Puducherry. But the party has high stakes in Assam, where polling was held in two phases on April 4 and 6.
A victory in Assam would go a long way in reviving Modi's reputation and help him regain his image as the BJP's most precious political asset – an image that has been damaged, that has come under severe strain after the party’s pathetic performance in the last two Assembly polls in Delhi and Bihar.
The revival of his aura of invincibility in the event that Assam goes saffron would also brighten the BJP’s prospects in the crucial state of Uttar Pradesh, where Assembly elections are due early next year. And a victory in the Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections would increase Modi’s prospects in the Lok Sabha elections of 2019.
A defeat, on the other hand, may simply prove lethal for Modi. Not only would it weaken his standing, it would also add an element of finality to what is seen as the changed mood of the nation.
The change was reflected first in the Assembly polls in Delhi early last year when the BJP could win merely three out of 70 seats. This was confirmed unequivocally in Bihar in November, when the saffron party managed to get only 53 seats in the house of 243. A third consecutive defeat – unless the BJP beats the trend and wins either Kerala or Tamil Nadu or West Bengal – would shatter Modi beyond redemption.
A defeat for Modi in Assam would also mean another major shift in India’s politics. It would be the first time since the Lok Sabha elections of 2014 when Congress has defeated the BJP in a direct contest. The party has not managed to win a single election on its own against the BJP for the last two years, barring the victory in Arunachal Pradesh. It lost out to the BJP not just in the Lok Sabha polls of 2014 but also in the Assembly elections that followed in Maharashtra, Haryana, Jharkhand and Jammu and Kashmir. It even squandered away the gains of Arunachal by failing to check intra-party dissensions.
A Congress victory in Assam would strengthen the position of party vice president Rahul Gandhi within his own organisation and pave the way for his anointment as Congress president. It would also brighten the party’s chances in the upcoming Assembly elections in Punjab and Uttarakhand, apart from strengthening its position significantly in Uttar Pradesh.
It isn't just the fates of Modi and Rahul Gandhi that are tied with the ongoing Assembly elections. It is a critical moment too for Sitaram Yechury, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) general secretary. His gamble to align with the Congress in West Bengal is being watched keenly by his detractors in the party. Through this alliance Yechury has sought to alter the basic anti-Congress DNA of the party, opting for this at a time when the CPI(M) is fighting a no less significant poll battle in Kerala where it is pitted directly against the Congress.
If Yechury’s gamble fails in West Bengal, it would become impossible for him to defend the change he brought about in the CPI(M)'s tactical line. The situation would become even more difficult for him if the party suffers a loss at the hands of the Congress in Kerala. In the recent local bodies’ elections in Kerala, a clear surge in people’s support was visible for the CPI(M) as against the Congress – a fact that had led the Kerala leaders to try to dissuade the party’s central leadership from forming an alliance in West Bengal.
Yechury prevailed then, but he will have to be ready to pay the price if his gamble fails. If, on the other hand, the alliance manages to pull off a victory in West Bengal, his stature would go up as never before. The enthusiasm that this victory may generate could form the Congress-Communist core for a massive polarisation of secular forces to take on Modi in 2019.