Pushed on the backfoot after the Bharatiya Janata Party’s battering in the Delhi and Bihar assembly polls, the results of the assembly elections declared on Thursday proved to be a personal triumph for Prime Minister Narendra Modi and party president Amit Shah.
The BJP’s emphatic win in Assam and its expanded footprint in states like West Bengal and Kerala where the saffron outfit did not have a presence earlier, have re-established and strengthened the Modi-Shah duo’s credibility and authority in the party.
More importantly, the results will embolden the two leaders to go into next year’s high-stakes assembly election in the electorally-crucial state of Uttar Pradesh with renewed vigour. The BJP can now be expected to run a highly-polarised and aggressive campaign in the Hindi heartland state.
Although there was no threat to their leadership after the BJP’s rout in Delhi and Bihar, questions were raised within the party about the campaign strategy crafted by Shah in these states. The BJP president was privately criticised by party members for his authoritarian style of functioning and, at one stage, Shah’s re-election as party president appeared to be uncertain. In addition, there were murmurs about Modi’s waning charisma and his ability to deliver a victory.
However, Modi and Shah’s detractors in the party will be suitably silenced after the Thursday verdict.
Unlike the Congress, which never learns from its past mistakes, the BJP’s poll strategists went back to the drawing board after their humiliating defeat in the earlier two assembly elections and drew up a fresh strategy for these elections. They realised that the party could no longer depend on Modi to win them elections and that it was essential to involve state leaders in this effort.
The party quickly changed tack and declared Sarbananda Sonowal as its chief ministerial candidate in Assam well before the polls were announced. The BJP did not stop at projecting a chief minister but it also involved the party’s state leaders in the campaign which was focussed primarily on local issues. In sharp contrast to its Bihar campaign, the Central leadership kept a low profile in Assam and there was no overt interference in the planning and execution of the campaign.
Similarly, the BJP stitched up strategic alliances with the Asom Gana Parishad and the Bodo People’s Front, which went a long way in building the momentum in its favour. Although it was helped by the fact that Assam was ready for a change after Tarun Gogoi’s uninterrupted 15-year-run in the state, the BJP staged a coup of sorts when it persuaded Gogoi’s bete noire Himanta Biswas Sarma to join their party.
Driven by his one-point agenda to settle scores with the Congress, Sarma emerged as the BJP’s star campaigner and chief strategist. His personal popularity and charisma drew in the crowds in hordes. In addition, it was Sarma who was instrumental in bringing the Bodo People’s Front and the Asom Gana Parishad to the negotiating table. Sarma, along with Modi and Shah, were also able to tap into the people’s growing angst on the sensitive issue of infiltration from across the border.
The strategy worked as the BJP now has its first state government in a major state like Assam, which is known to be a gateway to the North East. It will become easier for the BJP to foray into the other North Eastern states which have, so far, been a Congress stronghold.
Besides winning Assam, the BJP has reasons to be pleased with itself as it has opened its account in Kerala and has improved its tally and vote share in West Bengal, the two states where it has never been a strong presence.
The saffron party and its allies have notched up a 15% vote share in Kerala, which will now have its first BJP legislator, O Rajagopal, in the state assembly. Similarly, the BJP’s tally in West Bengal has gone up from one to five seats while its vote share is touching 20%.
As BJP spokesperson Sudhanshu Trivedi pointed out, “The BJP has made gains in all the states...these election are a reflection of the party’s geographical and political expansion.” Another senior BJP leader remarked, “Now we cannot be called a Hindi heartland party or cowbelt party...the BJP is a pan-Indian party and the central force in the country’s polity.”
While these results will help the BJP in the coming assembly polls, it will also make it easier for the Modi government to push through its legislative agenda in Parliament. The ruling alliance was constantly blocked by the numerically stronger Congress in the Rajya Sabha where the BJP was in a minority. While the Congress is still the single largest party in the Upper House, the latest electoral setbacks will make it difficult for the grand old party to put up a strong and credible fight against the Modi government.
It will also become easier for the government to do business with the regional parties. The AIADMK and Biju Janata Dal have always been well disposed towards the BJP. Emerging stronger after her stupendous victory, Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress will be able to do business with the BJP with great confidence. According to a senior Congress leader, “The BJP always prefers to deal with regional parties... that’s the reason its main aim is to weaken our party.”
The assembly results will also prove to be a setback for Bihar chief minister’s proposed anti-BJP front. The Congress, which was expected to anchor this front, is in steady decline, making it difficult for other parties to align with it. There is also little possibility of non-BJP, non-Congress parties coming together on a common platform in the future, given the egos of their leaders and their state-level compulsions.