political play

With Bihar in their pocket, Narendra Modi and Amit Shah have conquered the Hindi heartland

Up next: The south and east.

Bihar was the only big outlier. In a sea of saffron from Jammu and Kashmir to Maharashtra, Gujarat to Jharkhand, Bihar was the only state to resist the spread of the Bharatiya Janata Party. It even managed to deliver a crushing defeat to the BJP, at a time when Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Party President Amit Shah were pulling off resounding victories or canny takeovers across the land. That is now in the past. Nitish Kumar’s decision on Wednesday to join hands with the BJP to return as Bihar chief minister, less than 15 hours after stepping down from the same post and ending an anti-BJP alliance, means the saffron party now controls almost the entirety of India’s heartland.

In some ways, this should not be surprising. The BJP’s massive Lok Sabha victory in 2014 suggested the party could expand far beyond its traditional strongholds, on the back of Narendra Modi’s popularity. In the state elections that followed in 2014, it has methodically gone about this task, winning outright in many cases and ensuring it would be in the driver’s seat even without a majority.

The following year, 2015, seemed to halt this expansion, with the BJP being routed by the Aam Aadmi Party in Delhi and defeated by a coalition of Opposition parties in Bihar. But the saffron party did not just pick up the pieces and move on, it continued to work on unsettling the governments in those states where it had lost. In Delhi, that meant making it difficult for the AAP government to function. In Bihar, it focused on attacking the weakest links in the Rashtriya Janata Dal-Janata Dal (United) alliance.

Hook or crook

In 2016, the BJP got a breather, since it was not a major player in most of the state elections, although it did manage significant vote-share gains in Kerala and West Bengal. In Assam it managed its very first victory, opening up the North East.

Meanwhile, the party was also hard at work on coming to power without elections. It first tried this gambit in Uttarakhand and Arunachal Pradesh, building up support and allegedly using money to attract lawmakers over to the BJP camp. Though both efforts initially seemed successful, they ended up being overturned following Supreme Court scrutiny. But that did not stop the BJP from pushing further. By December 2016, Arunachal had turned saffron and elections in Uttarakhand a few months later led to the same result.

Early elections in 2017 saw the same two-pronged approach. In Uttar Pradesh, the BJP managed a resounding victory, giving it a huge national boost and confirming its position as the pole of Indian politics. But in Goa and Manipur, despite finishing with fewer seats than the Congress, the BJP still cobbled together enough support to form the government in both states.

In Bihar, as with those two states, the government is now primarily run by two parties, neither of which won the most seats in the 2015 election.

Congress leaders attempted to pass this off as a “failure” of Indian democracy, but whatever the moral dimensions of the move may have been, the BJP’s successful efforts only confirm the impression that it is dominant. All other political parties are forced to react.

Up next

Now that the Hindi heartland has nearly been conquered – a resounding BJP victory in municipal polls in Delhi suggests even AAP is under the gun – the saffron party is looking further afield. It has already pushed its way into several North Eastern states and is continuing to throw its weight, and central funds, around there. North Eastern states have traditionally backed the government at the Centre, so this may not be surprising. The party will spend some of the next few years hoping to ensure it is re-elected, in states like Gujarat, or winning over states like Himachal Pradesh where it seems ready to take over.

The real challenge lies in the south and east

In the crosshairs:

  • Karnataka was the BJP’s first big win in South India in 2008, and it was supposed to be a gateway to the rest of the region. But the party lost the state to the Congress in 2013, thanks to infighting and allegations of corruption among other things. Karnataka is up for elections in 2018, and there is much talk of anti-incumbency against the Congress government. The BJP has a real shot at repeating its success from 2008, and then looking further south to states where its presence is minimal but growing.
  • Odisha is the BJP’s brightest hope in the east, in the short-term at least. The party has never won in the state, but after four terms of Biju Janata Dal’s Naveen Patnaik at the helm, there is a feeling that voters are ready to choose an alternative. Traditionally that would have been the Congress, which ran the last non-BJD government in the state in the late 1990s. But the Congress local unit has failed to keep up, and some now believe the BJP will be the principal beneficiary of any anti-incumbency in elections in 2018. Will that be enough for a victory?
  • West Bengal may not be an immediate prize for the BJP, but it is hard at work in the state. Three decades of communist rule gave way to the Trinamool Congress’ Mamata Banerjee in 2011. Banerjee has dominated the state since, but the BJP sees the potential for West Bengal to fit the BJP vs ‘secular’ party formula that now exists in many other states. Elections are not due till 2021, and even then few expect the party to unseat Banerjee, but the saffron party is steadily making inroads – and working to polarise voters in the process.
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