Today, we will continue our marathon coverage of Indian General Election’s political mapping. As a recap for new readers, one will suffice to say that we have covered the overall election results, with the BJP ruling the ‘core’ of India, and the opposition and non-BJP hold-outs being clustered around the ‘fringes’ of India – in the west in Punjab; in the south and south-east in Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh; in Telangana and Odisha in central India; in West Bengal in the east; and, generally in the far northeast. Next, we reviewed ‘swing states’ where the Indian Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is likely to face challenges as it expands its influence. These states were Uttar Pradesh, Karnataka and Bihar. In all these states, we saw that BJP’s victories in 2019 rested on shifting ground. In this, we reviewed local power dynamics and understood how regional parties (and the Indian National Congress in Karnataka) held important influences, that can act as checks on the BJP’s continuing, and much vaunted, saffronization of the country. For more details, you can read the original article, available here.
Now we have come to what I called in my very first article ‘contested states’. I had intended the term to mean states where opposition parties, in particular the Congress, had, in fact, gained ground either in the 2019 General Election or just before it. Thus, in the larger scheme of things, such states threaten the BJP’s ascendancy by becoming or remaining opposition strongholds. Naturally, then, going forward, these states are to be watched closely as measures of continued success or rollback of the BJP.
Before we move forward, I will once again remind my readers to take a good look at a map of India to orient oneself. Next, one should also quickly review such a map of India that represents results of the 2019 General Election. Both of these, I have asked my colleagues at Surkhiyan.pk to include in this article as well.
On the western edge of India, in the state of Punjab, the Congress recorded a 40.12% surge during the 2019 General Elections, taking eight of thirteen Lok Sabhaseats. The BJP and its ally, the Shiromani Akali Dal, won four seats – two less than their 2014 tally. The biggest loser in the election was Arvind Kejriwal’s Aam Admi Party (AAP), which got reduced to just one seat, down from four in 2014. These results are a build-up of the 2017 Punjab Assembly elections, in which the Congress won 77 out of 117 Assembly seats. Here, the BJP could win only two seats. This means that in Punjab, the role of opposition has fallen to Aam Admi Party which has 20 seats and the Shiromani Akali Dal with its 15 seats.
The above tells us that, first, the ‘spell’ of the BJP’s politics has not worked well at all in the Indian Punjab. In turn, this gives us a state that will serve as a model of how BJP’s politics can be rendered in effective. How is that so? Looking at Punjab, the answer one gets is that if the Congress – or any other national-level opposition party cultivates, and appropriately backs, strong local leadership, the BJP’s nationalist politics can be stopped in their tracks. In case of Punjab, the local Congress leader – Captain (r) Amrinder Singh – stands out as a resounding success of the model I have alluded to. Singh is a 1965 Indo-Pakistan war veteran and a local powerhouse, who both commands love and respect of his voters. He has served the Chief Minister of Punjab before (2002-07) and is a respected political leader. It is, actually, Singh who carried the day in his state. Therefore, cultivation and adequate utilization of local leadership is something to seriously think about, if not replicate, for the opposition.
Next, in Punjab, we can see a state that will become an important bastion of anti-BJP politics. This should draw BJP attention and prompt it to renew efforts to claw to itself a larger share of the Punjab pie. With BJP’s renewed focus all but inevitable, the opposition must also keep its eyes on the state. This is especially so because the local powerhouse, Amrinder Singh is already 77 years old and is likely on his way out of the national and state politics. The opposition should keep in mind its dependency on Singh’s stature for success, and prepare for the day with Singh bows out. In a case where Singh departs the political scene without there being an equally influential successor, the BJP will find an opening to take Punjab.
This brings us to the next point: the AAP is not completely out of the picture. It retains 20 seats in the state assembly, and some popular currency to hinge its bets on in future elections. In turn, this has two implications. Firstly, and most obviously, this keeps the Punjab fight a three-way fight in which any contestant can hope for the other two to split its oppositionvote. In a scenario where Amrinder Singh departs the scene without there being someone to fill his shoes, this three-way calculus will be a very serious threat to the opposition’s – and, in particular, the Congress’s – fortunes in the state. Secondly, that there is a three-way fight means that the opposition would find increasingly important to band together, especially if it wants to stonewall the BJP.
The opposition had an opportunity to forge a united front against the BJP during the 2019 elections, but, in a rather controversial move, the Congress supremo, Rahul Gandhi, decided against it. It won anyway, but that is, really, beside the point. It won mainly, as we saw above, because of Amrinder Singh. Now, with an aging Singh nearing the twilight of his political career, the opposition needs to come together to keep the BJP out of Punjab. Should a united front emerge, the BJP will have tough time fighting on its western flank – even without Amrinder Singh. Conversely, disunity – especially when coupled with departure of Singh – will pave the way for saffronizationof Punjab, even if for now only on the backs of BJP’s ally, the very influential, Shiromani Akali Dal, led by the stalwart, Sukhbir Singh Badal.
Thus, all in all, the Indian Punjab remains a battleground state in which hot battles may be expected, going forward.
The state of Rajasthan has been a BJP-voting state for nearly two decades. In 2019 General Elections, the BJP won 24 of its 25 Lok Sabha seats. However, Rajasthan’s state-level politics tells a different story. In the 2018 state assembly elections, the Congress won 100 seats in a 200 seat house. Going back, for more than three decades, the state elections have alternated between Congress and BJP victories.
Thus, Rajasthan has offered a remarkable consistency in what it offers: consistent BJP victories for the center and a rather neat alternating pattern at the state level. From the BJP’s perspective, which generally envisages a ‘Congress-free’ India, its true victory will be in breaking the BJP-Congress-BJP-Congress cycle at the state level. Thus, the BJP must work to consolidate its support base in Rajasthan, while undermining the Congress. From the Congress and the opposition’s perspective, the hope will be to force a trickle-over of the state-level successes into Lok Sabhaelections. While it may be rather difficult to simply upturn the BJP power cart, the opposition can, indeed, claw back three to five Lok Sabha seats – as has happened severally in the past.
In the greater scheme of things, every drop counts – and if the BJP’s saffron tide needs to be reversed, it would have to include puncture of its stranglehold over Rajasthan. It is precisely for this reason that I have included Rajasthan in my ‘contested states’ list. If I was a political strategist with any of the opposition parties, but especially Congress, I would take Rajasthan extremely seriously. Any gains against the BJP, either in the state assembly or, more crucially, in the Lok Sabhaelections, would have significant implications. Here, it will signal defeat of the BJP on, what can generally be regarded as, its home turf. In turn, it will tie down more of the BJP’s attention and resources that otherwise would have been devoted to fighting the opposition at theirturfs. Next, it is likely to have a demoralization effect on the BJP while giving confidence-boosts to opposition parties.
Thus, Rajasthan should be turned into a critical battleground even though is it not one, at the present.
The southern-most Kerala is one of the last standing outposts of opposition to the BJP. In the 2019 General Elections, the Congress swept the polls, securing an impressive 15 Lok Sabha seats out of a total of 20 that were up for grabs. Three of its allies, including the Indian Union Muslim League, bagged another four seats, bringing the UPA tally to 19 – a clean sweep! Comparatively, the BJP and its allies could not secure a single seat. The formerly powerful Left, despite banding together, could only secure one seat.
A look at the state-level politics would show that the last state assembly election in Kerala were held in 2016. In these elections, of the 140 seats, the communists won 91 seats. The Congress and its allies won 47 seats and just one seat went to the BJP. Some have argued that Congress victory is consistent with a general crumble-down of the Indian Left. Interestingly, this contention is actually not true. Kerala has seen alternating Congress and Indian Left rules at least since 1970 – or about half a century. The 2016 results are a continuation of the same trend.
Overall, Kerala has generally voted between the Congress and the Left for Lok Sabha seats – with Congress coming out slightly on top purely in the seats-won game.
With the above said, from a BJP perspective, it is absolutely crucial to push into Kerala. First, the BJP has long harbored visions of a totally saffron India that is also ‘Congress-free’. Second, the Left represents a political vision quite diametrically opposed to the one espoused by the Right-wing BJP, making the former the very nemesis of the latter. Taken together, the BJP cannot allow this southern-most outpost of BJP–phobiato continue to flourish. Next, the true victory – as well as domination – of the BJP will, in effect, rest in the rupture of this Congress-Left alternating cycle. Further, if for nothing else, then the BJP will look to batter into Kerala to buoy the myth of its invincibility that has now begun to take shape. Thus, to go into Kerala should begin to appear as both a necessity and inevitability to the BJP top brass and ideologues.
Finally, the BJP cyclone recently made landfall in the Indian south when it took Karnataka. This creates at least an ideational possibility that a BJP imprint on Kerala may be possible. Indeed, when you look at the votes share of BJP in Kerala’s General Election game, the BJP’s share of the pie has risen from a little over 6% a decade ago to 12.93% (about double) in 2019. That it has not translated into electoral victories is a separate matter. What this does suggest, however, is that Kerala is softening up to a potential BJP advance.
Thus, while Kerala has not become a battleground for the BJP for now, it will eventually become one soon. If I were a BJP strategist, I would be looking at Kerala very closely now.
Finally now, in the last part of this series, we will turn to ‘frontier states’, where the BJP has no or a very fresh foothold. In the truest sense of the term, these states are real next frontiersof the BJP’s political domination of India.