Finally today, we have come to the final part in this series. We have covered ‘swing states’ in India, where the majority of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) rests on fickle grounds; and ‘contested states’, where the BJP’s opposition has gained ground and which can potentially become battlefields, where efforts to rollback the BJP’s influence can play out, going forward. Articles covering these are available on Surkhiyan.pk and can easily be found by readers.
Now, we will review the politics and power dynamics of ‘frontier states’. I have defined ‘frontier states’ as Indian states where the BJP has little or no influence. Then, this means, these are states where the BJP will look to march into as it works to expand its influence and saffronize the remainder of India. Here, we will see that my quintessential thesis – i.e. the BJP’s domination is complete is the coreof India, and opposition holdouts remain along the fringes of the subcontinent – to be the most markedly represented.
In addition, we will see that a smattering of regional parties hold sway here, posing, perhaps, the toughest challenge to the BJP’s advance. In my first article, I had noted that during the 2019 General Elections, the Indian National Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) had recorded a 250% gain in non-Congress parties’ share of the UPA’s total Lok Sabha seat tally. Thus, these states now stand as the true opposition to the BJP – and not the Congress, which has ceded a lot of ground in cumulative terms.
We may note that the non-Congress opposition parties together hold 137 seats in the Indian Lok Sabha, which comes to 25.23% of the national parliament. The Congress holds 52 seats, which comes to 9.57% of the parliament. Thus, we see that the non-Congress opposition holds a larger share of the pie. Important for us is to note that a most of these seats have come from the ‘frontier states’ discussed below.
Similarly, when you look purely at the percentage of votes polled, non-Congress opposition parties polled 28.67% of the votes, compared to Congress’s 19.49%. However, when you put non-Congress andnon-BJP vote share together, we see that non-Congress and non-BJP parties polled 43.15% of the poll, compared to 19.49% of the former and 37.63% of the latter. Now, then, what does this mean? This means the vote share of non-Congress parties is, actually, what the BJP has really to win. Even the non-Congress parties that are aligned with the BJP in its National Democratic Alliance (NDA), maintain independent orientations and have, in the past, left the NDA, and even fought against the BJP. This makes these parties only temporaryallies and, therefore, potential future threats. Interestingly, most of this vote bank – both of non-Congress parties inside andoutside the NDA – rests in exactly these ‘frontier states’.
Thus, both from an anti-Congress perspective as well as from a general, share-gain perspective, these ‘frontier states’ represent the most significant challenge to the BJP. The challenge is significant not only because of the number game I have explained above, but also because of whatthese ‘frontier states’ are ruled by. Going back to something I stated earlier, these states are dominated by ‘regional’ parties. Most of these are deeply ethno-nationalist and have built their politics on top of specific ethnic identities, often ones that are mediated by real and perceived senses of deprivation and exploitation. In turn, this means two things: 1) Unhinging these entrenched parties will be far harder for the BJP than it has been in other places; and, 2) The more hyperbolic, Right-wing nationalism of the BJP will run into strong regional identities and powerful, generally Left-leaning, ethno-nationalism.
Here, the latter is absolutely anathema to nationalism on the back of which the BJP conducts its politics. Thus, for the BJP to attempt to wrestle with it is so inevitable as to be predestined. Conversely, we have seen elsewhere, especially in the Indian Punjab, that strong regional leadership has, indeed, managed to stop the BJP juggernaut in its tracks. Therefore, the future battles in these states will be, perhaps, the most interesting of all – and we must watch closely. These states will be the true test of the BJP.
So, let us begin.
Tamil Nadu is, perhaps, the most interesting state to watch and will, definitely, remain one of the toughest frontiers for the BJP to surmount. The state’s politics have long been dominated by a deep ethno-nationalism. A former Congress stronghold, ethno-nationalist politics made a reverberating surge here in the 1960s, with a Tamil ethno-nationalist party – the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) – routing Congress in 1967. Since then, Tamil ethno-nationalism has held sway. In 1972, the DMK split to form the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) and which began to be led by Jayaram Jayalalitha. Ever since, the state has been ruled alternatively by the two factions.
In the 2019 General Elections, the Congress-allied DMK won 23 of 38 Lok Sabha seats, wiping out the BJP-allied AIADMK, which could win only one seat. The BJP itself has not won a single seat here since 1999 when it won four. Be that as it may, the Congress made a comparatively decent showing, winning eight seats, up from zero in 2014. Its allies won another six seats. This brings the total to 37 – a clean sweep Thus, as has happened severally in history, advance of the North was broken on the Niligiri Hills and once more the South has held.
The situation in the Tamil Nadu state assembly is equally telling. The BJP has not won a single seat in the assembly since 2001. The state politics have been split between the DMK and AIADMK. In the last state assembly election in the state that were held in 2016, the AIADMK had won by a reduced margin of 16 seats, to secure a total of 134 (of 234). In the same election, the DMK had won 89 (a surge of a considerable 66 seats) and the Congress eight (an increase of 3 seats). The assembly elections portended the 2019 sweep of the DMK. The next state elections, due in 2021, would be an interesting watch.
Just the same, with its deeply entrenched ethnic politics and a long history of maintaining a separate identity, Tamil Nadu remains a powerful bastion of opposition to the BJP’s expansion. Going forward, the BJP will find the state to be, perhaps, its biggest obstacle to overcome.
The state of Andhra Pradesh is another very interesting state to watch. Here, too, as in Tamil Nadu, strong ethno-nationalist tendencies hold sway. Here, a Telugu identity is the currency of state politics. The state was ruled by the Congress for 30 years until 1983 when an ethno-nationalist, Telugu Desam Party, broke the Congress hold. Since then, the Telugu Desam Party alternated with the Congress to rule the state.
However, interestingly, the state politics are riven with divisive factionalism. Both the Telugu Desam Party and the Congress have experienced multiple splits. Most noticeably, the Congress split in 2009 to form the so-called YSR Congress Party. A year later, the Reddy dynasty, the Congress’s local bosses in the state, got into a nasty tiff with central leadership and joined the YSR Congress. This triggered a wave of defection of local Congress leaders to the same party. Thereafter, the YSR Congress has maintained an independent posture, playing its own politics.
In 2019 General Elections, the YSR Congress swept Andhra Pradesh winning 22 of 25 Lok Sabhaseats. The remainder went to the formerly powerful, and non-aligned, ethno-nationalist Telugu Desam Party. The BJP could not win a single seat here, losing the four seats it had won in 2014. Similarly, in the state assembly elections, also held in 2019, the YSR Congress swept the polls, winning a record 151 seats in a house of 175 – a figure that comes to about 86% of the assembly.
Interestingly, the Congress also could not win anything here. Clearly, Andhra Pradesh voters have no mind for ‘national’ parties. Being on the south-eastern edge of India, the state holds out as an important enclave of ‘Center-free’, regionalized politics. For so long as the YSR Congress holds its ground, ‘national’ parties in general, let alone the BJP, will find it difficult to maneuver here. Even if they break through YSR ranks, ‘national’ parties will run into the Telugu Desam Party, an older, more entrenched ethno-nationalist outfit. As an aside, this party is, perhaps, more open to collaboration, having remained a part of the BJP’s NDA until March, 2018.
In general, the BJP should seek to renew its collaborationwith the Telugu Desam in the hopes of deepening its influence in the state. On its part, the Congress may want to reach out to its former members in the YSR ranks and try to cobble an alliance together, which, though, seems somewhat unlikely. It may, instead, form an alliance with the Telugu Desam, with which it has allied once in Telangana, as we will see later. In case a united front emerges, the BJP will find itself stonewalled out of Andhra. With such tough conditions laying ahead in the foreseeable future, Andhra Pradesh remains an extremely tough battlefront for the BJP.
The politics of Andhra Pradesh bring us to the state of Telangana. Another Telugu ethnic enclave, the state was carved out of Andhra Pradesh in 2014. The modern Telangana is a Telugu-speaking region that rests between the Godavari and Krishna rivers, and forms a major component of the famous Deccan plateau. However, historically, the region has remained underdeveloped and exploitedby, in particular, coastal regions of the Andhra Pradesh state. This created a sense of disenfranchisement and disillusionment. The same snowballed into a movement for separate statehood. At the forefront of this movement has been the Telangana Rashtra Samithi, an essentially ethno-nationalist party.
In the state assembly elections of 2018, the Telangana Rashtra Samithi swept the 119 seat-house by winning 88 seats. Interestingly, in Telangana, the Congress allied with its Andhra Pradesh rival, the Telugu Desam Party, and won 19 and two seats, respectively. Comparatively, the BJP faced rout, winning just one seat, down from its five in 2014. Be that as it may, Telangana pronounced a slightly split, and perhaps surprising, verdict during the 2019 General Elections. The Telangana Rashtra Samithi won 10 of 17 Lok Sabha seats, the Congress won three and the BJP four (actually a three-seat gain).
That the Telangana voter opted for a ‘national´ party for the Lok Sabha, and that the BJP managed to increase its share in the state, suggests that further advances may be possible. However, such advance would hinge, in large part, on what the Telangana Rashtra Samithi does in government and in the Lok Sabha. In any case, the state itself is far too new for us to really draw inferences on general trends. The newness of the state and the general advance of the BJP as recorded in the 2019 General Elections, suggests an opportunity for the BJP to break deeper into Telangana. Given that Telangana politics are also linked to Andhra Pradesh and that both states share at least a similar ethnic mix, a BJP gain in Telangana could carpet a path for it into Andhra. This makes the state a very important next frontier for the BJP to focus on.
Moving north-eastwards, we come to the state of Odisha. The state forms a key future frontier for the BJP but in a way that is the opposite of the above two. Instead of being a state that is well-entrenched to resist the BJP’s advance, Odisha seems to be swinging towards the BJP in general, at least for now.
In Odisha, in the 2019 General Election, the local party and former BJP ally, the Biju Janata Dal won 12 of 21 Lok Sabha seats, down from 20 in 2014. At the same time, the BJP won eight seats, up from one in 2014 and none in 2009. In the state assembly elections (also held in 2019), the Biju Janata Dal stood strong, winning 112 seats of 146, showing a modest decrease of 5 seats. The BJP has demonstrated a 13 seat gain, to come to 23 seats in the assembly. The given situation seems to pit the two former allies against each other – one as the local hegemon that must work to maintain its supremacy, and the other as a relatively new upstart whose fortunes will become increasingly depend on dethroning the former.
In general, this keeps Odisha in play with the fortunes of the local force, the Biju Janata Dal, seemingly on a decline and those of the BJP on the rise. From the BJP’s perspective, it should seek to build on its gains and improve its share in Odisha, going forward.
One of the most talked about stories coming out of the 2019 elections has been West Bengal. A former communist stronghold, West Bengal was ruled between 1977 and 2011 by the Communist Party of India-Marxist. The communist rule was upturned by a lesser known and lesser appreciated ‘national’ party of India, Mamata Bannerjee’s All India Trinamool Congress. Within three years, the Trinamool Congress had established footholds in nine other states and seemed truly to have arrived on the national political scene. However, it seems the age of the Trinamool Congress was never to be.
In the 2019 General Election, it could only win 22 of 42 Lok Sabha seats, recording a reduction of 12. At the same time, the communists got completely wiped out and the Congress could only secure two seats. However, the BJP made an impressive showing, winning 18 seats, a gain of 16 seats in just five years. It would seem that instead of the Trinamool Congress becoming a third national force, it is already sinking with the BJP becoming a very potent opposition to it.
The next state assembly elections are due in 2021. For now, the Trinamool Congress holds a powerful majority in the state assembly, controlling 208 of 295 seats. The BJP tally rests at a meager 10 seats. However, the 2019 elections show that the BJP is a new force in West Bengal. The BJP should, in principle, be working overtime to expand its influence in the upcoming 2021 state elections as its next major step in its overall conquest of West Bengal.
The ‘Seven Sisters’ in India’s northeast have long been eyed by the BJP with some greed. The region has 25 Lok Sabhaseats up for grabs. Of these, the BJP has won 13 – up from 8 in 2014. In addition, the BJP sits on the government benches in three of seven states, and is part of the ruling coalition in Manipur. What remains is controlled by a flurry of very small regional, often ethno-nationalist and left-leaning parties. Interestingly, the region used to have substantive Congress presence. This has all but been wiped out. For the first time in the history of India, the Congress is not part of a single state government in the region.
Conversely, if recent experience is anything to go by, then, broadly speaking, the share of a ‘national’ party like the Congress has been taken by the BJP, which suggests a growing influence of the same. It is likely that the BJP will continue to consolidate its hold over the northeast. In particular, it must move into the Sikkim, Nagaland, Mizoram and Meghalaya enclaves to seriously dent influence of local regional parties. It has done so elsewhere in the region and should attempt to do so in these states. Having said that, doing so would be tough as the local parties are deeply entrenched here, balancing their buoyancy on decades of neglect by the Center. This keeps the Northeast in play as a prized object of the BJP’s expansionary ambitions.
Thus, we have completed our marathon coverage of India’s political map. I have highlighted key states that are likely to witness major battles for India between the BJP and other parties. In this, what is really at stake is a truly diverse, pluralistic India that is now threatened by the so-called saffron tide. How will the disparate and complex politics of India’s many varied regions play out? Will the singularistic worldview of the Right-wing, nationalist BJP win over what remains of formerly mosaic-like plurality of India? That is what, for us, time will tell.