Buckle yourselves for the Great Indian election festival

Intensive campaigning to dominate political landscape

Politics

January 13, 2021

/ By / New Delhi

Buckle yourselves for the Great Indian election festival

Despite using all its muscle, especially money, BJP faces a tough battle in 2021

The year 2021 is a very important year for political parties, both at the central and state level. It is the year when India is due to have five assembly elections in four states and one union territory. It is crucial for the ruling BJP as it tries to expand its footprint nationwide, with focus on West Bengal and Tamil Nadu.

Elections in the world’s largest democracy are always crucial as well as nerve wrecking. If so, get ready for a heavy dose of nerves as terms of the legislative assemblies of West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Assam, Kerala and Puducherry reach an end between May and June 2021.

The stakes are high for the Bharatiya Janata Party in most of the states as it would try to capture power in four of the five territories where it is not the ruling party. Of the five, clearly the most crucial one of the party is West Bengal, a state that has been in its sights for well over four years now and where the BJP is making a determined bid to end the ruling Trinamool Congress’s decade-long rule, having already given it a big scare by bagging 18 of the 42 Lok Sabha seats in the 2019 polls.

Ever since, the party has remained focused and several ministers and party leaders have made it a point to be in West Bengal every now and then, in a bid to keep the pressure on incumbent chief minister and president of Trinamool Congress Mamata Banerjee. The BJP has also used its usual stratagem of luring key leaders from TMC, such as former minister Suvendu Adhikari, and it is bound to mount the pressure on potential defectors even more as the elections approach.

In WB, BJP is making a determined bid to end the ruling TMC’s decade-long rule

In the neighbouring Assam, the picture is entirely different. The BJP is the ruling party here and it faces an uphill task to retain the state where a lot has changed over the past five years. The BJP’s misadventure with Citizenship Amendment Act and National Register of Citizens created a very strong backlash in Assam, trapping the party between a rock and a hard place as its state unit could not openly go against the government in Delhi and neither could it risk earning the wrath of the voters. Another factor making BJP’s task more difficult is the pre-poll alliance between the Congress and All India United Democratic Front, which had contested the last election separately, with 31 pc and 13 pc votes respectively, more than the votes garnered by the BJP and its pre-poll allies, AGP and BPF, which together ended up with just under 41 pc votes.

In Assam Congress hopes to stage a comeback

With an alliance set in Assam, Congress would hope to stage a comeback, even though there are a few sizeable challenges ahead. One is the charisma of Himanta Biswa Sarma, a former Congress minister, who joined the BJP in 2013 and since then has singlehandedly driven the Congress out of power and even making it irrelevant in many states of North Eastern India. The entry of Asaduddin Owaisi’s AIMIM party in the fray is bound to eat into the votes of the Congress-AIUDF alliance.

Southern drive

An equally interesting battle is brewing up in southern India where three of the territories are preparing for elections. In the largest state, Tamil Nadu, the BJP has been keen to move on its own, but having failed miserably so far, has settled for an alliance with the ruling AIADMK party, which for a while was running rudderless after the death of former chief minister and unchallenged head of the party J Jayalalitha in December 2016. The BJP national leadership played a key role in propping up the party in power and has since then played the firefighter every time a crisis has popped up, threatening the government.

“The BJP is working quite a bit in certain segments and they are also in a good alliance with the ruling party that has brought about a lot of schemes especially for the women and the poor. Also, their management of the pandemic was very good. BJP’s strength at the Centre and AIADMK locally connects together rather well. Their weakness may be anti-incumbency after a decade of rule,” a local academician and former principal of one of the biggest colleges in Chennai tells Media India Group.

DMK is looking to end 10 year long drought

The DMK, the principal opposition party in the state and an ally of the Congress at the Centre, has been building up the election campaign tempo with its leader M K Stalin giving his everything in order to dislodge AIADMK after 10 years in the opposition. The party has been ramping up its activities in preparation for a while and its effects seem to be showing, say analysts. “The biggest point in DMK’s favour is anti-incumbency after 10 years of AIADMK rule. Also, they have restructured their party and used technology to broadcast their message across the state. They have also revamped their social media handles through which they are targeting the youth and new voters, which is a big segment. This is one strategy that’s working in their favour,” says the academician.

“The current chief minister has made an impact. Though he was not seen as a charismatic leader earlier, now he seems to have worked hard and has become popular. But I think it hangs in balance and the voters seem to be divided about their preferences right now,” adds another observer.

Another element in this election is the presence of film star Kamal Haasan in the fray with his MNM party. Though Tamil Nadu voters have usually plumped for their heroes and heroines in the electoral hustings, some experts say that the Haasan may not be able to make a serious dent in the elections.

“ Kamal Haasan seems to be attracting a lot of crowd at his rallies but it is a very new party so making a big dent into the vote banks will take time, I feel. Also, he wasn’t a mass hero as others were. He was more the intellectual people’s hero. Also, his messages are mixed as on the one hand he has aligned his party with Dravidian policies and at the same time he is talking of a clean up,” says the academician.

In the neighbouring Puducherry, the ruling Congress-led Secular Democratic Alliance (SDA) faces an aggressive attack from the BJP and its minor allies, notably the splinter of Congress, NR Congress, led by former chief minister N Rangaswamy. The BJP has again tried to take MLAs from the Congress and is expected to dive headlong in this in the coming months.

In Puducherry Congress seems to have a thin edge

Despite the moneybags and other tools that the BJP has at its disposal, the political battle in Puducherry seems to be fairly evenly balanced as locals say that chief minister V Narayanasamy has done a decent job of governing. “I would say not bad. Of course the mandate of Kiran Bedi, the lieutenant governor, has brought a kind of competition between both forms of government and the city is cleaner and there is this smart city project. We feel some hope. It can be better if revenues are sorted out with focus on education, tourism and culture and reduce the focus on cheap alcohol. I think last three years have been quite positive,” Segiyane Pacquiry, an Indo-French hotelier with several properties in the Union Territory, tells Media India Group.

“There is a structural problem in Puducherry between the local government and the lieutenant governor. What I hope is that we continue concentrating on what should be the strategy for boosting the economy. For instance, due to the Covid-19, we, as hotels and restaurants were the first to be closed and last to be allowed to reopen. For a state whose strategy should be tourism there was no coherence. I hope once these structural problem of government is solved we sit and define a strategy to revive the economy, whoever is the person in charge,” he adds.

Another keen contest would be seen in Kerala, but this one would see the BJP more as a by-stander as the main contest is expected to be between the ruling LDF, headed by the CPI(M), and the Congress-led UDF. The local body elections held recently have surely come as a big boost to the ruling coalition, while the UDF struggled as it came a distant second to the LDF and the BJP failed miserably again to make any impression on the only state besides West Bengal where the left parties have a significant support. With the elections barely four months away, the ruling party in Delhi may find that getting its message through to voters in a state about 3000 km away is a bigger challenge than it presumed it to.

LDF has a clear edge in Kerala

But even more than the BJP, it is the Congress that should be worried about its prospects as the party does not seem to have recovered from the paralysis that it has been afflicted with at the top ever since Rahul Gandhi resigned as party president following the debacle in the parliamentary elections in May 2019.

With time ticking by rapidly, the Congress will have to get its act together to have a chance in Assam, Kerala or Puducherry, while it can only watch from the margins in Tamil Nadu and West Bengal. Only recently did the party appoint senior leaders, including chief ministers Ashok Gehlot and Bhupesh Baghel, as observers to oversee the party’s election campaign management for the upcoming assembly polls.

One of the miseries of the Congress in these elections would be money as of the BJP is set to again deploy all its tools, including the most powerful tool of them all, its overflowing war chest that seems to have cornered an overwhelmingly large chunk of electoral funding, not the least the controversial and anonymous electoral bonds were brought into play, in the name of ‘transparency’.

When money talks

Elections in the country always turn out to be a money guzzler and with every passing election, the amount of money seems to double. A 2019 report by the Delhi-based think tank Centre for Media Studies (CMS) shows that political parties and candidates in India spent nearly INR 600 billion (around USD 8.65 billion) in the 2019 general election, making it twice as expensive as the one in 2014.

The report says that the Bharatiya Janata Party spent close to INR 270 billion in the recently-concluded Lok Sabha elections. The amount was 45 pc of the total expenditure. The report has called the 2019 General Elections the “most expensive election ever, anywhere”.

The BJP’s grip over money has only become greater in 2020, especially as the Congress was edged out of government in two large states – Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh. The lack of finance for practically all opposition parties was in sharp contrast with the coffers of the BJP even in the Bihar assembly elections, which the BJP-JDU alliance barely managed to hold on.

The financing has become an even bigger challenge for the opposition parties due to the regular habit of the BJP government to let loose organisations like the Income Tax or Enforcement Directorates on any opposition leader worth her salt. Over a period of six months in 2019, at least 15 searches were conducted by the IT department on opposition leaders. Of the 15, five were in Karnataka, three in Tamil Nadu, two each in Andhra Pradesh and Delhi and one each in MP, UP and J&K.

The opposition parties have criticised the blatant misuse of government bodies for political ends of the ruling party. However, if past is any indication, the Bharatiya Janata Party can be expected to shrug off all criticism and continue down the road where it considers all’s fair in its war to win India. At any cost. If even then the party fails to win the key states, one can be sure to continue hearing the echoes of the loss upto 2024.

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