High stakes: On the upcoming Assembly elections

As disenchantment rises, voters will look for viable, alternative governance platforms

Assembly elections in Assam, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and the Union Territory of Puducherry will be taking place in changed circumstances. Polls will begin on March 27, with the results on May 2. Politics in these regions is not the same as it was five years ago. The BJP’s unrelenting pursuit of influence has unsettled conventional calculations in all these areas that are outside the core of the party’s traditional catchment area. In 2016, of the 824 seats in the fray, the BJP had won only 64 but it emerged as the ruling party in Assam. It hopes to retain power in Assam and win West Bengal, besides expanding its influence in Tamil Nadu and Kerala. In 2016, the BJP had won only three seats in West Bengal, but its rise was dramatic in the 2019 Lok Sabha election when it won 18 of the 42 seats and 40.64% of votes. The BJP’s performance in West Bengal will be the most eagerly watched aspect in these elections. The significant strength of Muslim voters in West Bengal is often cited as a demographic barrier for the Hindu nationalist party, but communal politics works best in areas where minorities mobilise in significant proportions. Assam and Kerala too have minority populations that are formidable in elections, and there are plausible combinations that could work to the BJP’s advantage. In Assam, the BJP’s twin agenda of the CAA and the NRC is a double-edged sword, and their electoral potency will be on test. What will matter most is the level of disenchantment with the ruling parties, and the alternative governance platform on offer.

The underperformance of the Congress in the DMK-led alliance contributed to a consecutive victory for the AIADMK in 2016, a rarity in Tamil Nadu. With the passing of Jayalalithaa and M. Karunanidhi, Dravidian politics is at the crossroads and the BJP is looking for an opening. In Kerala, the LDF is hoping to retain power for a second consecutive term, contingent on a slide of the Congress. Such a scenario would also mean significant gains for the BJP. Across these places, regional parties are in general on the back foot. In Assam, the AGP is reduced to irrelevance and new outfits with a narrow focus have emerged. As the BJP raises its stakes, concerns that the Centre might play a partisan role in these elections are already high. West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee has termed the phasing out of polls in the State into eight segments a conspiracy to unseat her. The Election Commission must scrupulously play its role as an impartial umpire. There are also disturbing signs that communal polarisation could be higher, particularly in Assam and West Bengal. There could be some defining trends emerging from this round of elections, with long-term implications for politics in the country.

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