‘More than poll, Covid crisis is biggest worry for BJP’

‘More than losing Bengal, the worry for their national leadership is the current crisis.’
‘If people perceive that the government does not feel for the tough times that they are facing, then there’s trouble.’

“Mamata Banerjee won 200 plus seats in 2016 and has bettered that performance in 2021, despite the BJP knocking on the door with a high-pitched campaign led by the prime minister and home minister.”

Rahul Verma, fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, author and political scientist, discusses the electoral verdict with Rediff.com‘s Archana Masih.

Who are the biggest winners of the 5-states high-voltage campaign?

It was a tough and close election in every state.

Assam and Tamil Nadu were being seen as easy elections for the DMK and BJP. It was not so because the BJP faced a very formidable opposition in the Congress-AIUDF coalition in Assam.

In Tamil Nadu was expecting a sweep by the DMK, but the AIADMK managed to put up a good show despite facing 10 years of anti-incumbency and other factors like the bickering within the party and alliance, the expulsion of the breakaway faction led by T T V Dhinakaran, etc.

In Kerala, the LDF was facing a 40 year old historical pattern where power had alternated between the two coalitions. Rahul Gandhi focussed more on Kerala than any other state. The Congress-led UDF had swept Kerala in 2019, yet the LDF has managed such a huge mandate.

But finally, the day belonged to Mamata Banerjee?

Of course, West Bengal was a big election. Everyone was guess-estimating, but no one had expected this sweep by Mamata Banerjee and the TMC.

Her victory is phenomenal. She won 200 plus seats in 2016 and has bettered the performance in 2019, despite the BJP knocking on the door with a high-pitched campaign led by the prime minister and home minister.

The BJP took away many TMC stalwarts, but she still managed to win.

Every election has its own story. What is the story of this election?

What this election basically tells us is that there is no national winner. The BJP did well in Assam and will form a government in Puducherry, but they did not perform in Kerala or Tamil Nadu.

The biggest project for the BJP was West Bengal where they not only lost, but have seen an erosion of the base they created in 2019.

To sum it up in one line, there is no national winner, but there is one national loser which is the Congress.

What implication does this have for the Congress?

The Congress did poorly in all states.

They failed to come back in Assam.

They are part of the DMK alliance, but didn’t do well on their own.

In Bengal, the Congress drew a blank despite forming an alliance with the Left and ISF. The party also failed to hold on to the two-three districts where they had a formidable presence because of some leaders like Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury and the Ghani Khan Choudhury family.

Finally, the Congress lost in Kerala, a state where Rahul Gandhi is a member of Parliament from and where the party won 19 out of 20 (Lok Sabha) seats in 2019.

So basically, it again adds to the existential crisis faced by the Congress and the Gandhi family. If they had won Kerala, I think things would have been easier for them.

They have been postponing their presidential elections and were hoping that they might do well in at least two states and piggyback on the DMK in Tamil Nadu which would help the Gandhi family in persuading the rebels.

I don’t know what will happen now.

And what does this mean for the BJP?

More than the election, the humanitarian crisis due to COVID-19 should be the biggest worry for the BJP.

The BJP can take solace in winning Assam and improving their vote share in Kerala

In Bengal, compared to 2019, their vote share has gone down and that’s a big setback for their narrative and ideological agenda going forward to 2024.

But more than losing Bengal, the worry for their national leadership is the current crisis. If people perceive that the government does not feel for the tough times that they are facing, then there’s trouble.

I hope the BJP and Prime Minister Modi are mindful that people are going through very tough times and the party should be sensitive, caring and seen working on the ground and helping people who are facing these challenges.

If the BJP can do that, then they will be in a good position. I don’t think Bengal 2021 is going to affect UP in 2022.

What the BJP does in the 2-4 months will shape up things for the future.

What do you think are the reasons for the TMC’s big win and BJP’s defeat in Bengal?

Given the scale of the TMC victory, one can say that the TMC was doing better even in the first four or five phases when the COVID-19 crisis had not unfolded in the way it has now.

The BJP overestimated the effects of religious polarisation in their favour. They thought that if there is a Muslim consolidation in favour of the TMC that will lead to a counter consolidation of Hindus in their favour.

A large section of Hindus voted for them, but the BJP losing 3-4 percentage points from the 2019 vote share suggests that even a section of Hindus who had voted for them in 2019 did not vote for them.

Secondly, they overestimated that the PM’s own popularity is going to compensate for the lack of serious organisational network on the ground.

They did not have a credible face against a formidable and popular chief minister.

Thirdly, they overestimated the narrative which was being built from the ground of corruption and unpopularity of the TMC leadership and party.

Fourthly, they overestimated the effects of TMC rebels joining the BJP. Perhaps a lot of people who voted for them in 2019 might have not voted for them in 2021 because the charges of corruption were also against the local level TMC leadership, many of whom joined the BJP.

The BJP hoped that nominating MPs and personalities would help them win certain seats, but that also didn’t pan out. The MPs or candidates who won the national election with Modi on the ticket themselves didn’t have the popularity BJP hoped they will have on the ground.

What impact will strong Opposition chief ministers in Bengal, Kerala and Tamil Nadu have on Modi and the Centre?

The political furnace of the Covid crisis is going to shape the future.

In the short run which is till 2024, the BJP is going to remain nationally dominant. It will face stiff competition in the states which it is already.

In the past they lost elections in Delhi, Jharkhand, had a tough fight in Haryana and were stopped by the coalition from forming a government in Maharashtra.

The BJP will keep facing competition at the state level. The fulcrum of politics is going to be between the BJP and its allies and a state level competitor, which in some cases would be the Congress.

What we don’t see right now is a national alternative to the BJP, but we do see state level alternatives.

Can these state level alternatives come together and form a national opposition to the BJP? That is difficult to predict.

Before the 2019 election, a galaxy of Opposition leaders gathered in the Kolkata Brigade ground and said that they are going to think of a national Opposition against the BJP, but that didn’t materialise.

After every state election, when the BJP loses, it seems there could be chances of a national Opposition forming. But it doesn’t happen.

The reason it doesn’t happen is because there is no single nucleus around which this coalition could be formed.

That nucleus or that party should basically have a good number of seats in its pocket and a credible leadership. At the moment Mamata or M K Stalin have a credible leadership, but will not have more than 30-35 seats each in the best case scenario.

In 1950s, ’60s or ’70s, the Congress used to face Opposition in the states. Sometimes three, four parties used to come and form a coalition and contest against the Congress. But they never managed to defeat it.

Except in 1977, post Emergency and in 1989 after the Bofors scandal.

Unless there is a big national crisis — and COVID-19 could be that crisis which could help forge that coalition.

But in previous times, there was a big political player present in many states and could command 80-100 seats. The Lok Dal in 1977 or the Janata Dal in 1989.

At the moment, only the Congress is present across 6-8 states, but does not have a credible leadership.

But the way the crisis is unfolding and if parties continue to fear that BJP dominance is going to challenge their existence, you may still see this coalition coming up, but I’m doubtful.

Feature Presentation: Aslam Hunani/Rediff.com

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