COVER STORY

A score, but looking for more

With 21 of 29 states in its kitty, the BJP is eyeing more

41-amit-shah Marching on: Modi and Amit Shah will look to continue their golden run | Sanjay Ahlawat

A political earthquake, with its epicentre in Agartala, has sent tremors across the country. The BJP’s impressive electoral performance in the northeastern states has not only aroused national interest, but has also forced opposition parties to rethink their strategy. From Mayawati to Mamata Banerjee and Siddaramaiah to Pinarayi Vijayan, the pressure is on to resist the saffron onslaught.

In Tripura, the difference between the number of votes polled by the BJP and the CPI(M) was only 6,518, yet the seat difference was 19.

Notably, Bahujan Samaj Party president Mayawati swallowed her pride and announced her support for the Samajwadi Party candidates in the upcoming Lok Sabha byelections in Phulpur and Gorakhpur. Since the attack on her at a guesthouse in Lucknow in 1995, allegedly by Samajwadi Party supporters, she had been staunchly against the party. But, she knows that, even with her dalit base, she cannot win elections without expanding her vote bank. West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, too, has restarted talks of forming a third front, with leaders such as Telangana Chief Minister K. Chandrasekhar Rao.The BJP’s run has been such that, since 2014, most of the opposition-ruled states have not been able to save their governments from the saffron party. And, there has been a pattern. Prime Minister Narendra Modi would woo the electorate with a promise of better governance, and BJP president Amit Shah would marshal his resources to translate that promise into votes. Moreover, the strong hindutva undercurrent created by the saffron brigade has emerged as a uniting force for the electorate in Hindu-dominated states.

And, now, the results in Tripura, Nagaland and Meghalaya have reaffirmed that the BJP is a powerful electoral force, with its far superior war machinery and an army of foot soldiers. Even in Nagaland and Meghalaya, which are Christian dominated, the BJP has not only won seats, but has formed coalition governments. The party now rules more than 70 per cent of the country’s geographical area, spread over 21 states.

Of its latest victories, Tripura was the most significant as one of only two left governments in the country was dislodged. The reverberations of the win were felt not only in neighbouring West Bengal, but also in Kerala.

“These are big victories, including Tripura, which is an ideological one. Celebrate it,” Modi told his MPs. Added Shah: “The BJP’s golden period will be when we win Bengal, Kerala, Odisha and Karnataka.”

Though its aim was a Congress-mukt Bharat, the BJP is now close to achieving a communist-mukt Bharat. In Tripura, the difference between the number of votes polled by the BJP and the CPI(M) was only 6,518, yet the seat difference was 19. The BJP had a vote share of 43 per cent, compared with the CPI(M)’s 42.7 per cent.

The BJP’s realpolitik saw it aligning with the Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura, a tribal party known for its demand of separate statehood, to win seats throughout the state. In Christian-dominated Nagaland, the BJP promised to send 50 senior citizens to Jerusalem.

It is this electoral practicality that would worry the BJP’s new targets—Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan and Mamata Banerjee. “Tripura will impact Bengal the most,” said BJP general secretary Kailash Vijayvargiya. “Tripura has a huge Bengali population, and was ruled by the left. This has been the BJP’s biggest ideological victory.”

As for Kerala, Modi and Shah dedicated the Tripura win to its cadres, who were allegedly killed by CPI(M) workers in the state. Union Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad, who was in Kerala a day after the results, said: “There is already resonance of the results. Everyone kept asking me how it would impact their state. The results also represent a tectonic shift in India’s political history. In Nagaland, which has more than 88 per cent Christians, we have won 15 per cent vote share and 12 seats.”

The BJP, predictably, is trumpeting the wins, hoping it would rub off on voters in other states, and to quell recent murmurs of discontent within the party after its byelection losses in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh.

Before the elections, the narrative centred on diamond baron Nirav Modi’s escape, which destroyed any moral advantage the Modi government had over the tainted UPA-II regime. The Centre moved swiftly to change the narrative. Soon after the Nirav Modi scandal, a case of fraud involving Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh’s son-in-law, Gurpal Singh, came to the fore. Then came the arrest of Karti, the son of former finance minister P. Chidambaram, on charges of corruption.

The Union cabinet also approved the draft Fugitive Economic Offen-ders Bill, and announced the establishment of the National Financial Reporting Authority, which would supervise the auditors. The Centre has even started the process of selecting an anti-corruption ombudsman.

Finally, with the wins in the northeast, the BJP is again controlling the narrative. “Winning elections is a barometer of the people’s faith in the government,” said Shah, hard selling the victories. The focus, now, will shift to Congress-ruled Karnataka, where the contest is hotting up ahead of the assembly elections. The result there would set the tone for elections in the BJP-ruled states of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, later this year.

To win Karnataka, the BJP plans to raise the issue of corruption within the Siddaramaiah government, apart from relying on its Hindu vote bank to tide over caste differences in the state. Several state leaders are ratcheting up religious issues with provocative speeches, and senior leaders, including Modi, Shah and Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, have visited many mutts to win over the religious. Moreover, the party is sending all its top leaders, including ministers, to campaign in Karnataka.

Broadly, the BJP has a four-pronged strategy. It sticks to governance and development, but does not lose a chance to talk about hindutva. On the eve of elections, it lures dissatisfied leaders from its main opponent with a promise of tickets. These leaders come with a specific vote bank, be it their caste or region. Then there is the BJP’s booth management, which it has now perfected.

It also looks for small parties with captive vote banks. These parties might not win themselves, but can provide valuable support to the BJP, much like the IPFT did in Tripura.

Indeed, the BJP has been on a roll. However, it is facing problems in its own backyard. Apparently, the party believes that retaining the Phulpur seat in Uttar Pradesh would be tough. Another byelection, in the Araria Lok Sabha constituency in Bihar, could see a heated contest between the BJP and the Rashtriya Janata Dal. Also, recently, the BJP could not wrest two assembly seats from the Congress in Madhya Pradesh, despite an intensive campaign by Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan.

Additionally, the BJP governments in Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh are facing anti-incumbency, and even party insiders feel that retaining the states would need a herculean effort. In fact, there is already buzz that the government could advance the Lok Sabha elections to coincide with these polls.