All political parties, national and regional, are hoping to reap a rich electoral harvest this year as four States (Tamil Nadu, Kerala, West Bengal, Assam) and Puducherry go to the polls in 2016. The nature of electoral contests in different States, however, suggests it would be a mixed bag of results for the three main political forces, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the Congress, and the regional parties.
BJP’s eastern promise
In West Bengal, the BJP seems well-placed for a far better performance compared to its performance in the previous Assembly elections. An indication of the BJP’s expansion in the State is its performance during the 2014 Lok Sabha elections when it polled 16.8 per cent votes and managed to win two Lok Sabha seats — something one couldn’t have imagined even five years earlier. It might even spring a surprise in the urban pockets of Kerala, considering its encouraging performance in the recent local body elections in the State. In Tamil Nadu and Puducherry, the BJP can at best be a junior partner to regional parties in the State.
The > Congress might have emerged victorious in 27 out of the 41 seats it contested in Bihar as part of the winning coalition but there is otherwise hardly any sign of its revival after the humiliating defeat in the general election and successive Assembly elections thereafter. What may seem like a position of strength for the Congress — that of being the ruling party in Assam and heading the ruling coalition in Kerala — may prove to be a weakness in the form of anti-incumbency. Adding to its woes in Assam is the recent defection of nine of its MLAs to the BJP, which was assisted by former Congress leader Himanta Biswa Sarma who joined the BJP in August 2015. The Congress can only hope to pose a serious challenge to the BJP in alliance with the All India United Democratic Front, which has gained popularity amongst the Muslim voters in the State and polled 12.5 per cent votes in the 2011 Assembly elections and 14.8 per cent in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections.
Once the ruling party in West Bengal, the Congress has been out of power in the State for about four decades. With the ruling Trinamool Congress still on a strong wicket (having managed to win 34 of the 42 Lok Sabha seats with 39.3 per cent votes despite the ‘Modi wave’), sizeable presence of the Left parties notwithstanding their recent defeats, and the BJP gaining in popularity amongst urban voters, the Congress may find it difficult to stage a comeback in West Bengal.
The Congress is barely present in Tamil Nadu but can hope to be in contention in Kerala. But given the record of the ruling coalition losing power in successive elections since 1980, can the Congress reverse this trend in Kerala? Seems unlikely. It has high hopes in Puducherry, where it has been in power with the All India Namathu Rajyam Congress (AINRC) for the past five years, but the AIADMK will pose a tough challenge to the ruling combine.
Regional forces The stakes for the regional parties seem to be much higher in the 2016 State elections. Since the last few decades the >political arena of Tamil Nadu has been completely captured by regional parties with the AIADMK and the DMK in the lead. The 2016 Assembly elections are not going to be different. While it is difficult to predict the winner, one can say for sure that regional parties will rule the State for much more than the next five years. The N. Rangaswamy-led AINRC may face some anti-incumbency in Puducherry, but going by current trends, the Trinamool Congress is expected to hold on to power in West Bengal. Though the electoral contest in Assam will primarily be between the BJP and the Congress, the electoral presence of regional parties cannot be downplayed in Assam.
All in all, though the BJP may or may not succeed in winning in any State, it is all set to improve upon its electoral performance of 2011 in these Assembly elections. It may be another bad year for the Congress. The party would certainly not be able to improve its performance and should consider itself lucky if it manages to minimise its electoral losses. The regional parties should be able to hold on to their electoral strength. If Tamil Nadu and West Bengal stay in the hands of regional parties, 2016 would witness a movement towards the formation — albeit tenuous — of an anti-BJP, anti-Congress alliance. There would still remain a big question mark on the success of this alliance, however, if that were to happen.
(Sanjay Kumar is a professor and currently the director of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Delhi. Views are personal.)