Why BJP gaining foothold in the East is seismic shift in India's politics

Anticipating election results when most of the polling is yet to take place is a hazardous business. Still, given the way that election campaigning has rolled out, it seems safe to say that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is in pole position for the electoral contests in both West Bengal and Assam. In other words, the primary objective of the other parties is to defeat the BJP. If one takes the long view, it does not matter whether it succeeds because, if not this time then the next, the BJP is likely to win in West Bengal. In Assam and much of the Northeast, it is already the incumbent party in power. For a region linguistically and culturally different from the Hindi heartland, this is a seismic shift in politics.


The East has been conquered in slow phases. The last round of state elections in Bihar made the BJP the senior partner in the state’s ruling alliance, though Nitish Kumar continues as chief minister. In Odisha, Naveen Patnaik is getting no younger and is in indifferent health but remains reluctant to name, let alone promote, a successor. With the BJP having become his primary opponent in the state, the story that has played out elsewhere will play out here as well: Parties dependent on a single person or family will eventually be steam-rollered by the BJP machine.


With much of the North and West already in its control, the BJP is now more firmly entrenched than the Congress ever was after the 1980s. It has been helped in its rise by the missteps of those who stand in the way, like Mamata Banerjee. She had once taken on the Communists for their systematic violence and party-led corruption, only to become vulnerable to the same two charges today in addition to being accused of playing the Muslim card. In Maharashtra, meanwhile, the extraordinary shenanigans of the state’s police and political establishment bring nothing but discredit to the ruling alliance.


As for states where the BJP is unable to establish its writ through elections, the party has exploited its control of Parliament. In Delhi, where the BJP has lost at least five successive state elections, it is willing to use legislation, rational or irrational, to wrest de facto control. The same was done to Jammu and Kashmir in 2019 (where too the BJP had little hope of electoral dominance) by dismantling what was once a state government with considerable autonomy. It is extraordinary that 19 million people of Delhi (more than the population of Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh combined) should have little say in how they are governed. The Centre’s agent will decide.


Will this story of growing BJP dominance play out in four southern states where the party is a bit player? Perhaps not in the foreseeable future. In most of these states, the party is still seen as representative of North Indians, committed to espousing Hindi, and representing even now the kind of upper-caste bias that no longer operates in southern politics. The party would need to win over one of the dominant castes in Andhra Pradesh, just as it did the Lingayats in Karnataka, or work its way through several minor castes. It would need to find a Nitish Kumar in one of the Dravida parties in Tamil Nadu, with whoever leads the All-India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam the likely candidate. Meanwhile, Kerala with its unique religious diversity presents a very different set of challenges. As through much of Indian history, the South still tries to assert an autonomous destiny. The BJP’s footprint therefore broadly matches that achieved by Aurangzeb – even more so now that the Sikh farmers of Punjab are up in arms!


What does this spreading BJP footprint mean? First, the party is better at winning elections than at governance. On the latter, it gets by with exaggerated claims. Second, it remains intent on pushing ahead with its trademark social and political agenda, so (among other things) the citizenship laws so far held in abeyance could prove to be flashpoints. As for the crucial issue of jobs and livelihoods, those hoping for “poriborton” are likely to be disappointed.

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