The results of the Assembly elections held over the past 45 days or so have broadly been on the lines suggested by the exit polls with the standout exception of West Bengal, where the “hung assembly” narrative has been proven comprehensively wrong by the Trinamool Congress’ emphatic victory. When compared with the results of the 2016 Assembly elections, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has made remarkable gains. It has won close to 75 seats from just three in 2016 and got about 38 per cent of the vote. But the BJP was fighting to win, not come in second, so the outcome is a major setback for the party, given the vast amounts of money and resources deployed, with the prime minister, home minister, party chief, and sundry other party heavyweights addressing numerous rallies with intemperate rhetoric. Though Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s high-risk gamble of abandoning her safe seat of Bhabanipur didn’t pay off, as she lost narrowly to her turncoat lieutenant Suvendu Adhikari in Nandigram, there isn’t any doubt that overall the triumphal narrative of one diminutive woman defeated a brigade of powerful, bullying men.
The moot point is that the BJP’s gains in the state have come mostly at the expense of a complete collapse of the Congress and Left Front in the state. This points to the extreme polarisation that saturated the campaign and will pervade state politics in the years ahead too. Apart from containing the Covid-19 crisis in the state, Ms Banerjee’s biggest challenge in her third term will be the presence of a large and aggressive opposition party, the first time she will have to face one.
The other big story of these Assembly elections is Kerala, where the Pinarayi Vijayan-led Left Democratic Front (LDF) has made history by winning a second term, breaking the decades-old cycle in which the LDF and the Congress-led United Democratic Front had alternated in office. The LDF, in fact, significantly improved on its 2016 tally, a nod to the electorate’s appreciation of Mr Viajayan’s handling of the 2019 floods and the 2020 Covid-19 crisis. As with almost every election since 2014, these ones, too, underlined the slow-motion decimation of the Congress. The party drew a blank in West Bengal and did not appreciably improve its tally in Assam (where the BJP improved its 2016 performance significantly), nor in Kerala despite Rahul Gandhi virtually camping there for the duration of the campaign.
Overall, there have been several political messages from these elections. One, even a strong, national party needs a credible local face to front the election campaign. In West Bengal, it was desperate to co-opt a local hero but failed miserably. There is now increasing statistical evidence that voters view national and state polls very differently, often choosing a son or daughter of the soil in assembly elections. The other is neglecting the pandemic and governance for elections has not worked for the BJP despite the Modi-Shah blitzkrieg, though it may yet be early to draw national conclusions. The third is the somewhat discredited reputation of the Election Commission, and its failure to limit the exponential spread of the pandemic. It failed to impose controls on rally sizes or safety norms and its inexplicable decision to hold an eight-phase election in West Bengal, and declining to merge the last three phases when the pandemic was spreading rapidly is beyond reprehensible. The consequences of that neglect will now be borne by the victors.