This is a two-part primer. Part 1 explains the general mood of the electorate at the time of the Assembly Elections, and analyses the performance of BJP in Tamil Nadu, Kerala, and West Bengal. This part also includes the avenues where BJP has gone wrong and how it has impacted the end result.
The 2021 Vidhan Sabha elections of five states – namely Tamil Nadu, Kerala, West Bengal, Assam, and Puducherry happened in the Summer of 2021 while the country was grappling with the Coronavirus Pandemic. While the NDA alliance has formed the government in Puducherry and Assam, its defeat in the other three states is the most discussed topic. At this juncture, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has been facing a severe backlash from many Indians as the party failed to contain the spread of the virus, which led to the devastating second wave. The stance of the Union Government was uncalled for when it openly condemned the activities of the members of Tablighi Jamaat during the first wave, while many BJP leaders like Uttar Pradesh CM Yogi Adityanath openly promoted Hindu religious congregations, like the Kumbh Mela in April, which was seen as the peak month for the second wave of the virus. BBC reported that hundreds of devotees tested positive in the city of Haridwar, where the festival happened. Despite many health experts requesting the government to call off the congregation in view of Coronavirus, it was reported that their pleas were dismissed while promising to ensure the enforcement of all guidelines and protocols. However, the outcome was not as rosy as the centre and UP government painted. The already-burdened healthcare system of Haridwar was under even more stress as hundreds of devotees were made to isolate themselves in overflowing healthcare facilities in the city. It was the icing on top of the cake for the critics of BJP when UP CM Yogi Adityanath himself tested positive for the virus later in April.
The 2021 Summer Vidhan Sabha elections were seen by many as a way to oppose the centre and express their dissent and dissatisfaction. The resounding victory of Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress in West Bengal combined with MK Stalin’s DMK sweep in Tamil Nadu and Pinarayi Vijayan-led LDF’s unparalleled victory in Kerala were widely celebrated by BJP critics as people’s verdict against the Centre. All three alliances and parties are publicly against the BJP-led centre for various reasons.
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The Dravidian parties never fail to encash the anti-right wing sentiments in Tamil Nadu. MK Stalin’s DMK managed to successfully brand their Dravidian rival as a stooge for the BJP, which swayed the electors to its side. BJP failed to recognize influential local leaders who, unlike leaders like South Bangalore MP Tejasvi Surya, would’ve had a real impact on people in Tamil Nadu in rallies and campaigns. BJP was unable to break free from its stereotypical image of a North Indian Right-Wing Party that tried to enforce Hindi and Sanskrit in Tamil Nadu. This played to the advantage of DMK who continued to vilify BJP as a pro-Brahmin Sanskrit Party that tried to resurrect the Caste hierarchy by favouring the Brahmins. This narrative not only fuelled Tamil Nationalism but also allowed DMK to hide its casteist attitudes and prejudices. DMK’s non-Brahmin sentiments were not seen as casteist anymore, rather it was seen as an attempt to dignify non-Brahmin castes.
Both AIADMK and the BJP tried to antagonise DMK by calling out on its dynastic succession and corruption. However, DMK managed to shift focus from these towards controversial centre policies like NEP 2020, CAA-NRC, Farm Acts, NEET, etc. DMK also called out AIADMK for not being able to resist these oppressive legislations and policies from being implemented in Tamil Nadu. Although the foundation for many of these policies like CAA and NEET were laid when DMK was in power at the centre with UPA, DMK succeeded in shifting the entire blame onto BJP and AIADMK. A few of their allegations that included AIADMK’s inability to scrap NEET in Tamil Nadu were waded off jointly by the AIADMK and BJP; despite that, DMK managed to sway the electors by promising to scrap all the aforementioned legislations and policies if elected to power.
M. Kalyanaraman, in his report about the Tamil Nadu elections to The Wire, elaborated on the successful strategy of DMK against BJP and AIADMK. BJP’s role in AIADMK’s legislation of recognizing Vanniars as a part of the 20% MBCs infuriated other castes, like Thevars and Nadars. DMK used this to their advantage as they actively called out AIADMK and BJP for involvement in demagoguery. DMK was seen by many as a party with a strong anti-Hindu agenda. This feeling was prevalent especially when DMK formed the centre as a part of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA). As a finishing touch to give BJP a befitting reply in TN, DMK shrewdly rectified their weak links and refrained from religious politics as they knew religion was the last resort for BJP to enter into Tamil Nadu Legislative Assembly. BJP’s failure to mobilize Hindu voters using its Hindutva ideology not only affected its reputation but also resulted in its political ally, the AIADMK, ceding the incumbency to DMK. The anti-incumbent and anti-right wing sentiments in Tamil Nadu played to the advantage of DMK as they reclaim the government after a long wait.
Kerala has always been a state that has never allowed the BJP to gain a substantial voter base. BJP was not able to win even a single constituency in 2011 Vidhan Sabha Elections; while it just managed to open its account in 2016 with a win over one constituency. To their nightmare, BJP lost even that constituency in 2021 Legislative Assembly Elections to retain their 2011 figures of zero seats. The BJP has never been able to fascinate the Keralites with its policies because of radically opposite state leadership. Biju Govind, in his article about Kerala elections to The Hindu, reflected how BJP’s hasty decisions and dilemma over the candidature of a few RSS ideologues and the confusion in Guruvayur and Thalassery districts created a negative impact on the voters.
The radical conduct of BJP members in Kerala made sure Muslims united against them, discounting the efforts of Sreedharan and Suresh Gopi in Palakkad and Thrissur respectively. The Muslim voters, instead, cast their votes in favour of CPI(M) and IMUL. There have been many instances where the centre has failed Kerala due to its outdated policies. BJP’s decision to disallow Kerala from accepting aid from UAE for its post-calamity state reconstruction in the aftermath of the 2018 Kerala floods angered the state government. Although it was a continuation of the 2004 Foreign Policy of Dr Singh’s government regarding the acceptance of foreign aid, the Kerala government hoped for Modi’s government to make an exception for them. But the centre’s denial didn’t reverberate positively in the state. Dr Thomas Isaac, the Finance Minister of Kerala, tweeted his disappointment with the centre’s decision and hinted to the centre that its decision is hurting the people of Kerala. However, Modi’s firm stance made sure even the smallest of a reputation for the BJP in Kerala was eradicated. Dr Isaac’s recent tweet against the BJP in his personal Twitter account, where he rejoiced its failure in Kerala can be seen as a casualty of the centre’s sternness with regard to its stance on foreign aid amidst the 2018 Kerala Floods.
The 2021 West Bengal Elections witnessed a significant turn of events when compared to its predecessors. Despite many people celebrating the loss of the BJP in West Bengal, it has to be noted that BJP managed to win only three constituencies in the 2016 Legislative Elections. It was much worse in 2011 where BJP did not win even a single constituency. With winning around seventy-seven constituencies this time, BJP has become the second-largest party in West Bengal, managing to beat the Left and Congress. BJP has caused one of the biggest setbacks to Trinamool Congress in this election by defeating TMC’s Supremo and Chief Ministerial Candidate, Mamata Banerjee, in the most viewed Nandigram elections.
Despite relentless rallies held by Modi and Shah; despite BJP convincing TMC stalwarts to defect TMC and join BJP; the result was the same. Bengal was reclaimed by the Trinamool Congress. While there are a lot of reasons for the BJP’s defeat in West Bengal, one of the main reasons is their unhealthy reputation with handling the pandemic and the callous attitudes of BJP leaders like Uttar Pradesh CM Yogi Adityanath and Uttarakhand CM Tirath Singh Rawat. People of West Bengal watched as other states turn into cemeteries due to the centre’s miserable failure to contain the spread of the virus. Bengalis realised that BJP’s free vaccine promise if elected to power was a hoax as they saw what happened in Bihar last year. Many TMC leaders like Derek O’Brien lashed out at BJP for not fulfilling the free vaccine promise in Bihar and urged the people of Bengal not to fall for the same trick.
Another important factor that gave an edge for Mamata is her Bengali native identity. It was pointed out by many that BJP rallied for votes in Bengal using Modi’s name. The party did not even emphasize much on its Chief Ministerial candidate. Mamata’s coarse Bangla was preferred any day when compared to Modi’s Hindi and Gujarati, claimed a report in India Today. Modi and the BJP were always perceived by Bengalis as ‘outsiders’. BJP thought they could win the elections by buying out top leaders of TMC, but their little to no ground presence made it easy for TMC workers to rally local support. Providing party tickets to ex-TMC leaders angered existing BJP party workers and leaders, which brought in a wave of antitrust in the state. BJP’s failure to increase Bengali representation cost them the elections. BJP’s promises were not that convincing either.
It is said that Mamata always keeps her vote base satisfied by sending money to all households. BJP’s promise to halt the implementation of NRC just before the Bengal elections played to the favour of Mamata as she convinced the people of Bengal that the BJP would go to any extent for winning the elections. She also successfully exposed the duplicitous nature of the BJP. Similar to the LDF in Kerala, Mamata’s TMC enjoyed the confidence of Bengali Muslims. Muslim voting as a ‘bloc’ made the battlefield unequal for the BJP as it guaranteed victory for TMC.
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About the author
B. S. Ashish is an undergraduate student at Jindal School of International Affairs. He loves to deconstruct abstract political theories by finding links with historical and modern-day evidences.