This is a two-part primer. Part 2 covers the main takeaways for BJP from the 2021 Vidhan Sabha elections in Tamil Nadu, Kerala and West Bengal. This part elaborates on the positives of the election outcome for BJP; along with analysing how BJP could’ve improved its performance in these states by critiquing its key decisions related to candidature, manifesto promises and strategies.
Positives for BJP from 2021 Assembly Elections
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has made its presence felt in these states although it could not effect a change in the incumbency. In Kerala, despite BJP conceding its stronghold, Nemom, it managed to emerge as the runner up in nine constituencies across Kerala. It caused a major dent in the vote share of CPI and Congress in these constituencies, especially in Palakkad where E. Sreedharan gave a run for their money by giving a tough fight to the sitting Congress MLA Shafi Parambil. In Kazhakootam constituency, BJP finished second only to the sitting MLA and Minister Kadakampally Surendran, beating INC’s candidate M.A. Vaheed in this constituency. In a left-wing dominated and communistic state like Kerala, BJP is slowly making its presence felt.
In Tamil Nadu, a predominantly independent state without major national party influence, BJP found its way in four constituencies – South Coimbatore, Tirunalveli, Nagercoil and Modakurichi, eliminating INC and DMK candidates from the race. In fact, South Coimbatore’s BJP candidate, Mrs. Vanathi Srinivasan, hit the headlines by managing to defeat the famous Indian actor and chief of MNM, Padmashri-awardee Kamal Haasan, in a nail-biting finish. The results, although not very pleasing, is very promising for the BJP as this is the first time in the past two decades that BJP has managed to win a constituency. BJP had to exit TN with zero seats in both 2016 and 2011 TN Legislative Assembly Elections. Managing to win four constituencies on their own amidst strong anti-BJP sentiments in Tamil Nadu is definitely a progress for them.
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History had to be rewritten in West Bengal when BJP single-handedly neared the magic number of eighty (ECI figure : seventy-seven seats) in the 2021 WB Vidhan Sabha elections, comprehensively decimating the influence of the INC and Left for the first time in its history. It was definitely a moment of pride for BJP when its candidate, ex-TMC leader and the sitting MLA of Nandigram, Suvendu Adhikari, defeated Mamata in Nandigram, which was considered by her as her home-turf. For the first time in Bengal’s history, a right-wing national party is going to solely form the opposition party in the WB Assembly.
With NDA all set to form governments in Assam and Puducherry, its run in these states is definitely a value-addition to its existing achievement galore!
Takeaways for BJP from TN, Kerala, WB
While there is so much to celebrate for the BJP, it is time for them to reflect and introspect on their losses as well. One of the main takeaways from Tamil Nadu and West Bengal is the importance of identity-politics. No matter how popular the candidate is, if s/he is not a local leader, s/he will not gain the confidence of electors. BJP’s decision to make Khushboo Sundar as a candidate in Chennai is a classic example of how they ignored to take into account, her North Indian origin. That is why, although Khushboo is a very famous Tamil Actress, she failed to make a mark in the Thousand Lights constituency in Chennai. It is to be noted that a similar candidature in West Bengal would’ve worked in BJP’s favour as Bengalis are fed up of machoism. BJP failed to increase the representation of women in West Bengal. It is famously believed that women only vote for women in Bengal.
Another difference between West Bengal and Tamil Nadu is that West Bengal politics is more religion-centric while Tamil Nadu politics is more race-centric and caste-centric. That is precisely why Khushboo Sundar’s Muslim identity failed to rally votes in a Muslim dominated constituency like the Thousand Lights. She lost to Ezhilan N of DMK, who is a local leader from Dravidian race. The Dravidian race of Ezhilan impressed the electors more than Khushboo’s Muslim identity.
BJP has to work a lot on its election manifestos and promises. Promising more statues and temples is not going to rally much support for the BJP. They should adopt a vision to empower the underprivileged and the oppressed, irreligiously. The voters in India, once upon a time, saw BJP to be a party that is inclusive of all their ambitions and goals, that is why the NDA experienced landslide victories in both 2014 and 2019 Lok Sabha elections. The success mantra for BJP in these states is to make sure it projects itself as an umbrella party that is accommodative of all sections of society irrespective of social and economic status. BJP has to make sure their leaders do not tweet or mention anything that is not a part of their party views. The increasingly anti-secular approach of many BJP leaders is a cause for concern as it irritates the general public.
The party cannot have a rigid single-dimensional approach when it comes to state elections. It has to adopt a multi-dimensional approach where it alters its strategy depending on the situation. In an increasingly communist state such as Kerala, appealing to votes on religious lines clearly pays no dividends. That is precisely why the BJP was not able to use the Sabarimala issue to its advantage while rallying for Hindu votes. In fact, in Kazhakootam, CPI MLA Kadakampally Surendran, who was held responsible by the BJP for the chaos in Sabarimala comfortably won the constituency with a margin of a little more than 23,000 votes; reported Times of India. Therefore, it is vital for BJP to really work on its welfare policies and convince the people of Kerala that it has the ability to uplift the oppressed and the underprivileged irreligiously. “Jai Shri Ram” might help the BJP win in Uttar Pradesh, but definitely not in Kerala.
BJP should also learn to be a bit more constructive while criticising and while accepting criticism. In all three states, BJP spent more time convincing the people why they should not vote for the regional parties like DMK, TMC and LDF, instead of convincing why people should vote for them. Negative Campaigning is effective only for a while, but it can never replace authentic merit-based campaigning and canvassing. BJP should focus more on highlighting why they have to be elected to power, and constructively work on the criticism they receive. A classic example of a party working on its criticism is DMK. They took the criticism they received about being religiously-biased in a constructive way and refrained from indulging in religious-politics to a great extent during the campaigning. Adding to that, DMK transferred the critique of appealing for votes on the lines of religion onto BJP and accused it for favouring the Hindus. BJP failed to rectify this weak-link as BJP leaders continued to appeal to the Hindus in Tamil Nadu for votes. They spoke about the infringement on temple spaces and Hindu religious rights under DMK’s regime along with highlighting DMK’s Semitic religions-bias; however, the BJP failed to cover up its own Hindu-bias in the process. BJP’s religious politics worked best in West Bengal; hardly worked in Tamil Nadu while it never worked in Kerala.
With 2024 Lok Sabha elections not far away, if BJP doesn’t take efforts to break-free from its stereotype of being a Right-Wing nationalist party trying to homogenize India under Hinduism using Hindutva, as openly advocated by senior party leaders like Dr Subramanian Swamy, there is a significant chance for an All-India Mahagathbandhan to steal the incumbency from NDA!
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About the author
B. S. Ashish
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 evidence.