Narendra Modi and two of India’s leading idiosyncratic women politicians have emerged as the victors in assembly election results announced on May 19 after six weeks of polling in five states. Once again, the Congress Party led by Sonia and Rahul Gandhi are the main losers, followed in one state by Communist-led leftist parties.
The most significant result is Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party securing a resounding win in Assam, plus increases in its share of the vote elsewhere.
Assam is the first state that the party has won in India’s northeast and it has provided Modi with the boost that he needs two years after he won a landslide general election. Last year he suffered two disastrous personal defeats in Delhi and Bihar state assembly elections, and his government’s image has been declining.
The BJP has defeated a Congress government in Assam that has ruled for 15 years. Election for a further five years would be unlikely in any democracy, but the size of the defeat is significant – the BJP has won a clear majority with 86 seats in the 126-seat assembly, reducing Congress to 26.
Tacking away from Modi
Having learned from making Modi the focal point of its campaigns in Delhi and Bihar, the BJP changed tack in Assam and projected other leaders. It also focussed more on development than anti-Muslim rhetoric, though it tried to win votes from the state’s resident Muslims by playing on their fears of being swamped by an influx of Muslims from neighboring Bangladesh.
The two women victors are Mamata Banerjee, who leads the state-level Trinamool Congress in West Bengal, and J.Jayalalitha, who leads a regional party, the AIADMK, in Tamil Nadu.
Both women are autocrats. Banerjee is a tough and erratic but accessible politician who lives modestly and has mass appeal, while Jayalalitha is a more reclusive elite and self-indulgent figure. Once a film star and mistress of a former Tamil Nadu chief minister (also an ex-film star), Jayalalitha was convicted and briefly jailed in September 2014 on corruption charges for holding assets disproportionate to her official income, but was acquitted a year ago.
Banerjee’s TMC victory is specially significant because it marks the continuing decline of the Communists’ Left Front that ruled the state continuously for 34 years till it was defeated in 2011, having run a cruel self-serving and corrupt administration that ignored the development needs of the people.
While she is despised by many liberals and has recently been hit by corruption scandals and examples of inefficient government, Banerjee has populist pro-poor appeal because of her government’s success in rural development, public works such as rural roads and toilets, and other government programs. She likes to call herself an LIP, a Less Important Person – an answer she gave on NDTV when asked if she’d like to bid to become India’s prime minister.
Left shut out
The TMC has won 211 seats in the 294-seat assembly, while the Left won just 33, working in an uncomfortable alliance with Congress, which got 44. The BJP, despite a focused effort to become recognized in the state, failed to get more than six seats.
In Tamil Nadu, power usually swings each election between Jayalalitha’s AIADMK and the rival dynastic and nepotism-ridden DMK, with Congress acting sometimes as an ally for one or the other. This time Jayalalitha, who runs effective administrations in a relatively prosperous state, became the first Tamil Nadu chief minister for 32 years to be voted back to power, winning 133 seats with the DMK getting 99 seats in the 232-seat assembly.
A Congress-led alliance was defeated in Kerala by a Left Front coalition by 91 seats to 47, with the BJP managing only one seats in the 140-seat assembly.
The Congress’s only success was in Pondicherry (now called Puducherry), a former small French coastal enclave surrounded by Tamil Nadu, where it emerged as the single largest party in the 30-member assembly and will rule in coalition with the DMK.
Shooting for Pan-India
Modi’s aim is to make the BJP a pan-India party, which the Gandhis’ Congress once was. Its victory in Assam is a significant step in that direction, but it has a long way to go to overcome its lack of appeal in many parts of the country.
Today’s results will lead to speculation about whether regional leaders such as Banerjee and Jayalalitha will link up with others like Chandrababu Naidu of Andhra Pradesh and Nitish Kumar of Bihar to form a third front, maybe associated with Congress, to try to stop Modi winning the next general election in 2019.
But that is a long way off and there are other key assembly elections to be tackled first, notably Uttar Pradesh (UP) and Modi’s home base of Gujarat next year. The BJP desperately needs to do well in both states, though it might find that difficult in UP where India’s third maverick woman politician, former former chief minister, Mayawati (above), is preparing a powerful challenge.
John Elliott is Asia Sentinel’s New Delhi correspondent. His blog, www.ridingtheelephant.com, can be found at the right hand side of Asia Sentinel’s homepage.