BJP Begins the Battle for Tougher States

PermanentcampaignWITHIN HOURS OF the March 11th victory in Uttar Pradesh, BJP President Amit Shah was contemplating his next moves. As he told his close associates, he wants the party to gain strength in 120 Lok Sabha constituencies across various states where the BJP is a marginal player. A few days later, while speculation was still rife about who would or wouldn’t be the next Chief Minister of UP, Bhupendra Yadav, general secretary of the party, confirmed to me that the new pastures for the Hindu nationalist party would include Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Odisha, West Bengal and several states in the Northeast. “Certainly, on the list of our new targets are Andhra Pradesh and Telangana,” he averred, emphasising that a “lot of work” is being done in these turfs by the party, which, either on its own or with allies, currently rules 17 states that are collectively home to two-thirds of the country’s 1.25 billion people.

True, such talk of expanding in the south and ridding itself of the image of being a cow-belt party has been in the air for long. When M Venkaiah Naidu was BJP president, it was a top priority. He never tired of dwelling on the subject and pointing to triggers for the BJP’s likely rapid growth in these areas. Yet, it has not been able to forge ahead in the south, except in Karnataka. Even here, the BJP, which first made a mark in the 1983 elections, cornering 7.9 per cent of all votes polled and winning 18 seats, had to wait for nearly 25 years before it could form a government in Bengaluru. Among other reasons, its progress was slowed by successful bids made by other parties to keep it at bay, recalcitrant allies that broke promises of a power-sharing formula, and internecine wrangling in the state unit. Though it was the single-largest party in the 2004 Assembly polls, it was only in 2008 that the party, which secured 110 seats, managed to get the backing of six independents to form a government in the 224-member House.

As of now, BJP insiders confide, West Bengal is top on their agenda. They would cash in on the perception that the Mamata Banerjee-led Trinamool Congress government has consistently resorted to Muslim appeasement, a charge she has vehemently denied. For her part, she has countered charges that radicalised Muslim terror groups have made Bengal their home, making their way in from across the porous Bangladesh border under an onslaught by the Sheikh Hasina government in Dhaka. Banerjee had called this a canard and a figment of the imagination of federal investigating agencies. However, NIA sources tell Open that the state government has been acting in connivance with illegal immigrants. The political explanations are many: pundits say that following in the footsteps of the CPM, which had encouraged mass migration to strengthen its vote bank, the Trinamool Congress is also falling back on similar tactics to fight off its political opposition.

The BJP, which of late has made its presence felt in the state, thinks differently. It feels that if illegal migration could drastically alter the politics of neighbouring Assam in its favour, it should work in Bengal as well. In Assam, which saw riots in 2012 between Bangladeshi-origin residents and northeasterners, the BJP was able to ride to power last year under the stewardship of Sarbananda Sonowal and Himanta Biswa Sarma, who, upset with Rahul Gandhi’s style of working, had left the Congress for the BJP in 2015.

The BJP may be upbeat about doing an Assam in West Bengal, but analysts who have closely watched the state’s electoral dynamics are less optimistic. In a state that has displayed massive inertia in political matters, the BJP has a long way to go in Bengal, says London School of Economics Professor Sumantra Bose. He feels that the Sangh Parivar’s presence in the state is still limited to RSS networks, which is not sufficient for mass electoral appeal. “Its state leadership is shambolic. Even if the main card is to be ‘Modi magic’, the party does need a minimally competent and credible state leadership, which it does not have. As for strategy, the Bengal BJP’s only tune is shrill communalism, which has a limited appeal and does not amount to a serious political programme. So in Bengal, the BJP is deficient on three crucial measures: organisation, leadership, strategy.” His contention is that the Trinamool Congress, on the other hand, is very well entrenched and its leader remains widely popular.

Professor Bose is also of the view that the state’s contrast with Assam—and now other smaller northeastern states like Manipur— may be instructive. “In Assam, the BJP benefited from defections from the Congress and from the alliance with the Asom Gana Parishad, certainly much weakened since its heyday but still a party with symbolic legitimacy in Assamese society. Sonowal himself was a lifelong AASU/AGP man until a few years ago. The tie-up with the Bodo outfit also helped. In Bengal, the BJP doesn’t have regional parties it can ally with or established leaders it can poach to piggyback to power,” he offers.

Besides, its anti-Muslim posturing may not take the BJP too far, adds Bose. The Sachar Committee’s disclosure that 27 per cent of urban Muslims and 33 per cent of rural Muslims in West Bengal were very poor, he says, has had an influence on the electorate. “This was after three full decades of Left Front rule. So the Mamata government’s focus on welfare and uplift of Muslims is legitimate from the point of view of their inclusion in society and indeed is consistent with the spirit of ‘development for all’.” He goes on, “It is, of course, also part of TMC’s electoral strategy, but Mamata is a politician, not a Mother Teresa. It should also be mentioned that Mamata has focused not just on Muslims but also other disadvantaged groups, such as STs in areas like Jangalmahal, and on communities which have long felt peripheral in the state, such as people of the Darjeeling hills.”

Bose concedes that where the TMC government is erring is in allowing rein to dubious elements among Muslims—whether it’s not cracking down on criminal activity in some border areas, sending men with fundamentalist tendencies to Parliament, or tolerating inflammatory statements by some attention-seeking imams. “There is disquiet amongst Hindus on these points,” says Professor Bose, “but I don’t think there is enough fodder here for the BJP to mount a successful polarisation campaign.”

In the Northeast, the BJP is counting on the hard work it has silently done for a prolonged period. Even in Manipur, a difference to its fortunes was made by the individual efforts of people such as Sarma, BJP National General Secretary Ram Madhav, strategist Rajat Sethi and some RSS members. Dr V Bijukumar, associate professor, Centre for Political Studies, JNU, tracks the party’s growth in the state. The BJP’s victory was largely due to its strategy of focusing special attention on ethnic groups such as Meiteis, Nagas and Kukis. “While it held a dominant position in the Meitei-dominated Valley, it also gained a strong presence in Congress strongholds, even Kuki-dominated areas. Kukis traditionally support the Congress. The BJP was able to create a division within Kuki extremist organisations,” he says. “While the Kuki National Organisation extended its support to the Congress, the United People’s Front, a conglomeration of Kuki extremist groups, supported the BJP,” he elaborates, “The BJP managed to get [five] Kuki MLAs. The BJP [later roped in] the Naga People’s Front, a political conglomeration of Nagas in Manipur. The BJP was able to win [some] support of Nagas by citing the Naga Peace Accord of 2015, though the provisions of the accord are yet to be disclosed.”

Certainly, Shah has enough cause for cheer after winning Assam in 2016 and forming a government in Manipur by superseding the single largest party there. Emboldened by this success, the BJP is looking at Meghalaya and Tripura, where it plans alliances with regional parties for the Assembly polls next year. In the 2014 General Election, the BJP had forged a partnership with the National People’s Party (NPP) of Purno A Sangma in Meghalaya. Bijukumar feels that joining hands with a regional ally is the best route forward for the BJP. “With the help of NPP, orchestrating defections from the faction-ridden Congress and wooing smaller parties, the BJP is aspiring for power in the next Assembly elections. It also aims to muster the support of the Hindu Nepalese and Bengali population in the state,” he states.

SHAH AND HIS lieutenants, buoyed by gains in Odisha’s local polls, are hoping to do well in Tamil Nadu and Kerala as well. In Kerala, the RSS and BJP have campaigned all along against what they call the minority-appeasing policies of the two warring coalitions, one led by the Congress and the other by the CPM. The Sangh has also led a meticulous nationwide effort to draw attention to violence between the RSS and the CPM in some parts of the state, thereby forcing the national media— which Hindutva forces see as excessively Left-leaning—to start reporting atrocities against RSS members. The CPM claims that the RSS is playing the victim while furtively instigating violence in CPM strongholds. The RSS and BJP claim that neither the Left nor the Congress, which have shared power since the formation of the state in 1956, have protected the interests of Hindus, who account for over 54 per cent of the state’s population, with 45 per cent being either Muslim or Christian. As of now, the CPM pulls in a majority of Kerala’s Hindu votes. The RSS and BJP have in the past tried to woo these voters by forming an alliance with a casteist outfit, and are also looking at co-opting certain Christian groups and chipping away at the traditional support base of the Congress. The BJP expects its vote share to further rise in the 2019 elections. It opened its account in the state Assembly for the first time in last year’s state polls, winning one seat in the 140-member House. This was achieved by eating into traditional Congress votes to defeat the constituency’s CPM candidate. The BJP came second in seven seats and lost a seat in north Kerala by a wafer-thin margin. Yet, its biggest challenge would be to wean away Hindu voters from the CPM.

The BJP central leadership is also enthusiastic about its prospects in Tamil Nadu’s 2019 elections. In this state, it expects an alignment with one of the AIADMK groups to pay off. State leaders, though, sound less optimistic. “We are trying out best, especially in making an outreach to fisherfolk,” says a state leader who doesn’t want to comment on the high expectations of the party’s leaders in Delhi. Justice Krishnaswami Chandru, a retired judge of the Madras High Court, feels that the biggest handicap for the BJP in the state is that Tamils don’t see it as a party very distinct from the Congress, by and large. Therefore, its plight would be the same as that of the grand old party, he argues. “Except for one or two seats, either in Kanyakumari district or Coimbatore, it will not get any seat by itself. Standing alone, they will lose their deposit in 95 per cent of the constituencies. The question of their making electoral gains can only [arise] if they have an alliance with either the DMK or any of the AIADMK factions,” says Justice Chandru. “The BJP has some influence among the fishermen of Kanyakumari, that too predominantly in the coastal villages where Hindus are in a majority. Other than that, their presence among fishermen is negligible,” he adds. The former judge is convinced that the BJP has no specific programme to secure the backing of the state’s people. He also doesn’t see the party gaining traction just because a few ministers make speeches in coastal areas.

Strong views indeed. But again, whatever the pundits may say, the ruling party at the Centre is gung-ho about the upcoming polls in nascent turfs, having gained from its polarising tactics in the north. It also expects to use different tactics for different geographies to ensure a Congress-free India. “We will work very hard to make it happen,” says Bhupendra Yadav. Like all such lofty goals, it’s easier said than done.

This article was first published in Open magazine

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