No political party wants to lose an election. But there are some losses they are prepared to live with, others they are desperate to avoid. Among other things, this reflects in how the party top brass allocates its energies during simultaneously unfolding campaigns.
So, where and how the two main national parties are deploying their principal brand ambassadors in the five states going to polls should say something about their stakes and self-assessed chances and what they think of their leaders’ appeal in those states.
Why Winning Assam & Bengal Is Important to BJP
For the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Assam and West Bengal are clearly the key battlegrounds, Bengal being the bigger prize for reasons we will come to in a bit. Narendra Modi and Amit Shah have pushed their party’s case with familiar vigour in Kerala, Puducherry, and Tamil Nadu too, but not once has their attention wavered from the east. The region has seen them at their sharpest this poll season.
The reasons for this are not difficult to fathom. For the BJP, wins in Assam and Bengal, their intrinsic value aside, will have sizeable signalling benefits for other parts of the country.
Like any other BJP win, even the barely-squeezed ones, there will be opportunity to celebrate PM Modi, the party, and its ideology — and reinforce the story about their entrenchment in India’s heart and mind.
More specifically, both Assam and Bengal are crucial to furthering the BJP’s politically-rewarding infiltration narrative, with all its emotive national security and Hindu victimhood angles. Plus, Assam serves as the gateway to the entire Northeast region, and Bengal promises an opportunity to take Hindutva to a large, traditionally hostile, and culturally-significant state.
What Bengal Means for BJP
If there was one boon the BJP was granted for 2 May, the party would find it hard to look past a triumph in Bengal. It is not just the state’s size or the fact that the BJP hasn’t received much love from its voters till recently. Whether rightly or wrongly identified, there are deeper prestige issues and joys involved:
Of the pleasure of saffronising a liberal-secular bastion.
Of finding approval in a rich, sophisticated culture, the land of Ray and Tagore, shedding, in the process, Hindutva’s associations with the ‘crude’.
Of the opportunity to tame the famously argumentative Bengali, introduce her to the socio-cultural flavours of #NewIndia.
And, quite simply, of achieving a long-struggled-for win in a rather testing context.
Not that BJP wins in the South won’t have signalling benefits, but Kerala seems out of the party’s grasp for now; its allies are better equipped to do the heavy lifting in a smaller Puducherry, and much of the warmth coming its way in Tamil Nadu — a state thus far immune to the charms of Modi and his party — will be via allies.
Meanwhile, the Congress’s Gandhi siblings appear to have divided responsibilities between Assam (Priyanka, though Rahul has traveled to the state too) and the South (Rahul). (This is unlike the Modi-Shah duo who are operating in tandem.)
Bengal, where the Congress’s chances are confined to specific pockets, the risk of dividing the anti-BJP vote in others is high, and the option of a post-poll arrangement with the Trinamool Congress (TMC) must not be closed.
Assam Verdict Will Be a Comment on Priyanka Gandhi’s Pull
The Congress pushing itself in Assam makes sense. On-ground grumbles about the BJP-piloted new citizenship law, an alliance with strong regional parties, and an incumbent BJP-led alliance that has a mixed (at best) performance record, have laid the ground for at least what the Congress believes is a winnable contest.
Priyanka Gandhi’s fronting of the Assam campaign is an interesting aspect of the Congress strategy.
It can be read in several ways: an attempt to test Priyanka beyond Uttar Pradesh, a recognition of Rahul’s limitations in a face-off versus the BJP, and/ or a freeing of Rahul for the deep South where he enjoys much adulation. Whatever the reading and notwithstanding the many variables that shape an electoral outcome, the Assam verdict will be seen as a comment on Priyanka’s pull.
Why Kerala Matters to the Gandhis & Congress
If there is one thing the Congress would wish from Rahul’s southern focus, it would be a win in Kerala. Reclaiming power in Puducherry and being part of the winning side in Tamil Nadu would be welcome as well, but let us not delude ourselves about which is the most important fight.
The Congress ex-president needs a fresh footing in a state where the Modi factor is weak, and his own credentials and his party apparatus are reasonably strong, and Kerala fits the bill.
There are a few other re-launch site options for the Congress and Rahul in the near to middle term. Expecting a boost from the Hindi heartland and states in which the BJP is the Congress’s top rival is unrealistic; some non-heartland, non-BJP states (Odisha, Telangana) have already seen the Congress ceding opposition space to the BJP; and the Congress’s fortunes are ally-dependent in others (Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu). Kerala, then, is among the few states where Rahul may find some latitude and momentum to begin plotting his party’s comeback.
BJP & Congress’s Trajectories & Big Picture
The larger picture that emerges is of two parties and two sets of leaders occupying very different political stations. The BJP has reached a stage where only a complete wipeout in Assam and Bengal (both unlikely) will dent the party’s aura. Even if the South proves elusive and the Bengal results don’t go the party’s way, Modi and Shah will continue to be looked up to for the audacity of their hegemonic vision and the sweat they put into realising it.
The Gandhi siblings, on the other hand, find themselves in a tougher place. Their vote-catching, election-winning abilities are once again under the scanner, and they have much to prove (unlike the Modi-Shah duo), more so in the backdrop of all the noise made by the G-23.
Only a win in Kerala and an impressive show, if not a win, in Assam will genuinely comfort the party. That said, the road to signalling that the Congress has moved from salvage to challenge mode is going to be longer. Come 2 May, we will find out if the journey has at least begun.
(Manish Dubey is a policy analyst and crime fiction writer and can be contacted at @ManishDubey1972. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)
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