A crucial round of state elections kicks off today in India, with people in four states (Assam, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu and Kerala) and a Union Territory (Puducherry) voting to elect their respective state governments over the next one month. Today’s phase of polling covers 77 Assembly constituencies in two states, Assam and West Bengal. In all, some 824 Assembly seats will be decided. Results will be declared on May 2.
With nearly 19 crore (190 million) eligible voters, these polls will have a significant bearing on the future of the Narendra Modi government at the Centre. PM Modi and his party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), are making a determined bid to wrest the state of West Bengal away from Opposition Trinamool Congress, led by the state’s Chief Minister Mamata Bannerji.
In Assam, BJP is controlling the state government and looking to retain power. In Tamil Nadu, it is a weak force and has aligned with the ruling alliance led by All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK). In Kerala, BJP is an insignificant force, with the electoral tussle being between the CPI(M)-led Left Democratic Front (LDF) and the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF).
These elections are taking place after a turbulent year which saw the ravages of COVID-19 pandemic, a heartless and ill-conceived total lockdown, both of which destroyed the economy, caused a massive surge in joblessness, displacement of millions of labourers and a sharp rise in inequality.
The period also saw a massive farmers’ movement that is still continuing, against the Modi government’s attempt to corporatise agriculture through bringing in new laws.
The attacks on minorities – symbolised by the discriminatory changes made in citizenship laws and the threat of a discriminatory citizens’ register – also have roiled the country in the past year and a half.
All these over-arching factors will be at play in these elections, alongside the local concerns of governance and economic justice.
Phase I: 77 seats in Assam and West Bengal
In the first phase, 47 seats in what is broadly called Upper Assam will go to polls, along with 30 seats in West Bengal’s south-western edge, which was called Jangalmahal by the British rulers.
In Assam, the ruling BJP alliance had won 35 of these 47 seats in the last Assembly elections in 2016 – 27 by BJP and nine by its partner, Asom Gana Parishad. This time round, one of BJP’s allies, the Bodoloand People’s Front has deserted them and joined the opposition United Progressive Alliance (UPA) led by Congress, which includes the Left parties too.
A third alliance, called the United Regional Front, is also in the fray. It comprises the Assam Jatiya Parishad and the Raijor Dal.
In Upper Assam, lakhs of tea estate workers – mostly belonging to the six so-called ‘tea tribes’ play an important role in deciding electoral fortunes. BJP’s promise of granting them Scheduled Tribe (ST) status has been hanging fire, causing considerable discontent among them. Another factor roiling these tribal communities is the failure of BJP to raise minimum wages and provide land titles to them, a promise made earlier. The BJP had promised raising their minimum wage to Rs.365 per day in 2016 but this has still not been done, though the BJP government has been trying to make amends in the runup to the polls.
In West Bengal, the 30 seats going to polls on March 27, are spread over Bankura, Jhargram, West Medinipur and Purulia. These districts are forested and have a large adivasi population.
In the 2016 Assembly elections, Trinamool Congress (TMC) had won 27 of these seats, with the Congress winning two and a Left Front constituent, Revolutionary Socialist Party, winning the remaining lone seat.
However, in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, BJP won all these seats defeating its main rival, the TMC. This shock defeat has led to much speculation about the fate of these two parties in the region going to polls on March 27. Commentators point out that voting trends vary with the nature of the election – people make a distinction between Assembly elections and Lok Sabha elections. So, a mechanical projection from 2019 may not be workable.
Another factor, largely ignored by election experts, is the resurgence of the Left, which has considerable presence in the area. Through a dogged resistance to the terror tactics unleashed by both TMC and BJP, and by fighting for various rights of the people in the region, the Left appears to be regaining some of its lost ground.
BJP Struggles for Breakthrough
Prime Minister Modi has, as usual, been extensively campaigning in these states, trying to preserve BJP’s rule in Assam and – more ambitiously – to come to power in West Bengal. So much so that he is on a visit to neighbour Bangladesh on official work, but also perhaps hoping to inject some warm feeling in voters in West Bengal.
But in both states, it is not a cakewalk, as the BJP propaganda machine is portraying in mainstream and social media. The disastrous economic situation, especially unbridled unemployment, rising prices, health crisis aggravated in the pandemic, and most importantly, the farmers’ heroic struggle has punctured the celebratory mood in the BJP/RSS camp. In fact, India observed a 'Bharat Bandh' yesterday (March 26) - the fourth month anniversary of the struggle - called by the farmers organisations and trade unions even as PM Modi was in Bangladesh.
Phase I is just the beginning, however. It is going to be a long haul for all contenders as the eight-phase polling in West Bengal and the three-phase one in Assam play out in the approaching summer.