Why Key to BJP’s Battle Outside Home Turf Lies in Bengal & Assam

“These polls are crucial ideologically — as also geographically — for the BJP,” explains Dr Vikas Pathak.

Updated
Opinion
6 min read
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Exit polls for the four states – Bengal, Assam, Kerala and Tamil Nadu – and one union territory, Puducherry, released on Thursday, 29 April evening, predict that the BJP will win Assam, register a strong presence in Bengal, and win Puducherry, too, in alliance with the AINRC.

The four states and one union territory that went to polls in March and April 2021 would ordinarily have had nothing much to do with the BJP. Except for Assam, the party has had negligible state assembly presence in the three other states – Kerala, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal.

Bengal has traditionally been a TMC and left parties’ state, Kerala has swung alternately between the Congress alliance and the left alliance, and Tamil Nadu has, for decades, been with the Dravidian parties, with the two national parties just trying to enter into electoral arrangements with the DMK or AIADMK.

However, ironically, it is the BJP that has been perceived as exerting itself the most in these polls, despite a raging pandemic that became more and more serious as the polls progressed. The reason: the polls are crucial ideologically, as also geographically, for the saffron party.

BJP’s Eastern Expansion Goals — Why Bengal & Assam Are Important

Having swept Assam for the first time in 2016, the BJP is now trying to retain Assam and breach Bengal, both eastern states bordering Bangladesh.

Exit polls that were released late on the evening of 29 April projected a lead for the BJP in Assam, suggesting that the party may end up retaining the state. As for Bengal, the poll of all polls showed a keen fight, with the TMC slightly ahead of the BJP and just breaching the majority mark of 148 seats.

The key to why these polls – being contested outside the traditional strongholds of the BJP in north, central and western India – are important for the saffron party lies largely in the Bengal and Assam projections.

For the party, these polls are crucial to bring its eastern expansion to culmination. If the BJP ends up capturing bitterly-fought Bengal, it will become the prime party of the east, where Odisha will remain the only major state where a regional party — the Biju Janata Dal — will continue to hold fort as of now.

However, even if the BJP becomes a strong opposition, as many of the exit polls predict, it will be a major political force in Bengal and may begin to dictate terms there, making Mamata Banerjee react more than acting independently.

Ideological Importance of Bengal & Assam for the BJP

Bengal and Assam are also ideologically important for the BJP, as it is in these states that the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) will play out politically.

In Assam, there has been a sentiment against illegal immigration from Bangladesh for decades now, with people in the state feeling that what is believed to be a large influx from the neighbouring country dilutes distinctive Assamese cultures.

There is a slight difference between how ‘indigenous Assamese’ opinion and the BJP perceive the question of migration, but polarisation has ensured that the BJP remains a major force in the state.

In Assam, a significant section of opinion sees Bengali speakers, 29-percent of the population, as the other, sensing in their presence a threat to Assamese culture. For them, Bengalis include both Bengali-speaking Muslims and Hindus, who are largely concentrated in the Barak Valley and Lower Assam, which border Bangladesh.

For the BJP, it is the Muslim presence in Assam – with many of Bangladeshi origin – that is the problem.

This is in sync with the old RSS concern of a ‘demographic invasion’ or ‘infiltration’ from Bangladesh. As per the 2011 census, Muslim population in Assam has increased to 34 percent.

Badruddin Ajmal’s AIUDF: Why BJP May End Up Doing Well in Assam

While sections of Assamese opinion had protested against the CAA’s intent of expediting the grant of citizenship to non-Muslims who came from Bangladesh till the end of 2014 – as they see the issue as Assamese-speaking vs Bengali-speaking rather than a Hindu-Muslim question – the BJP ended up doing well in the state even in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls.

The same may happen again, as the exit polls suggest. The reason: Badruddin Ajmal’s AIUDF – which has a strong presence in the nine Muslim-majority districts of the state, and particularly in the Barak Valley – is in alliance with the Congress, which has opposed CAA.

The Congress’s opposition to CAA may be music to the ears of many in Assam, but the prospect of Ajmal, who is seen as a symbol of Bengali immigrant politics in the state, enjoying power in the state may spark off a polarisation that could lead to the Congress-AIUDF sweeping seats with a high Muslim presence, and the BJP-AGP sweeping seats with a high Hindu presence.

Such a scenario helps the BJP both in terms of its seat tally and in ideological terms.

Rise of BJP in Bengal

The CAA can also play out in neighbouring Bengal if the BJP wins the state. Here, it can play out in the opposite manner by cementing support for the party among Hindus – many of them from marginalised castes – who came from Bangladesh, and also polarising society on Hindu-Muslim lines.

As of now, however, most analyses suggest that the rise of the BJP in the state is largely because of an anti-TMC sentiment owing to political violence, corruption and, in south Bengal, the mishandling of cyclone Amphan relief work. Mamata Banerjee is the only popular political leader in a party that has been largely discredited due to the poor image and performance of its local leaders. Bengal has also seen the rare phenomenon of left workers shifting to the BJP in large numbers.

Why BJP is at a Disadvantage in Kerala

With exit polls often being unreliable, it is only on 2 May that one will see how deep the BJP’s expansion in the east has been. One region that the BJP has not been able to penetrate yet, with the sole exception of Karnataka, is south India.

Kerala, where the RSS has had a presence for long, has electorally been a non-starter for the BJP. One major – and little discussed – reason is the fact that the Hindu population in Kerala is only about 55 percent, with Muslims and Christians adding up to about 45 percent. This puts the BJP at a clear disadvantage, as it needs to sweep almost all Hindus to have a significant presence in the state.

But, as a largely north Indian party that doesn’t have a robust organisation in Kerala, this isn’t easy for it. The state still oscillates alternately between the CPI (M)-led LDF and the Congress-led UDF.

Exit polls suggest that the left front is set to break the pattern by coming to power for a second consecutive term.

BJP’s Prospects in Tamil Nadu & Puducherry

In Tamil Nadu, the BJP isn’t a political player yet. It has been trying to register its presence in alliance with the AIADMK, which has been weakened on the leadership front after the death of Jayalalithaa. One reason why the BJP has not been able to get a foothold in the state yet is the overwhelming presence of Dravidian politics, which does not only make it difficult for national parties to register a significant presence but also militates against Hindutva, which intrinsically is more north Indian and Hindi-Sanskrit/centric in orientation. Exit polls suggest that the DMK under MK Stalin — in alliance with the Congress, another marginal player in the state for decades — is set to wrest power in the state.

Puducherry is a union territory with a state legislature and not significant so far as national politics is concerned. However, the BJP – with three nominated MLAs and an alliance with ex-Chief Minister N Rangasamy-led AINRC and the AIADMK – is leaving no stone unturned to take on the Congress-DMK-CPI-VCK alliance.

The Congress government under V Narayanasamy lost power before the completion of its term following the resignations of MLAs, something that the ex-CM blames the BJP for.

The BJP on its part removed Kiran Bedi as Lieutenant-Governor well in time to avoid facing charges of being party to the misgovernance it accuses the Congress of.

Exit polls predict that the NDA will win Puducherry, where ex-Chief Minister V Narayanasamy of the Congress has already lost favour with his own party, the Congress.

(Dr Vikas Pathak is a media educator and a senior journalist who has worked with The Hindu, The Indian Express, Hindusthan Times, etc. He’s the author of 'Contesting Nationalisms'. He tweets @vikaspathak76. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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