Saffron Streak Across East And South India: How BJP Will Fare Outside The ‘Hindi Heartland’

Posted on May 13, 2014 in Politics

By Bala Sai:

In 1975, Indira Gandhi stirred up a storm. The hugely unpopular period of nation-wide emergency saw the birth of a political start-up. In the elections of 1977, the primary opposition parties of the country joined hands to form a new front, the Janata Party. It rode the wave of anti-incumbency against the Indira government to a landslide victory. For the first time in history, a non-Congress government took shape.

Modi in north east

Eventually, this brave new opposition flourished and fell, and weathered on. The lotus bloomed from this coalition, and united under a new ideology. It shot to popularity from the vanguard of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement, and established itself as a Hindu Nationalist party from the Hindi heartland of North and Central India. It rose to power in the centre and ruled for a full term under Atal Behari Vajpayee.

Times have changed. We find ourselves in the middle of the 16th Lok Sabha elections. And BJP today finds itself perhaps in a similar position to the Janata Party in 1977 – Heavy anti-incumbency tilting odds in its favor. But this time, things are different – in fact, completely opposite. BJP is poised to overthrow a weak government, not an authoritarian one as was back in 1977. The BJP needed to show its muscles, not its compassion. They needed a figure-head, a powerful leader; a strictly metaphorical Indira Gandhi. And thus, they turned to a proud ‘chaiwallah’ from Gujarat.

Narendra Modi has become the symbol of anti-Congress sentiment and dissatisfaction with the present government. Cleverly, he was named the BJP’s Prime Ministerial candidate. He stormed through his campaigns and earned admirers with his fiery, passionate speeches. He projected himself as a strong, development-oriented leader, and thrust the questionable ‘Gujarat Model’ down the throats of anyone who doubted him. Cashing in on the flutter, the media created a ‘Modi wave’ for good measure and suddenly, he was everywhere. Rahul Gandhi’s meek purr was silenced by Modi’s chest-thumping roar.

Modi’s popularity giving it a shot in the arm, BJP has, for the first time, smelled a chance to form a majority government, but it is not going to be easy. BJP is virtually unshakable in states like Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra (+Shiv Sena), and Punjab (+SAD). Popular support has risen phenomenally in the crucial states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, but with many regional parties preferring to go alone, BJP is now faced with the daunting task of hitting the 272+ mark by itself, something no party has achieved in the past two decades.

This calls for a complete revamp of the party’s image. BJP can’t afford to be stubbornly ‘Hindu nationalist’ or ‘hindi’ anymore. They decided to take on the challenge, to reach out to states and regions previously unimaginable for the party to succeed without regional allies. BJP, for the first time, has stepped out of its Hindi heartland, into the wide, exciting and diverse electorate of the south and east. But has it made an impact?

The East

Odisha has long been out-of-bounds for the BJP. Its only moment of glory had been its brief stint allying with the mighty BJD, an alliance that was promptly broken off in 2009. Since then, BJP presence has been minimal, a meek state leadership the usual suspect. Currently, BJP holds exactly zero out of the 21 MP seats from the state. Odisha’s long ruling CM, Navin Patnaik is sitting pretty, what with a successful people-friendly agenda, development in infrastructure, efficient electricity and water management, and deft handling of the recent cyclone Phailin. In addition, his announcement of 200 development projects in a span of 20 days before the election had virtually ruled out any competition, until Modi walked in.

Narendra Modi campaigned with great vigor in his 4 visits in 3 months, holding massive rallies at Chandarpur, Barmunda, Rourkela and Sambalpur. He compared the 14 year BJD rule in Odisha with his 13 year rule in Gujarat, and vehemently attacked BJD for the chit fund scam, and the infamous mining scams, thereby centering his speeches on corruption and development. Taking advantage of this new attention, BJP rolled out a slew of promises including 24 hour power, jobs for 40 lakh youth, women safety and farmer reforms. Opinion polls suddenly predicted 7 seats for the BJP as opposed to its current zero, causing BJD to break a sweat and revise its political strategy. With the Lok Sabha and the assembly elections occurring simultaneously and a predicted 12-15% split voting, BJP looks confident of a historic performance in Odisha, and is expected to replace Congress as the main opposition.

A blaring omission from BJP’s atlas, the north eastern region consists of 8 states, weighing 25 seats in total and a phenomenal 400 ethnic groups. Of these, Congress rules 5 states and BJP has a credible presence in only 3. It has only 4 MPs, all from Assam, and absolutely no legislature from Meghalaya, Tripura, Mizoram and Sikkim.

Modi kick-started his campaign from the North East on 8th February. He was greeted by surprisingly enthusiastic crowds numbering hundreds. He has ridden on Vajpayee’s popularity and promised to bring special status to all the 8 states as well.

BJP’s battle-plan for Assam was clear. A 13 year Congress rule and furthermore, 23 year Rajya Sabha representation by none other than our silent PM Manmohan Singh made Modi’s standard anti-incumbency and development rhetoric relevant and effective. He rolled out ruthless attacks on the incumbent Tarun Gogoi government and batted for a dialogue with Bangladesh for a land deal concerning illegal immigrants, while simultaneously juggling with the issue of giving sanctuary for Bangladeshi Hindu refugees.

BJP’s shot in the arm came with the fall of AGP, an influential regional power. The BJP successfully wooed erstwhile AGP MP Sarbananda Sonwal and the party’s president Mr.Patowary himself to join its ranks, assuring BJP of a considerable addition to its vote-share. The influx of AGP leaders has given Assam BJP an ‘Assamese Nationalist Party’ image – a regional flavor, something they dearly lacked earlier. With a 30% Muslim vote-share gravitating towards the AIUDF, BJP finds itself in familiar territory, and they will be hoping that a polarized vote bank will work to their advantage.

Arunachal Pradesh saw a similar story pan out, with its Chief Minister Mr.Geong Apang (who, incidentally, is the second longest serving CM in the country), quitting the Congress to join BJP, carrying with him a crucial share of votes. Modi spoke emphatically on the Nido Taniam incident and captured quite a few hearts with his reassurance to eliminate discrimination in the country.

In Manipur, the third state with BJP presence, the state party chief has struck the right cord with promises to repeal the controversial Armed Forces Special Powers Act. Further, Manipur’s oldest regional party, MPP’s decision to support BJP has given the unit more credibility.

While strong ruling governments in Sikkim and Tripura have effectively kept out the saffron party, it is playing a significant part as second fiddle in Nagaland, backing NPF’s Neiphiu Rio, also the current CM enjoying heavy popular support for striving to bring peace to the region. In Mizoram, BJP has entered a coalition of 8 single state parties, the United Democratic Front, attracting a considerable following.

West Bengal, of late has turned into a Trinamool fortress. After 35 years of the Left, Mamata’s government came as a whiff of fresh air. Electoral battles in the state have been three-pronged, contested among the left parties, Trinamool Congress and the Congress. However, Mamata Banarjee has of late begun to devote more time in her campaigns to attack BJP and Modi, than her traditional rivals. The BJP scheduled a third visit in the state for Narendra Modi. His campaigns have received unprecedented support, with hoards of people thronging his rallies. Modi too, has gradually escalated his attack on the Trinamool government, and the lack of development in the state. Mamata has risen to the support of Bangladeshi immigrants whom Modi threatened to chase out, branding them as infiltrators. This has led to a distinctly pro-Muslim stance of the TMC and a subsequent polarization of votes. BJP’s inclusion has dynamically altered the politics of Bengal and the results will be interesting to watch.

The South

Barring Karnataka, which is a BJP stronghold, the southern states have always been out of the BJP’s reach. Perhaps due to linguistic and cultural differences from the hindi heartland, or the differences arising from the brand of politics and different ideological orientations, or due to the lack of credible regional leaders in the ranks, BJP has always failed to garner much attention with the southern states, where regional parties have always held prominence. However, with Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu being two of the top six states with maximum number of seats (around 40 each), BJP cannot afford to take them lightly.

Andhra Pradesh is in the middle of a political paradigm shift. With the bifurcation going through, the dynamics of the state has been altered significantly. YSR Congress has emerged from nowhere and has found phenomenal support from Seemandhra. The TRS is expected to sit pretty in Telangana. With Congress virtually ousted from the state, BJP, crucially has forged an alliance with the Chandrababu Naidu led Telugudesam Party. TDS is in a key position to play an active role in the politics of both the sides of the border. However, opinion polls suggest a large margin of victory for the YSR Congress in Seemandhra and Coastal Andhra Pradesh. With Jaganmohan Reddy indicating that his party will wholeheartedly support any party at the centre, BJP is in quite a comfortable position to work its arithmetic as far as Andhra is concerned.

Tamil Nadu is the last place to find BJP in. An intensely Dravidian and secular state, once characterized by an atheist Dravidian movement, it fits in nowhere with the BJP ideology. BJP has a feeble presence though, and has ridden on the back of regional parties before. However, this time, with no support from ADMK or the DMK- the two heavyweights, the BJP has been forced to look for alliances with smaller parties, and has succeeded in knitting together a seemingly unstable ragtag alliance with the DMDK, MDMK, PMK and a couple of other small parties, to form a sort of a ‘third front’ like setup in the state. The ADMK supremo and Chief Minister J Jayalalitha, who had till recently remained silent on Modi, has suddenly begun to attack the Gujarat Model, weeding out flaws in it and alleging that the whole concept is a PR stunt by Modi. Significantly, she has started devoting more time attacking BJP than her rival DMK in her 30 minute campaign speeches. DMK President Karunanidhi’s son Alagiri, who commands a large following and was recently expelled from the party ranks, has gone on record voicing his support for the BJP. Once again, arithmetic will come into play to forge associations once the results are out.

Kerala has scoffed at the national trends ever since independence. When the whole country stood in unison to elect Congress to power as the first government, Kerala voted for a Communist party. The reputation remains intact, with Congress enjoying strong support in Kerala. Without question, BJP is on the backseat in the state, but that hasn’t prevented Modi from holding well attended campaigns in Thiruvananthapuram and Kasaragod, the only two seats where BJP stands a chance.

2014 has perhaps opened new doors for the BJP to emerge as a complete national party, across different regions and cultures. Even though this election isn’t expected to give BJP supremacy in any of the above states, this will mark a significant increase in party presence, even in places where it was non-existent earlier. The challenge for BJP, more than the votes, is about re-inventing itself and breaking free of the shackles it had been bound with thus far.