The BJP, Mamata and Amma still have the magic, but the Congress’s fate is truly tragic

The powers that be.
The powers that be.
Image: AP Photo/ Bikas Das, Saurabh Das & M. Lakshman
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A week before the second anniversary of the Narendra Modi government, a string of electoral successes across India’s north and south suggests that the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) poll machine is still intact.

It’s an entirely different situation for the beleaguered Congress party, which conceded two states, even as two of India’s most powerful women politicians were returned to power. India’s Communists, meanwhile, had a bitter-sweet day at the office.

On Thursday (May 19), a BJP-led alliance won the assembly elections in Assam, marking its first victory in northeastern India. In West Bengal—where Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress (TMC) was resoundingly returned to power—the BJP is winning in as many as seven seats. In Kerala, too, the party didn’t disappoint, bagging its first ever assembly seat in the southern Indian state.

These elections weren’t exactly a referendum on prime minister Modi and his performance. But the BJP’s strong showing will be a shot in the arm for its leadership, which faced much flak for the party’s embarrassing losses in the Delhi and Bihar elections last year.

“These are states where the BJP had not been a force in the past, but despite that we are heading towards forming a government in Assam,” GVL Narasimha Rao, a BJP spokesperson said, “that’s a huge gain for the BJP.”

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BJP supporters celebrate in Assam.
Image: AP Photo/ Anupam Nath

The win in Assam is particularly significant because the BJP has gone from being a bit player in local politics to emerge as the state’s biggest party in just five years. For over 15 years, the northeastern state was ruled by the Congress party, with chief minister Tarun Gogoi having held on to power since 2001.

In the 2011 assembly elections, which the Congress won with 78 seats (pdf), the BJP only managed to wrangle five constituencies. In 2016, the BJP-led alliance in Assam is finishing ahead in 87 seats.

Some early signs on such a turnaround were visible in the 2014 general elections. Led by Modi, the BJP won seven seats in the state, while the Congress only managed three. And although Modi campaigned in Assam this time, too, the party benefited from clearly projecting a chief ministerial candidate, 53-year-old Sarbananda Sonowal.

“Give me love in this election,” Modi said during a rally in April, “I will give you five years of development in return.”

Assam didn’t disappoint.

Does corruption matter?

Both the incumbent women chief ministers competing in this round of the election were also not disappointed.

In Tamil Nadu, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) led by J Jayalalithaa is romping to victory with 126 seats, while the opposition Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) managed only about 105 seats. This is the first time in three decades that a ruling political party in Tamil Nadu will be returned to power.

It’s also going to be a consecutive second term for the TMC and Banerjee in West Bengal. Despite an unlikely alliance between the Congress and the Left parties, the TMC is winning by a landslide 213 seats. That’s even more than the 191 seats it conquered in 2011, when it ended more than three decades of Left rule in the state.

Banerjee’s massive mandate is not only a body blow to the Left, but also an evidence of the fact that voters in India aren’t always swayed by the bogey of corruption.

In 2013, the TMC was left red-faced after the collapse of the Saradha Group, a massive Ponzi scheme where some of its politicians were allegedly involved. Though that scandal died down, there was more embarrassment immediately preceding the latest polls when a sting operation by a news website purportedly showed TMC lawmakers accepting bribes.

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Supporters of Trinamool Congress (TMC) celebrate in Kolkata.
Image: Reuters/ Rupak De Chowdhuri

Eventually, that mattered little, and the TMC’s supremo was defiant in victory. “There is no corruption in Bengal,” Banerjee said at a press conference in Kolkata today. “I am proud to say Bengal is a corruption-less state.”

Jayalalithaa, too, was snared by corruption allegations not long ago. In 2014, a special court in Bengaluru sentenced the former film actress to four years in prison and slapped a fine of Rs100 crore for allegedly misusing her office to amass wealth worth Rs66 crore ($9.8 million).

The court verdict triggered massive protests by party supporters, including some 16 apparent suicides, that brought Tamil Nadu to a standstill. Jayalalithaa eventually spent 22 days in jail before seeking bail on medical grounds.

Since then, the already reclusive politician has withdrawn further. In the run up to these elections, for instance, Jayalalithaa held only one rally on alternate days. Still, the AIADMK eventually delivered the numbers.

The Left paradox

Meanwhile, India’s Left parties, led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist), or the CPI(M), seem to be caught in a contradiction.

In diametrically opposite election results, the Left front was shoved in to the grave in West Bengal, even as it secured a huge majority in the southern state of Kerala.

In West Bengal, it is winning just 29 of the 294 seats, one of the worst results for the CPI(M)-led Left Front in some four decades.

But the Left Democratic Front (LDF), a coalition led by the CPI(M), is winning 91 of the 140 seats in Kerala’s legislative assembly. In 2011, the same Left coalition had lost to the Congress-led United Development Front (UDF), which had then amassed 72 seats.

Although the TMC’s sucker-punch in West Bengal will hurt badly, the party’s performance in Kerala will be some consolation for Sitaram Yechury, the CPI(M) general secretary. When Yechury took charge in April last year, the CPI(M) held power only in the northeastern state of Tripura.

Nonetheless, the CPI(M) needs to go back to the draw board, at least in West Bengal.

Congress’s challenge

But the one’s left hurting the most will be the Congress party, which got hammered almost everywhere.

In Assam and Kerala, it got booted out of power. In West Bengal, its alliance with the Left miserably failed, although the party may end up with some 44 seats, nine more than its 2011 haul. In Tamil Nadu, it contested 41 of 234 seats. Out of these, it won eight.

Only in the tiny union territory of Puducherry, which was ruled by All India NR Congress (AINRC), an ally of the BJP, the Congress party found some solace, having marginally secured a majority.

In all, India’s grand old party is now only left with the control of six of the country’s 29 states. Here’s a handy map from Scroll.in to better understand the party’s collapse in recent years.

So, if Congress has any hopes of reversing its political fortunes, it’s about time the party’s gets it act together.

The earlier version of this story erroneously stated that the Congress contested nine seats in Tamil Nadu. It had in fact contested in 41 seats. 

Note: Some of the numbers in the story are provisional since the votes are still being counted. We will update the story once the Election Commission of India finishes counting all the votes.