(Siddharth Varadarajan is a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Public Affairs and Critical Theory, Shiv Nadar University)
Ten months is a long time in Indian politics. After piloting the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) through a series of political victories at the national and state levels, party president Amit Shah's strategy of growing the BJP through an aggressive combination of open campaigning and hidden intrigue appears to be running aground.
If the BJP master strategist was handed a humiliating defeat by the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in Delhi, the return of Nitish Kumar as Chief Minister of Bihar marks the collapse of Shah's plan to split the Janata Dal (United) in the run-up to crucial assembly elections in the state later this year. Instead of going through the motions of a trust vote that he would have lost despite the BJP declaring its intention of voting for him, JD(U) rebel Jitan Ram Manjhi chose to cut his losses and resign gracefully. Shah's hopes are now pinned on the discredited ex-Chief Minister setting up his own party, an effort the BJP is bound to underwrite in an effort to woo Bihar's significant Mahadalit population away from the formidable political combine that Nitish Kumar, Lalu Prasad and the Congress party represent in the state.
Just as the BJP in Delhi could not resist the onslaught of an opponent in a contest that became essentially bipolar, Amit Shah knows his party is likely to lose the Bihar assembly elections if the enemy camp remains united.
In 2014, when the Modi wave was at its strongest, the BJP touched a high water mark of 29.4 per cent of the popular vote in Bihar. Its allies - Ram Vilas Paswan's Lok Janshakti Party and Upendra Kushwaha's Rashtriya Lok Samata Party - brought in another 9.4 per cent. All told, it was on the basis of 38.8 per cent of the vote that the National Democratic Alliance won 31 of the state's 40 seats. In contrast, the JD(U), RJD and Congress collectively got nearly 45 per cent of the vote but won just 8 seats because they fought the BJP as a divided opposition.
Given the weakness of its state leadership, the BJP will find it difficult to match a Nitish-led grand coalition. Of course, the JD(U) will be battling anti-incumbency and the fact that coalition partner votes will not transfer to one another very smoothly because of complex caste equations. If Mahadalits feel slighted by Manjhi's ouster, that will further complicate matters for the JD(U).
The JD(U) may feel inspired by the AAP's performance in Delhi but Nitish is no Arvind Kejriwal. Nevertheless, the perception that the BJP used dirty tricks to try and split his party and was willing to prolong Manjhi's inept administration for political gains may work as a selling point for the JD(U)-led coalition.
Apart from the Manjhi card, the BJP also knows it might benefit from religious polarization. Here, the compulsions of Shah's style of 'anything goes' politics will come into clash with Prime Minister Narendra Modi's slogan of 'sabke saath' and create complications for the BJP at the national level.
If Bihar represents the most immediate challenge to Amit Shah's stewardship of the BJP, West Bengal is one state where the party's prospects, on paper at least, look very promising. The party clocked an impressive vote share of 17 per cent in the Lok Sabha election of 2014, just 6 per cent behind the Communist Party of India (Marxist). The Trinamool Congress (TMC) was way ahead with 39.8 per cent, but the BJP has narrowed the gap in the two by-elections held in the state recently, Bongaon and Krishnaganj. As the Left vote continues to collapse, the BJP's vote share in these seats rose to an impressive 25.4 and 29.5 per cent respectively, up from what it polled in these assembly segments just 10 months ago.
With the BJP gaining votes from the Left, conventional wisdom suggests the emerging bipolar contest between the Trinamool and the BJP will work to the latter's advantage. But Amit Shah realizes it will take more than the collapse of the Left to overtake the 40 per cent vote share Mamata Banerjee consistently seems to be polling. The Left's decline allows the BJP to pitch for the lion's share of anti-Mamata votes, but it also allows Mamata to ensure the anti-Modi, anti-BJP vote is not split between her Trinamool and the Left.
Mamata Banerjee's priority for now is to ensure her party convincingly wins the Kolkata Municipal Council and other town elections due to be held around April or May. Taking a leaf from Kejriwal's playbook, she has said there will no longer be any tax on water. She is also trying to woo auto and taxi drivers. If the TMC holds its own in the municipal corporation and other elections, it is quite likely that Mamata may call for assembly elections later this year, perhaps around the time of the Bihar elections, rather than wait till 2016, when the tenure of the current assembly ends.
Modi and Shah's aggressive strategy in West Bengal, where they have taken Mamata head-on, might well turn out to be counter-productive. The political soil of Bengal, as well as Assam and Odisha, is fertile for the BJP - provided the party is willing to grow organically. In all these states, the traditional two-party system has broken down. Encouraging defections and leveraging the CBI, as appears to be happening in Odisha and Assam too - where Congress leader Hemanta Biswa Sarma is believed to be knocking on the BJP's doors following his implication in Saradha - may give a short-term boost to the party, but will not help it in the long run.
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