In the latest round of State elections in India, the ruling right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has been cut to size, and the left, secular and regional parties have made decisive gains. The Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Democratic Front decisively won the elections in the State of Kerala.
The counting of votes for the Legislative Assembly elections for the States of Kerala, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, Assam and the union territory of Puducherry was held on Sunday, May 2. The elections were held through the month of April. The campaign and polls were marked by hate-filled campaigning by the BJP and episodes of violence orchestrated by the state machinery at its behest.
The elections were crucial as the BJP was hoping to establish itself in three of the States where it traditionally has been weak or has had no presence. However, the BJP and its allies were comprehensively defeated in Kerala and Tamil Nadu. In West Bengal, while it substantially improved its performance, it fell short of expectations and was relegated to a distant second.
The elections come at a delicate juncture for India, which is currently witnessing its second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. The second wave is a tragedy unfolding, with an acute shortage of oxygen and hospital beds for those in need, as the government was not prepared for the crisis a year into the pandemic. With the government prioritizing profit over health, the election was a litmus test.
Kerala witnessed a landslide victory by the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Democratic Front (LDF). The LDF won 99 seats out of the 140 seats in the state assembly. Significantly, it wrested the only seat which the BJP had won in the last election. The political significance of this mandate can also be seen in the fact that this is the first time in four decades that an incumbent political alliance in Kerala has been voted back to power.
The Left Democratic Front has been in power since 2016. The main opposition in the State, the Indian National Congress, along with the BJP, tried every form of political deceit and ran multiple misinformation campaigns to discredit the Left government. Various central investigative agencies were also deployed against the State government in the run-up to the elections.
The LDF, however, overcame all such challenges — from corporate backed right-wing onslaughts and natural disasters such as the floods in 2018 and 2019 to conservative opposition to the entry of women into the Sabarimala Temple and the COVID-19 pandemic. The LDF government won great popular support for its relief work during crises, including the distribution of food kits, and social welfare measures such as the efficient delivery of pensions. The substantial investments in public health, education and infrastructure, and the government’s standing up to religious polarization and discrimination also won it much acclaim.
The State of Tamil Nadu saw the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK)-led alliance coming back to power after 10 years, defeating the incumbent All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), which was allied to the BJP.
The DMK had put together a secular and democratic alliance consisting of the Indian National Congress, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPI(M)), the Communist Party of India (CPI), Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK) and others. The alliance alliance won 159 out of the 234 seats in the assembly. The CPI(M) and the CPI, which had raised issues of workers’ rights and agrarian distress, won two seats each. Over the years, Tamil Nadu, which has a rich history of social justice movements, has emerged as a powerful bulwark against the right-wing policies of the BJP. In addition to anti-incumbency, the ruling AIADMK also faced people’s ire for allying with the BJP.
The BJP suffered a big setback in West Bengal, where the Mamata Banerjee-led Trinamool Congress secured 213 seats in the 294-seat Legislative Assembly, improving its previous tally by two seats. The BJP meanwhile could win only 77 seats. The BJP had heavily invested in the campaign with both the Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his second-in-command Home Minister Amit Shah attending many rallies, and the party spending tremendous resources. Modi and Shah were in fact heavily criticized for focusing on the campaigns even as the country struggled with the pandemic. Many have accused the Election Commission of India of aiding the BJP by stretching out the election in West Bengal over eight phases allowing Central leaders of the BJP to campaign more intensively.
A key campaign plank of the BJP was the supposed migration of Muslims from Bangladesh, which was clearly calculated to whip up an Islamophobic frenzy. The BJP was also aided by a large section of the corporate media which was confidently predicting a huge majority for it. The agenda clearly failed with the BJP not even winning a large chunk of the assembly seat segments they had led in the Parliamentary elections of 2019.
While Mamata Banerjee’s victory has kept the BJP at bay, the fact remains that the latter has substantially grown over the past few years and has managed to polarize society on religious lines. West Bengal was a bastion of the CPI(M) for 34 years until Mamata Banerjee came to power in 2011 and unleashed waves of violence on the left even as the BJP was slowly rising in the State. In the aftermath of the results, there were reports of attacks on left workers’ houses and party offices. The Left parties were allied with the the Indian National Congress and the Indian Secular Front (ISF). The ISF won one seat in the State.
The BJP managed to retain power in Assam, where vested interests have always kept ethnic and communal fires burning and the party won in the Union Territory of Puducherry in alliance with the regional party All India N.R. Congress (AINRC).
An earlier version of this article stated that Kerala is the only State in India whose legislature today does not have representation of the right-wing party. The State of Andhra Pradesh too does not have any BJP representatives.