BJP supporters Modi rally Bihar
BJP supporters during a rally by Prime Minister Narendra Modi Image Credit: PTI

A little less than halfway into Narendra Modi’s second term as Prime Minister, elections to four states and one Union territory in a few weeks will have major national implications. The results will be reflection both of the BJP’s own record at the centre, but more importantly, of where the opposition stands against a powerful RSS-BJP combine, just three years before the next general election.

The counting of votes for all the states will be held on May 2. Very simply, the BJP is hoping to win Bengal for the first time, retain Assam, and expand its base in Tamil Nadu and Kerala. In Tamil Nadu, the party is in alliance with the ruling AIADMK, which finds itself at a crossroads after the death of Jayalalithaa.

Modi's popularity reigns

For the BJP, there is no doubt that Narendra Modi is the most popular leader, despite significant challenges like the farmers agitation. But while the party has done very well in the last two general elections, their record has been more patchy in state polls which followed like Delhi, Jharkhand, Chattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Maharashtra.

For the Congress, and for Rahul Gandhi in particular, these polls are a crucial leadership test, especially since he is an MP from Wayanad in Kerala. Faced with a rebellion from senior leaders lead by Ghulam Nabi Azad, called the G 23, Rahul Gandhi needs to prove the rebels wrong.

If the party doesn’t do well, the calls for change within the Congress will grow, but if the Congress pulls off a decent performance, it could strengthen Rahul Gandhi’s chances of having his own way within the Congress, either coming back as party chief himself (which he is said to be reluctant to do) or having someone of his choice take over the party when elections to the party president’s post are held later this year.

Will Rahul Gandhi matter?

Rahul Gandhi has been quite visible in the campaign already in the South, dancing and diving into the sea, and doing push ups — all of them terrific photo ops but will they translate into more?

West Bengal is a new frontier for the BJP, which has seen a dramatic rise in the state in recent years, obliterating the Left and the Congress and emerging as the key challenger to Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress. A victory in Bengal would prove that the BJP isn’t just strong in states where it is in a direct fight against the Congress, but can also defeat strong regional forces beyond it’s traditional strongholds in the Hindi heartland.

It would be a significant expansion of the BJP’s footprint in the country. That is why the BJP is throwing everything into Bengal with a very aggressive campaign. The Prime Minister is set to address more than 20 rallies. For Mamata Banerjee, this is perhaps her toughest election battle.

She isn’t only seeking to come back for a third term as Chief Minister but as one of the most vocal opponents of the BJP at the centre, this is a big test for her at the national level. If she beats the BJP, Mamata could emerge as the key face against Mr Modi in 2024.

Weakest link in the alliance

In Assam, the BJP is hoping to retain power but issues like the Citizenship Act, which is opposed by a large section of people, is making this a tougher battle for the party. There were large scale protests against the CAA in the state with fears that Bangladeshi Hindu refugees would be given citizenship.

This is a key reason why the Act has not yet been notified by the Centre. The BJP’s key ally in the state, the AGP, has lost significant ground and may emerge as the weakest link in the alliance.

New political alliances have also made the Assam contest more interesting. The Congress has tied up with Badruddin Ajmal’s All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF). In the last election in 2016, Muslim votes were split between the Congress and Ajmal’s AIUDF.

But there are also newly formed ethnic parties that could hurt the Congress alliance including one headed by jailed activist Akhil Gogoi who has tied up with an outfit supported by the influential student outfit, the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU).

In Tamil Nadu, the big question is whether the AIADMK, which is in alliance with the BJP, can hold on to power, especially after VK Sasikala’s bombshell decision to quit politics, which could force a truce between different factions of the party.

The BJP knows that as a Hindi speaking party, it won’t cut much ice with voters in the state and therefore, top leaders including the Prime Minister and Home Minister Amit Shah have been extolling the virtues of the Tamil language. More than that, the party hopes the centre’s message of development work will resonate with voters instead.

The DMK meanwhile is pushing for a comeback but is currently in hardball seat sharing talks with it’s ally, the Congress. Reports say the Congress could even exit the alliance if it doesn’t get a “respectable” number of seats to contest from, never mind that the DMK is clearly the bigger player in the state. (DMK is likely to allot 25 seats to Congress for next month’s elections in Tamil Nadu some reports suggest)

In Kerala, the Congress is facing a challenge despite the incumbent Left government seeking another term. Local elections late last year came as rude shock to the Congress as the left lead LDF did very well. More recently, in a big setback to the party, at least four Congress leaders have either left the party or stepped down from key positions in Rahul Gandhi’s constituency of Wayanad.

They have cited “groupism” as a key reason for leaving. The BJP meanwhile is looking to expand its footprint in the state, May 2, 2021 is therefore an important date in India’s political trajectory. Watch this space.