Narendra Modi at Statue of Unity
India's Prime Minister and BJP leader Narendra Modi. Image Credit: Twitter/ANI

A fascinating set of contests is brewing in four Indian states and a Union Territory (UT) that go to the polls from March 27: Assam, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, west Bengal and the UT of Puducherry.

In at least two of these states — West Bengal and Assam — it is still not clear as to who will form the next government, while the LDF in Kerala and the DMK-Congress combine in Tamil Nadu seem to be having an edge, at the moment, over their rival combines. In Puducherry, too, it is difficult to predict which way the electorate will sway, given that both the DMK-Congress and the AIADMK-BJP combines are quite evenly matched.

However, there is no doubt that given the bloody turf wars in the run-up to these elections and the series of defections from ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC) to Bharatiya Janata party (BJP) since December have given the West Bengal assembly polls a different dimension and the Bengal results will definitely be a pointer to the fortunes of the BJP in particular in the months and years ahead – not just in the state, but at the national level as well.

Here, we look at how the fortunes are stacked up for the major political parties and electoral combines in these poll-bound states, what are the key issues and a fine print on the likely post-poll scenarios.

Assam (Seats:126. Three-phase polls, March 27-April 6):

The story thus far:

There are three key issues that have come up in the run-up to the assembly elections in the state: Firstly, the controversy over the implementation of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the National Register of Citizens (NRC).

Secondly, the electoral alliance between Congress and Badruddin Ajmal-led All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF). And lastly, the rise of several smaller parties in Assam, which is likely to grab a significant proportion of the vote-share that had gone to BJP and NDA ally Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) in the last assembly elections.

Sonowal on tenterhooks

In the 2016 assembly polls, the BJP-led North East Democratic Alliance (NEDA) had a vote share of 41.9 per cent, which was less than the combined Congress-AIUDF vote share of 44 per cent. And in 17 seats where the BJP won, the combined votes polled by the Congress and AIUDF candidates were more than that of the BJP. These are figures that are likely to keep Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal and the BJP on tenterhooks, heading into the polls.

Rise of the newbies

Apart from the equations of vote share and seat share, the birth of two new regional parties, Asom Jatiya Parishad (AJP) and Raijor Dal is set to hit the AGP hard this time. Among these, the AJP’s emergence in the political mainstream is being seen as a huge challenge to AGP.

The controversy over CAA and NRC is cause for some genuine concern for ruling BJP. These were election planks that had come in very handy for the BJP in Assam when it stormed to power in 2016. However, the situation has changed a lot over the last five years, with BJP going slow with its implementation of CAA-NRC in the state – an issue that Opposition Congress and some of the regional parties are trying to utilise to the hilt, claiming that while influx of “outsiders” continues in the state, many genuine residents of Assam stand to lose their identity and voting rights because of the doubts hanging over the CAA-NRC exercise.

The fine print: In a nutshell, it’s a resurgent Congress’ job now to try and make the best of a perceived anti-incumbency mood in the state, aided of course by some judicious pre-poll alliance formation. For BJP, it is indeed a tough ask, but the organisational strength it has built over the last few years in Assam may still come in handy in pulling off a majority – howsoever thin it could possibly be. And last but not the least, even if the BJP-led alliance goes on to win, with last term’s kingmaker Himanta Biswa Sarma named as a candidate this time, BJP may have the issue of chief minister to sort out too, given Sarma’s immense political clout both within and outside the party.

Kerala (Seats: 140. Single-phase elections on April 6)

The story thus far:

Kerala, like most of the other South Indian states, have followed this pattern of electing a new party to power every five years. Going by that trend, the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) should oust the ruling Left Democratic Front (LDF) from power and form the next government.

No linear logic

However, such a simplistic and linear logic is likely to see a change in Kerala this time. If current trends hold, as was evident in the recent civic polls in the state, the UDF’s return to power in Kerala in the forthcoming assembly elections in the state, replacing the Pinarayi Vijayan-led LDF government, is no longer a given.

The setback the Congress suffered in the civic body polls last December revealed a certain element of disinterest in the electorate about the Congress party. Also, Congress has failed to fathom the repercussions of the Jose K. Mani faction of the KC (M) defecting from UDF to LDF -- something that can be a crucial factor in a closely-contested election.

The other problem that the Congress needs to sort out soon enough is the undercurrent of rivalry within the party between the two factions led by former chief minister Oommen Chandy and current Leader of the Opposition in the state assembly, Ramesh Chennithala.

Rahul’s gamble

Rahul Gandhi has been camping in Kerala for a while now and his assiduous bid to perfect a major mass communication drive with people in the state has not gone unnoticed. He is definitely trying his best to prove that his decision to contest the last Lok Sabha elections from the Wayanad constituency in Kerala, along with his family pocket borough of Amethi, was not just because he needed a safe seat for himself, but it was a genuine attempt to win over the hearts of the people in the South.

But doubts still remain about Rahul’s ability to convert the success of his mass outreach programme in Kerala into votes. Having lost Karnataka to BJP earlier, Congress badly needs to get its act right in Kerala and win this election. But the December civic poll results will continue to haunt the party unless there is an all-out effort from all the different factions within Congress to put up a united and determined fight.

Twist in the tale

The ruling LDF government is also not without its shares of the problems. The controversy over the gold scam is still weighing heavy on the Vijayan administration and it remains to be seen to what extent the chief minister manages to buffer those headwinds. The emergence of BJP in a state where the saffron brigade hardly had a footprint until even a few years ago, has also given Kerala politics a twist in the tale.

The fine print: So Kerala, right now, looks like anybody’s game, though for Congress, the stakes are rather too high. It’s one make-or-break state in the south that can help the party regain some relevance at the national level too.

Tamil Nadu (Seats: 234. Single-phase election on April 6)

The story thus far:

The ground realities in Tamil Nadu present an interesting scenario, whereby, both the national parties, BJP and Congress, are finding it hard to push through with their specific agenda with their respective allies in the state – namely All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) and Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), respectively.

For the first time since the demise of two of the state’s political and silverscreen behemoths, M. Karunanidhi and J. Jayalalitha, the state is having an assembly election with the next generation of leaders at the helm in both the political rivals.

The upper hand

Both, the BJP-AIADMK alliance and the Congress-DMK alliance have had several rounds of talks to iron out the differences with regard to a seat-sharing agreement in the upcoming polls. However, it may still take a few more days for both the alliances to give final touches to it.

The way things stand right now, and as indicated by the opinion polls, the Congress-DMK alliance looks to be having the upper hand in these elections. DMK leader M.K. Stalin looks set to dislodge the E.K. Palaniswami-led AIADMK government from power.

Palaniswami’s headache

The biggest problem for Palaniswami right now is that unlike Stalin, whose campaign seems focused on the one-point agenda of winning these elections and becoming the next chief minister, he is fighting many mini battles within the main battle.

He has to do some hard bargaining with the BJP and make sure AIADMK retains a stranglehold in the days ahead over political negotiations with the ally for any emerging post-poll scenario. On the other hand, Palaniswami also has to try his best to keep the Sasikala Natarajan-T. Dhinakaran faction as far as possible from the corridors of power. BJP has been keen on having the Sasikala-Dhinakaran factions on board in order to tap into the Amma Makkal Munnetra Kazhagam (AMK) vote bank, but Palaniswami has vehemently resisted such a move.

Some interest is also focused on matinee idol-turned politician Kamala Hassan’s newly-launched party Makkal Needhi Maiam (MNM), though MNM’s appeal is unlikely to stretch beyond certain urban and semi-urban pockets, some analysts say.

The fine print: By and large, these assembly elections will be a pointer to what shape and form the state’s politics will take in the days ahead under the next generation of leaders across the entire political spectrum. And as of now, it’s ‘advantage Congress-DMK’ in Tamil Nadu.

West Bengal (Seats: 294. Eight-phase polls, March 27-April 29)

The story thus far:

It probably doesn’t get any bigger than this! The 2021 assembly elections in West Bengal will be remembered for a long, long time to come for such a multitude of reasons that the subject itself deserves a long form.

But for now, let us just sample these two bits of truth: Never in the history of Bengal politics has there been an election that has been chalked out to be conducted in eight phases, stretching over a month.

And never in Bengal’s political journey since Independence has the state’s film industry seen such a pronounced vertical split with so many stars siding with either of the two major political forces in the state: Trinamool Congress (TMC) and BJP. Mithun Chakraborty joining BJP is the latest episode to have been added to an emerging mega serial!

Politics of polarisation

And it is indeed fascinating that with BJP emerging as such a strong right-wing force in Bengal’s politics, the minority mainly Muslim vote bank in the state no more seems to be ideologically, emotionally, tactically pledged to any one of the parties that claim themselves to be secular.

TMC, that had for almost 13 years been the repository of the Muslim ‘vote bank’ in the state, is no longer guaranteed to hold on to its appeal among minority voters. This has largely been made possible by the stitching together of the Congress-Left alliance in the state and the induction of the newly-launched Indian Secular Front (ISF) and its leader Abbas Siddiqui into the Congress-Left joint front.

With Asaduddin Owaisi-led All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) also announcing its plans to be part of the Bengal elections this time, there is every likelihood that the state will see tactical voting on a hitherto unheard-of scale, particularly in the border districts.

Almost all the opinion polls so far have given TMC a clear and comfortable majority, but that hardly means much, given that the efficacy of such number-crunching punditry has often come a cropper in numerous instances in the past across India.

Defection-hit TMC

Series of defections from TMC to BJP in the run-up to the polls have added a whole new dimension to this battle-royale, with BJP citing what it claims as a backlash against the large-scale nepotism and corruption within the TMC top-brass, and TMC crying hoarse at what it terms as “traitors” who are trying in vain to malign the party.

All eyes on Nandigram

And apart from about 25 seats where high-profile candidates from the two heavyweight parties will be slugging it out, the most talked-about and anticipated fight will be in Nandigram where Chief Minister and TMC supremo Mamata Banerjee will be clashing with her one-time close confidante and political aide, Suvendu Adhikari, who quit the party in December and sided with the saffron brigade.

Mamata’s decision to quit her traditional Bhowanipore seat in south Kolkata and opting instead to fight from Nandigram in the East Midnapore district, in an apparent bid to ‘teach’ her bete noire a lesson, has given these elections a whole new dimension.

The fine print: As of now, all three possibilities are on the table: TMC winning a simple majority. BJP winning a comfortable majority. And a hung assembly. And it is precisely such a plethora of possibilities that makes these elections the most unpredictable in Bengal’s history since electioneering started in post-Independence India in 1952.

Puducherry (Seats 30. Single-phase elections on April 6)

The story thus far:

Puducherry is a Union Territory, but with an elected legislature and a chief minister. It also has a nominated lieutenant governor.

Congress, which will be looking to wrest power in Puducherry again, has an alliance with Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK). Some smaller Left parties are also part of the Congress-led front here.

On the other end of the political spectrum in Puducherry is the BJP-led combine that also features All India N R Congress, All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) and some smaller parties.

Which way is the wind blowing?

Opinion polls so far have favoured the BJP-led alliance, giving the combine a simple majority. However, there are internal tensions and power struggles within the BJP-led coalition, spearheaded by coalition partner All India NR Congress leader N Rangswamy.

Reports say that Rangaswamy has been peeved by BJP stalwart and Federal Home Minister Amit Shah’s statement that the next chief minister of Puducherry will be from BJP. If Rangaswamy’s equations with the BJP turn sour, even in a post-poll scenario, government formation by the saffron brigade will not be a given. And that is where Congress may actually fancy itself with a foot in the door.

The fine print: With just 30 assembly seats up for grabs, every seat counts and the big challenge for both Congress and BJP is two-fold: getting the alliance chemistry and arithmetic right and also making sure to keep one’s herd together, post-poll, in a tightly-fought race.

Twitter: @moumiayush