Each state election has a dynamic of its own, its own local issues, leaders, candidates and alliances. This means a common national narrative may or may not show up in campaigns for five assembly elections beginning March 27. Yet, the elections in Assam, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal and in the Union Territory of Puducherry are also special in the way the outcomes could impact the fortunes of the BJP and the Opposition. The BJP has, since 2014, become the primary pole of national politics. With no effective challenger to its dominance at the Centre, the pushback has largely come from Opposition-ruled states, which have stood up to the Centre on issues, for instance, agriculture reforms. Chief ministers Mamata Banerjee and Pinarayi Vijayan and DMK chief MK Stalin have been articulate in their criticism of the Citizenship Amendment Act and what they see as the Narendra Modi government’s centralising agenda. A good performance by the Congress, Trinamool Congress, CPM or DMK could arguably energise the Opposition in Parliament as well as on the street.
The BJP has high stakes in Assam where it is seeking a second successive term. The win here in 2016 helped the party to expand its footprint in the Northeast, where it was not a significant presence until very recently. Since winning office in Guwahati, the BJP has formed governments in Tripura, Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh and been a part of the power structure in Nagaland and Meghalaya. Its organisational machine has been running in high gear in West Bengal and has been successful in winning over cadres and leaders from other parties. The BJP’s phenomenal rise in West Bengal in recent years has almost mirrored its success in Tripura – it is now seen as the main challenger to Mamata Banerjee. In Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Puducherry, the party has risen from the margins. Success in these states is key to shoring up its claims to being a pan-Indian party. It will also be seen as an endorsement of its brand of nationalism in regions where politics has had a distinct regional character.
For parties such as the Trinamool, CPM and DMK, it is a fight for office — and political relevance. The DMK has been in the opposition for a decade and is yet to win a state election under its present leader M K Stalin. The Trinamool is fighting to hold on to its dominance in a deeply polarised Bengal, and the Left in Kerala. The Congress, once the powerhouse in all these states, is banking on alliances to reclaim lost ground.