Let me stick my neck out and say 2021 is going to be a tough year for the BJP. Its landslide win in the 2019 general election has diverted attention from the fact that it has fared badly in 11 out of 12 major state elections since 2018, winning clearly only in Bihar. In 2021, it may do no better.
The biggest battle will be in West Bengal, where the BJP will lose despite high hopes after a great Lok Sabha performance in 2019. Along with its local ally, the AIADMK, the BJP will be thrashed in Tamil Nadu and Puducherry. It will also, as usual, be drubbed in Kerala. Only in Assam are its re-election prospects good.
The footprint of the BJP over Indian states has been shrinking since 2018. This was partially reversed by post-election toppling of governments in Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh. Those short-term gains will provide cold comfort if it loses all 2021 state elections or wins only in Assam.
In West Bengal, the BJP was a fringe player for decades. Then in the 2016 state election, it won 17% of the popular vote and two seats. It made spectacular progress in the 2019 general election, winning 40.7% of the vote and 18 seats, close to the Trinamool Congress’s 43.3% vote share and 22 seats.
This has hugely enthused the party organisation for the coming state poll. It views the election as one of BJP against the rest and hopes that the other parties will split the non-BJP vote between them, which will enable it to win with no more than its general election vote share of 40.7%. It is delighted that Asaduddin Owaisi’s Muslim party (AIMIM) won five seats in the recent Bihar election and aims to contest the West Bengal polls too. If this draws Muslim votes (28% of the total in this state) away from the Left Front and Congress, the BJP will be a clear gainer.
However, the Left Front and Congress have just decided to have an electoral agreement, reducing the fracturing of the anti-BJP vote. The next step could be to strike a deal with Owaisi on a substantial number of seats, creating a formal or informal anti-BJP front.
Even if this does not happen, the BJP’s prospects are clouded. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is much more popular than the party. Hence, the BJP invariably fares much better in general elections (where Modi’s leadership is at stake) than in state elections where local BJP lightweights have little popular backing.
The most extreme demonstration of this was in the last two Delhi elections. In general elections in both 2014 and 2019, the BJP swept all seven of Delhi’s Lok Sabha seats, suggesting total dominance. Yet in the state elections just a few months later, the BJP won just 3 of the state’s 70 seats in 2015 and 8 of 70 seats in 2020. In Delhi, the BJP raised the communal temperature higher than in any other state election, accusing Muslim agitators at Shaheen Bagh of being anti-national traitors. The ploy failed miserably. Without Modi, the party is not very popular.
Because of this, the vote share of the BJP is likely to be well below its 2019 Lok Sabha level, leaving it far behind the Trinamool Congress. If Owaisi goes it alone, he will split the Muslim vote seriously. But if he can be drawn into a formal or informal agreement with the Left Front-Congress in some seats and with the TMC in others — a duality of which he alone is capable — the prospects for the BJP will slump terribly.
In Tamil Nadu, ten years of AIADMK rule — mostly without Jayalalithaa — have created enough anti-incumbent sentiment to ensure a thrashing for BJP’s local partner. In last year’s general election, the coalition led by DMK swept 38 of the 39 seats, and the Congress won in Puducherry. Given that the BJP fares worse in state elections, it faces a thorough drubbing in 2021.
What about Assam? After decades of Congress rule, the BJP-led NDA came to power in 2016 winning 86 of the 126 seats. In the 2019 general election, the NDA won 9 seats to the Congress’s 3, but its vote share was only marginally higher at 36.05% against 35.4%. The AGP, ally of the BJP, won another 8.2% of the vote, giving the NDA a clear lead. The Muslim AIUDF won 7.8%. If the Congress and AIUDF can come to an informal alliance — which is far from guaranteed — they could have a chance. BJP is a clear favourite there. But if it cannot win save in Assam, 2021 will be a year for it to forget.