Assembly Elections: A Wake-Up Call!

The electoral verdict in five states’ assembly polls may be regarded as an extremely important wake-up call for Indian politics. The results reaffirm the importance held by regional parties, Muslim voters and the marginalization of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in these states: West Bengal, Assam, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Puducherry. In West Bengal, success of Trinamool Congress and defeat of the Left bloc cannot be delinked from the regional identity of Mamata Bannerjee as a Bengali leader for her supporters. The same may be said of the return of Jayalalitha as chief minister in Tamil Nadu. The Congress can be credited for success only in Assam. However, in Assam too, greater credit must be accorded to Tarun Gogoi for ensuring a strong campaign and asserting his regional affiliation with the voters. Undeniably, the BJP was devoid of any important regional leader in all the five states. With respect to Left bloc’s dismal performance in West Bengal, their failure to give adequate importance to reaching out to Bengali voters cannot be ignored. Besides, the regional identity of CPI-M chief Prakash Karat, who hails from Kerala, holds little importance for Bengali voters.

Undeniably, Bannerjee’s success cannot be de-linked from her party and its key ally, the Congress, having shrewdly played their political cards. Had Congress committed the mistake it did earlier in Bihar assembly polls, by being overconfident of winning the seats on its own strength, it may not have fared as well as it has in West Bengal. The clear-cut message is that in states where regional parties have assumed substantial importance, national parties including the Congress, carry little appeal for the voters unless they choose to align with a strong regional party. A similar strategy was exercised by the Congress in Kerala, where it has emerged as the winner, primarily because of its alliance with the state’s Muslim League party. The Congress may have remained in the opposition had it not fought the Kerala elections as a coalition, the United Democratic Front.

The recent assembly elections also highlight the increase in importance of Muslim votes in states where their population is more than 20 percent. They constitute 31 percent of the state’s population in Assam. The recent elections have witnessed the emergence of Asom United Democratic Front (AUDF) – led by Maulana Badruddin Ajmal Qasmi – as a leading opposition party. There are 28 Muslims in the new Assam assembly, 18 from AUDF alone as against 10 in the previous assembly. There were 25 Muslim members in the earlier Assam assembly. Nominally, even though the AUDF does not identify itself as a Muslim party and has not included any religious term in the party’s name, it is known as a Muslim party. Regional as well as religious factors may be held as responsible for AUDF’s success in Assam assembly elections. Of course, neither would have played any role if the Assamese voters did not trust the AUDF leaders substantially enough to display their support for them. This point is further proved by the dismal performance of Congress and its ally-DMK in Tamil Nadu. Losing their trust in them, the Tamil voters chose to support AIADMK.

The new West Bengal assembly has 59 Muslim members, 13 more than the last one. Muslims constitute 28 percent of the state’s population. The Muslim vote has carried substantial importance in Kerala, with 36 members in the new assembly, 11 more than the previous one. Muslims constitute 25 percent of the population in Kerala. Here, the Congress-led UDF has won 72 seats against the 68 secured by the Left Democratic Front (LDF). Without doubt, the 20 seats won by the Muslim League have played a major part in helping the UDF head the new Kerala government.

Electoral successes of Muslims in West Bengal, Assam and Kerala clearly indicate that their political importance can no longer be sidelined, particularly where their population is over 20 percent. This is further proved by Muslims securing only six seats in Tamil Nadu and one in Puducherry. The population of Muslims is less than 13 percent in both these states. Besides, the religious card carried lesser appeal this time, as in the earlier assemblies, Tamil Nadu had seven Muslim members while Puducherry had only two.

Had the Congress not counted on regional factors, it may have been denied of what it has gained in West Bengal, Assam and Kerala. The Congress has won only 170 of the 359 seats it fought for. The failure of the BJP to win more than six seats out of around 800 it contested in five states adds credence to importance of the regional factor and voters’ crucial decision of no longer trusting the BJP. This indeed is a major wake-up call for both Congress and BJP. They can no longer ignore the Muslim vote. Also, despite the two parties being recognized as national parties, where regional politics is concerned, the voters give priority to ones with whom they can identify with and place their trust in.

This article appeared in The Milli Gazette print issue of 1-15 June 2011 on page no. 14

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