May Assembly Elections Results
The regional parties won big, the Congress didn't, and mixed results for the BJP
What the hell just happened?
Several weeks and too many phases later, the Indian legislative elections are finally wrapped up for the time being. We’ll get into the details below but for those of you who just want a quick recap, regional parties won big, the Congress’ ditch just got 6 feet deeper, and the BJP saw their dreams of a pan India party (temporarily) dashed.
The biggest winners of the night were some of India’s regional parties - the TMC, DMK, and AINRC were all members of winning coalitions. In West Bengal, the TMC beat back a challenge from the BJP, the DMK bested the AIADMK in Tamil Nadu, and in Puducherry, the All India N.R. Congress won 5x the seats they did the last time and will be forming the government.
The Congress’ problems
The Congress had a pretty rough night - they lost in Kerala to the communists despite energetic campaigning by former president Rahul Gandhi. Gandhi also represents Kerala in the Lok Sabha which makes this loss more painful. In West Bengal, the party remained a nonfactor and in Tamil Nadu, it won because of the DMK’s success. Puducherry is indicative of the problems of the party. It was the last government in South India that the Congress was in charge of (not merely a partner) and five years after being given the top spot, they collapsed - going from winning 15 seats to winning 2.
The BJP’s dreams
The BJP’s campaign yielded mixed results. They continued to gain in southern India but a lot of attention was on the east and their dream of winning West Bengal. Though there were some bright spots such as TMC Supremo Mamata Banerjee losing her constituency of Nandigram to defecting TMC lieutenant Suvendu Adhikari, the TMC still won the state in a massive upset, and squashed the BJP’s amibitions...for now. The BJP’s hopes of banking on Hindu nationalist themes to overcome local divides did not pay off, and it’s obvious that a better strategem that plays locally as well as nationwide is needed. Although the BJP has its own share of political inertia, it’s quite capable of self correcting in time for the 2024 General Elections. The BJP would be smart to not ignore any anti-incumbency sentiments as it enters its 7th year in power on the national level.
Now for a look at the electoral results themselves:
The TMC will form the next government here and Mamata Banerjee will be sworn in as CM again. While most handicappers predicted a tight finish, the TMC ended up winning big all over West Bengal and the BJP was blown out in some of the places it was supposed to win.
The key to the TMC's success in West Bengal was in the failure of non BJP parties to mount a significant offensive amidst shifting voter bases. For example: Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury, of the Indian National Congress, represents Berhampore in the Lok Sabha. Berhampore has 7 legislative districts which went to the polls and not a single one of them was won by the INC. 6 of them were won by the TMC (Burwan, Kandi, Bharatpur, Rejinagar, Beldanga, and Nowda) and 1 of them was won by the BJP (Baharampur). The region is heavily populated by Muslims who would traditionally break for the Congress - this vote was important to Chowdhury getting reelected in 2019. This time however, they didn’t go for the Congress but they didn’t go for the BJP either - they broke heavily in support of the TMC.
In the former strongholds of the INC and the Communists, this exact scenario played out again and again - voters who would traditionally have gone for either of those parties decided to instead vote for the TMC because they represented the best chance of stopping the BJP.
Assam (click here for updated election results)
BJP and it’s partners the AGP and UPPL have won 75 out of 126 seats in Assam. Congress’s 10-party alliance, and a third front Assamese nationalist coalition could not take on the BJP. BJP dominated in Upper Assam while Congress and AIUDF succeeded but not by much in taking Lower Assam.
The Congress tried to stir up anti-CAA sentiment among Assam’s 35% Muslim voters but it did not deliver any big wins. Though all of BJP’s Muslim candidates lost in Assam, it’s an inconvenient truth that many anti-CAA protesters in Assam are natives opposed to illegal migrants from Bangladesh. The BJP would like to legitimize Hindu migrants from Bangladesh but native Assamese are opposed to permanent status for people they view as outsiders, be they Hindu or Muslim. The Muslim natives of Assam do not view an influx of Bengali speaking muslims positively, and there is an ongoing divide between the two communities. Cozying up to the AIUDF, a party whose base in Lower Assam is made up of Bengali-Muslims and is viewed as sympathetic to illegal migrants only hurt the Congress. AIUDF chief Badruddin Ajmal’s elevated profile also hurt, given his history of controversial statements during election season and likely pushed off traditional Congress voting Hindus into the arms of the BJP.
Assam is the one state where the BJP’s strategy of winning by consolidating Hindu votes and chipping away at regional parties actually succeeded. The BJP deftly evaded larger CAA-related issues that hurt it’s image in 2019 and unified Hindu and Assamese nationalists by assuring further progress on the CAA and NRC. Himanta Biswa Sarma is likely to be the next Chief Minister of Assam, a deserved position for a man who has become indispensable to the BJP. Sarma’s elevation to a post he had ambitiously pursued for years as a Congress party member will add insult to injury for Rahul Gandhi, who was reportedly responsible for keeping Sarma away from the CM seat many years ago leading to his resignation from the Congress.
Puducherry (Click here for updated election results):
This was the last Congress government in South India. Even after Indira Gandhi’s emergency in the 1970s, the INC cleaned up in the South but today, they’re a non factor. The election was a battle of current and former Congress party members. The winning party, the AINRC, is headed by a former INC Chief Minister who left the grand old party. Worse, the partner in the Congress led coalition in Puducherry with the most seats wasn’t even the Congress - it was the DMK.
When the story of the fall of the Indian National Congress in South India is written the 2021 Puducherry election will have special relevance as it indicates just how complete that collapse is - they won it in 2016, defections felled the government in February, and they were unable to come back to power.
It also shows the BJP’s strength - they are slowly but surely becoming a party that stretches that beyond the traditional Hindi heartland and this victory is a feather in the cap for those who want to see a BJP dominated India from north to south.
Tamil Nadu (Click here for updated election results):
Results point to a victory by the DMK, and it’s no surprise that MK Stalin will form the next government in Tamil Nadu. The AIADMK has lost 55 seats in an anti-incumbency wave, although nowhere close to the blowout that was predicted by some.
As we noted in our primer on Tamil Nadu, Chief Minister Palaniswami received high-marks for his handling of COVID-19 and general governance issues. While those factors were not enough to defeat the anti-incumbency sentiment, they were enough to prevent a rout for AIADMK.
As for minor parties, both the AMMK and MNM were hoping to bank on anti-incumbency sentiments to become players in Tamil Nadu, but that sentiment mostly went in the favor of the DMK. The AMMK which was floated by former AIADMK member Dhinakaran has lost every seat, with Dhinakaran losing his own constituency of Kovilpatti to an AIADMK candidate. Keeping the party together in the wake of heavy defeat will prove harder for Dhinakaran, and most likely AMMK’s cadre will return to AIADMK in search of better pastures.
MNM leader Kamal Haasan lost the first election he contested to the BJP candidate Vanathi Srinivasan. While his hopes of electoral success may have been dashed, it’s an open question whether the former actor will give up his ambitions of creating a new pan-south indian identity.
The fact that no viable alternative to the AIADMK emerged will most likely mean the dance between DMK and AIADMK will continue, with each side vying for power in successive elections.
Kerala (Click here to see updated results)
The defeat in Kerala has to be the biggest embarrassment for the Congress party. Congress president Rahul Gandhi’s constituency Wayanad is in Kerala, and it was supposed to be a natural constituency for the Congress party. Instead, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) or CPIM led LDF swept the assembly elections, with CPIM winning 99 out of 140 seats.
This is why following Indian elections is always such a roller-coaster ride: The political sands shift quickly, and often. Voters who deliver a majority for Congress during national elections will happily change their stance just a few years later. The LDF’s victory in Kerala is less about it’s policies or platforms; rather it is the personal brand of Pinarayi Vijayan who unleashed the state treasury, and PR machine during COVID-19 to win the affection of Keralites. In 2020 while other states were being battered by COVID, Pinarayi won high praise for his handling of the epidemic and providing economic relief. Though cases rose in Kerala in late 2020, Pinarayi’s reputation remained intact. Like Stalin in neighboring Tamil Nadu or Mamata Banerjee in West Bengal, Pinarayi’s star has remained bright through crisis after crisis.
We pointed out previously that the Congress of Kerala was mired in infighting and unable to select a single leader to project their image or platform. The lack of a popular local leader in contrast to Pinarayi’s mass appeal contributed to the Congress’s loss. Despite heavy investment in campaign resources, and viral media coverage Kerala was another failed test for Rahul Gandhi who did not connect with the voters. The working committee of the party is set to meet on May 9 for yet another post-defeat soul searching session. It remains to be seen whether the G-23 committee’s calls for a serious restructuring of the party will actually be implemented. The most likely result is the Gandhi family will remain in charge of the party as it has year after year of defeats.
The Sabrimala issue which became a rallying cry for the BJP in a bid to energize the Hindu voters of Kerala didn’t work out in 2021 as the issue languished in the courts. The BJP also tried to appeal to the Christian voters of Kerala, 10% of whom had voted for the BJP in 2016. Modi himself made a ploy for Christian votes by trying to mediate between the feuding Orthodox and Jacobite sects of Kerala. However most Christians in Kerala tend to be Catholics, and were likely indifferent to the feuds of a different sect.
Kerala’s minority communities preferred to vote for the LDF over smaller identitarian parties or the BJP. While the UDF didn’t lose significant support amongst its Christian and Muslim base it definitely did not have the advantage like 2019’s Parliamentary elections when 2/3rds of Christians and Muslims went for the Congress-led alliance.
What we’re Reading/Watching
Analyzing the results of the 2021 Assembly Elections with Jai Mrug and Aadit Kapadia
Factors that led to LDF’s historic victory in Kerala
Himanta Biswa Sarma: From a disgruntled Congressman to Assam's next chief minister