Post the “grand alliance” between traditional rivals Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party—both of whom represent powerful caste and community blocs—the Bharatiya Janata Party has reasons to be worried about its prospects in the 80-seat Uttar Pradesh in the Lok Sabha elections. Unless deeply entrenched caste groups are enthused enough to rise above identity politics, BJP cannot be sure of repeating its 71-seat performance—73 with its ally Apna Dal—in the 2014 elections in this state. Because of this, the 88 seats on offer in the East (minus Bihar) and Northeast become important for the party, because it is from this region that the BJP can hope to offset some of its losses in UP. This region was more or less immune to BJP’s charm in 2014. Of the 25 seats in the Northeast, BJP had won only 8 in 2014. In Bengal it had won two of the 42 seats and in Odisha, it had emerged victorious in only one of the state’s 21 seats. Thus, a total of 11 seats. After 2014, the BJP on its own and with its allies has come to rule most of the Northeast. In fact, one of the major successes of BJP has been the relative “mainstreaming” of the Northeast in the national consciousness. After all, when did an election in Tripura or Assam create the kind of ripples that they did when the BJP swept to power in these states? Some of BJP’s most prominent and promising young leaders belong to the Northeast—Sarbananda Sonowal, Himanta Biswa Sarma, Kiren Rijiju and Biplab Kumar Deb, to name a few. Of these, Sarma, though he belonged to the Congress until about five years ago, is among the brightest stars of the BJP. Amit Shah has set for the BJP a target of 21 seats to win out of the region’s 25, and Sarma, who is a grassroots leader from Assam, is leading a convincing electoral charge in the whole of Northeast. There is no denying that it is because of these sons of the soil that the BJP can hope to win a clutch of seats from the Northeast. And it is precisely because of the lack of such leaders that the BJP is failing miserably in Bengal. And this in spite of the groundswell of support it has been witnessing in the state, which has helped it to emerge as the main Opposition party there.
Mamata Banerjee is a major mass leader, apart from being a canny politician, who ruthlessly wields the levers of power. She has a stranglehold on her state, particularly over the rural areas and among the economically deprived in the urban areas. There is no single BJP leader with a mass base who can be the face of the party’s campaign against her. Most of Bengal’s BJP leaders are part-time politicians, with many allegedly even hand-in-glove with Mamata Banerjee’s party. So it is no surprise that the BJP leadership in Delhi is starting to depend on leaders imported from the Trinamool Congress to put up a semblance of a fight against Banerjee. Mukul Roy, the man on whom the BJP is pinning its hopes to win a handful of seats, is an organisation man, a backroom player. Even though a large number of TMC MPs and MLAs are loyal to him, the political situation in Bengal is so volatile that it will not be easy for them to migrate to the BJP, as their desertion exposes them to the wrath of the state administration. It is not that Mamata Banerjee’s own leaders are happy with her. There is major disgruntlement in the TMC against her leadership, her politics of appeasement and particularly her projection of her nephew over senior leaders. But the BJP is not being able to capitalise on that. There is speculation that BJP’s talk with some of TMC’s senior leaders is stuck because it is refusing to pick one of them as the chief ministerial face, and is instead looking for someone from the saffron ranks, the way it got Biplab Deb in Tripura. But such a search will prove to be futile. Moreover, now that Mamata Banerjee has got Prime Ministerial ambitions, she will go all out to win the state’s 42 seats, and thus become the regional satrap with the highest number of seats in the post electoral stakes. So the BJP has to be more ideologically flexible if it hopes to attract certain important TMC leaders to its fold. As else, with its rag-tag band of current leaders, it will be lucky to retain even the two seats that it got in 2014. The BJP needs to gets its act together in Bengal, and fast.
As for Odisha, it has to be seen whether Prime Minister Modi’s personal push galvanises the voters there to opt for the BJP, and from his repeated visits there it is obvious that this is what the party is aiming for. However, even though the state’s ruling Biju Janata Dal is a one-man party, and Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik is in frail health, his emotional connect with his voters is intact. So it may not be that easy for the BJP to score a reasonable number of seats from here.
The BJP has its task cut out in the East and Northeast. It must win a substantial number of seats from there if it has to return to power comfortably in 2019. How it goes about this task, remains to be seen.