TOPIC – The local test

“Results in Assam, Tamil Nadu and Kerala polls could recast relationship between national and regional.”

The outcome of the just-concluded Assembly elections in Assam, Tamil Nadu and Kerala will do much to reveal the power as well as the limits of national narratives in regional politics. The primacy of the “national” derives from the BJP’s 24×7 electioneering apparatus for which no contest is too small, and which wields PM Narendra Modi’s popularity, the ideological charge of nationalism and a religion-based appeal to dissolve local concerns and issues. Yet, it is also true that the BJP’s vote share in assembly elections tends to be lower than its Lok Sabha peaks, indicating that the electorate may be using a different metric to judge parties in state polls. In Kerala and Tamil Nadu, the electoral battle is determined by the unique texture of the states’ culture and politics which continue to resist the ideological appeal of Hindutva. Indeed, for Tamil Nadu, in the absence of giants like J Jayalalithaa and M Karunanidhi, this is a new kind of election, with hyper-charisma making space for a wider cast of political actors. The DMK might not only benefit from anti-incumbency, but its appeal to a distinctive Tamil identity may have more resonance in times of a powerful central government helmed by a party identified with an aggressive Hindi nationalism. Assam represents the BJP’s remarkable success in expanding its footprint in the east — which it hopes to replicate in Bengal. Last year, it appeared that the CAA gamble had backfired in Assam. In conjunction with the NRC, it had prised open fault lines of identity and language. But the history of anti-outsider sentiment and linguistic subnationalism in the state meant this flux was not playing to the BJP’s advantage. The Congress-AIUDF hope to step into this gap, to harvest the discontents. If the BJP claws back, it will be on the dint of its performance in handling the COVID-19 crisis, a basket of welfare schemes and a communally charged campaign that has cast AIUDF chief Badruddin Ajmal — and by extension the “Miya Muslim” — as the other. Kerala is the last bastion standing for the Left. The state’s record of switching its mandate is in the way of the LDF government returning to power. The mobilisation against entry of women in Sabarimala opens the door for a coalescing of “Hindu” issues that works to the BJP’s advantage in the long term. For now, however, specificities of ground issues and candidate selection make this an unabashedly local contest — with one strong parallel with national politics. With the LDF campaign centred around Pinarayi Vijayan — and not the party — Kerala, too, appears to be toying with the narrative of a “strong leader”.