Assembly Elections, April-May 2006:

Issues and Prospects

Assembly elections in states like Assam, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu and Kerala are usully viewed as affairs of the concerned states having little connection with the pulls and counterpulls in national politics. This is primarily because of the traditional weakness of the BJP and the NDA in these states. West Bengal has been the only state with some NDA presence thanks to the Trinamul Congress (TMC), but as revealed in the 2004 Lok Sabha elections the TMC's electoral appeal has anyway been on a rapid downswing. In Tamil Nadu even the Congress remains confined to the margins, in Assam the regional AGP occupies the main opposition space while in West Bengal and Kerala the contention remains primarily an in-house affair of the UPA and its Left allies.

Despite gaining power in Bihar and Karnataka, the BJP's fortunes have not shored at all in national politics. The party remains beset with its internal ideological and organizational crisis and in certain states the biggest challenge now facing the party is to minimize the damage that Uma Bharati is threatening to make. If the party smelled an opportunity in the Varanasi blasts, its fond hopes have so far been belied by the situation on the ground. If anything, the trademark rathyatras undertaken by BJP leaders, especially Advani, have begun to yield diminishing returns and may now well turn counterproductive. Most recently, the BJP's attempt to corner the UPA government on the issue of disqualification of MPs for occupying offices of profit too seems to have backfired with Sonia Gandhi promptly resigning her twin posts and carrying the battle back into the BJP camp. It now remains to be seen if this issue has the potential to snowball into a bigger crisis and cast a shadow on the Assembly polls.

Issues like acute unemployment, agrarian crisis, and industrial closure and sickness remain major popular concerns in all these states. In addition, every state has its share of specific issues that are expected to have some impact on the election campaign, if not also some bearing on the electoral outcome. For example, Assam has witnessed major incidents of massacres of tribal people by state-sponsored militant outfits and also incidents of brutal state repression. Resentment is still running high among tea garden workers. In fact, a similar situation also obtains in Jalpaiguri and Darjeeling , the tea producing districts of neighbouring West Bengal . Political violence is another major question for West Bengal . This is a tool that has long been used by the CPI(M) to protect its rural strongholds and especially to thwart any 'threat' posed by independent class assertion of the rural poor beyond the CPI(M)'s matrix of power. Of late, however, the CPI(M) too is having to pay a price and Maoist squads have killed a number of local CPI(M) leaders in the districts of Bankura and Purulia.

Issues apart, the electoral outcome is also liable to be affected by the changing pattern of political and social realignments. In West Bengal , the TMC had floated the concept of a grand alliance against the Left Front. While this has not formally materialized, chances of some kind of covert seat-sharing or mutual support cannot be ruled out. Interestingly, the TMC has succeeded in roping in a few self-styled or retired leaders of some fringe CPI(ML) groups and some of them may even contest elections as TMC-backed candidates! The biggest social realignment in West Bengal is however happening within the CPI(M). The decisive opinion within the corporate sector and the urban elite and affluent sections is turning increasingly favourable to the CPI(M), for the Left Front government has emerged as the biggest champion of neo-liberal economic policies in West Bengal . At the other end of the social spectrum, the rural poor and other toiling sections feel increasingly disillusioned and excluded and the Congress and the TMC have stepped up efforts to tap this mass resentment.

In Assam , where the Congress is generally facing an angry electorate, the only hope for the party lies in its relations with militant outfits and the split within the AGP. As opposed to a discredited Congress and a divided AGP, a united Left could have emerged as the core of a credible third force. But the CPI showed no interest in this direction and the CPI(M) too has entered primarily into a seat-sharing arrangement with one of the AGP factions while maintaining an auxiliary understanding with the CPI(ML) in a few select seats. The ASDC faction in Assam's Karbi Anglong district, which had earlier reneged on the anti-Congress anti-BJP orientation of the autonomous state movement to enter into an alliance with the BJP, is now beset with internal squabbles and dissensions and the CPI(ML) has won a new credibility and mass support for its consistent pro-people and anti-Congress political role.

Among the southern states, Tamil Nadu has witnessed an interesting crossover in the state's coalition politics with the MDMK, whose leader Vaiko had earlier been booked under POTA by Jayalalitha, ditching the DMK to cross over to the AIADMK fold. The DPI, a political platform for Dalits in Tamil Nadu, has also joined hands with the AIADMK-MDMK alliance, thereby significantly improving Jayalalitha's chances in the coming May 8 elections. In neighbouring Kerala, the CPI(M)-led LDF and Congress-led UDF have become mirror images of each other. While the Congress suffered a major split following Karunakaran's departure, factionalism in the CPI(M) too is threatening to assume near-split proportions. Allegations of corruption against the CPI(M) have increased phenomenally with the UDF government even recommending a CBI inquiry against the CPI(M) state secretary and former LDF minister Pinarayi Vijayan in a major case of corruption. While the CPI(M) dismisses it as a politically motivated move, the fact remains that this is probably the first time the Congress has got such an opportunity to order a probe against a senior CPI(M) leader. In spite of all these problems, if the CPI(M) is still hopeful about forming an LDF government in Kerala , the hope rests on Kerala's record of alternating governments in every election and according to this trend, the Congress should lose in the forthcoming elections!

On the whole, the forthcoming Assembly elections do not promise any major political change in an overall sense. It remains to be seen if revolutionary communists are able to make some headway on the basis of their movement and mobilization at the grassroots.