PM Modi's party seeks to increase political influence in Indian state elections

Prime Minister Narendra Modi remains the face of the BJP's election campaign in Tamil Nadu and West Bengal. PHOTO: AFP

NEW DELHI - Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's party is gearing up for a tough political battle as campaigning gets under way in the southern state of Tamil Nadu and the eastern state of West Bengal.

Election dates are yet to be announced but parties are already rolling out campaigns.

There is heightened interest in what happens in these two states as they are among the last few left for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to conquer. The party, with its brand of nationalistic and religious politics, has successfully spread its sphere of influence beyond the central belt on the back of the popularity of Mr Modi.

The Prime Minister, whose popularity has endured through the coronavirus pandemic and slowing economic growth, remains the face of the BJP's election campaign in both states, said BJP leaders.

In West Bengal, the BJP is seen to have a shot at power, and in Tamil Nadu, it is looking to increase its share of the vote from the 3.7 per cent it got there in the 2019 national elections. The two states are dissimilar in most ways but have local parties that exert strong cultural and linguistic influence.

"These (states) are virtually the last frontiers (for the BJP). Tamil Nadu, Kerala, West Bengal and to some extent Andhra Pradesh are the only major states where the BJP is a minor player," noted Chennai-based political analyst Sumanth Raman.

In Tamil Nadu, the BJP has been seeking to lose its image as a north Indian, upper caste-dominated party. It selected Dr L. Murugan, from the marginalised Dalit caste, as its state president, last year.

It is seeking to fight the election in an alliance with the ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, seen to be struggling since its charismatic leader, Ms J. Jayalalithaa, died in 2016.

The main opposition is the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, led by Mr M. K. Stalin, son of the late leader M. Karunanidhi, and widely believed to have the upper hand in these elections.

The BJP had been banking on an alliance with wildly popular movie star Rajinikanth. But the actor, whose numerous fan clubs had geared up for a political battle, withdrew due to ill health.

Said Ms Vanathi Srinivasan, national president of the Women's Wing of the BJP: "Our visibility is going up. This time we are going to enter the assembly. Our aim is double digits." The party now holds no seats in the state legislature.

But a drawback for the party, Mr Raman said, was a hostile media in Tamil Nadu. "They (BJP) will increase their vote share. They may even double it but beyond that it's difficult," he said.

The BJP powered to landslide wins in the 2014 and 2019 national elections. But its record in state elections has not been as stellar.

It was part of the winning alliance in Bihar in November. And the BJP is now focusing all its energy on neighbouring West Bengal.

It is pitted against the Trinamool Congress, led by West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Bannerjee, which won 211 seats, while the BJP won three, in the 2016 polls.

BJP activists participate in a rally to protest against Trinamool Congress and its policies on Jan 4, 2021. PHOTO: AFP

"The BJP's founder was a Bengali - Syama Prasad Mukherjee... So BJP should have been here much earlier," said Mr Shishir Bajoria, a member of the party's West Bengal state election management committee. "It definitely will be a tough fight but we are very confident of reaching our target."

A survey by ABP News and C Voter two weeks ago found that Ms Bannerjee would return to power, winning 154-162 seats against the BJP's 98-106 in the 294-member West Bengal assembly.

The BJP campaign has focused on politically targeting Ms Bannerjee while highlighting Mr Modi's developmental agenda along with an economic roadmap for the state, said Mr Bajoria. The party has also inducted many leaders who have defected from the Trinamool.

A key drawback is the absence of a state-level leader.

Said Professor Maidul Islam, a political scientist at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences in Kolkata, West Bengal's capital: "The major question (in West Bengal) is - if not Mamata, then who? That was the bigger question in 2019 (general election) - if not Modi, then who?"

Dr Sandeep Shastri, vice-chancellor of Jagran Lakecity University, noted: "It would be interesting to see if the BJP can push it to the extent that it can dethrone the Trinamool. It can destabilise the Trinamool, there is no doubt. But destabilising to dethroning is a long journey."

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