The balance of Power
PR Ramesh and Siddharth Singh | 07 May, 2021
IN THE WEEKS leading up to the finale of the Assembly election in West Bengal, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) campaign touched a fever pitch and the party was expected to storm into power in the state. The result was anti-climactic: the party lost and the incumbent Trinamool Congress (TMC) posted an impressive win, its third back-to-back victory there. The narrative in the days after the results were declared was along the lines that BJP had ‘lost’ West Bengal, never mind the fact that the party increased its tally from a measly three in the last Assembly to 77 this time. The fact that the Left and Congress were wiped out from their erstwhile bastion was, well, just ignored. BJP is now, effectively, the only opposition party there and is sufficiently empowered to play a constructive role.
It is a different matter that overall, the ledger is in favour of BJP. In Assam, the party won even after Congress allied with the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) in an alliance calculated to make the most of demographic trends that went against BJP. Yet, the party managed its second successive victory in the state. In Puducherry—the Union territory in a region where BJP has no purchase, ideologically or politically—the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) is in power. In Tamil Nadu, BJP managed to win four seats. The state, known for reducing the outgoing party/coalition to nothingness, saw the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), the senior coalition partner of BJP, perform commendably. The only state where BJP’s performance can truly be called poor is Kerala, a state that experienced very different political dynamics in the current elections.
BJP’s campaign in West Bengal was a bold, in-your-face, audacious political attempt to gain power. A party that won only three Assembly seats and less than 10 per cent of the votes in 2016 had announced a plan to go for the jugular and hit the 200-seat mark in 2021, an ambitious goal by any stretch. This ‘failure’ must be understood in the context of such attempts rarely succeeding at one go. India’s political history since 1947 shows the electorate in states, where challenger parties have to start from scratch, take their time to come around. There are plenty of examples to illustrate that.
One example is that of the Communist Party of India which was established in Kerala in 1937 but managed to get to the levers of power only in 1957. It was only through steady consolidation of support on the ground, among the marginalised and underprivileged strata of society, that it finally came to power. The Left’s growth in Kerala was organic, with political struggles on the ground among landless peasants, coir factory workers and others. The leadership, however, came from the upper strata of society and the educated to which EMS Namboodiripad—the leader of the first elected communist government in the state over six decades ago—belonged, as did other stalwarts such as MN Govindan Nair, KPR Gopalan and TV Thomas, among others.
The second, much more famous, attempt that failed miserably was that of a large grouping of political parties that acted in concert against Indira Gandhi in 1971. Leaders from the entire opposition space—Congress (O), Jana Sangh, Lok Dal and the communists—all got together to challenge Indira Gandhi on the questionable assumption that 60 per cent of India was against her since she had the backing of only 40 per cent of the electorate. But she managed to turn the tide against them and stole the march with just one slogan: “I talk of eradicating poverty, they talk of uprooting Indira (Mein kehti hoon Garibi Hatao; woh kehte hain Indira hatao).”
At the regional level, there is only one recent instance of success in such a no-holds-barred electoral challenge by a fledgling but ambitious party against an entrenched political outfit. This was in 2018 when the long-ruling Left Front in Tripura unravelled in the face of BJP’s well-knit campaign. The saffron party’s phenomenal victory in the state in 2018, taking the battle into the Marxist bastion and uprooting the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPM) that had been in power in Agartala for nearly a quarter century, earned it 35 seats in the state Assembly and 42 per cent of the vote. BJP rose from a position of no presence in the state until then: it had a mere 1.8 per cent vote share in the previous state elections in 2013 when its candidates lost their deposits in 49 of the 50 seats they contested. To achieve this, the party adopted both the organic and inorganic routes to growth, expansion and electoral dominance. It focused for months on the Nath and Debnath OBC communities and Tribal votes that were once dominated by Congress to take the electoral battering ram to Manik Sarkar’s government. It embraced defectors from TMC. With that win, the party expanded its footprint to four of the seven states in the Northeast, including Assam, Arunachal Pradesh and Manipur.
THE 2018 VICTORY in Tripura was proof that BJP could take on, and triumph over, the powerful organisational network of firmly entrenched ruling parties that had been built over decades. More importantly, BJP supplanted Congress as the main national party in the Northeast, a task that it achieved in merely four years. Since then, it has hoped to replicate the Tripura win in West Bengal.
Tripura, however, was a small state with none of the complexities of West Bengal, including the demographic feature of a 27 per cent Muslim electorate. BJP in West Bengal did not have the wherewithal to engage in a power project similar to what the communists achieved in Kerala in 1957. The party meandered on the margins for decades, although the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) was working on the ground for long, with first Congress and then the Left Front dominating state politics for decades. When the latter finally caved in, after 34 years of what seemed like unassailable power in Kolkata, TMC managed to position itself as a welfarist party with a ‘more Left than Left’ image. The developments in Nandigram in 2007, where opposition built up to the Left government’s proposal for a Special Economic Zone and police shot dead landless Muslim labourers, were the platform used by TMC to catapult itself into a dominant political force.
The ledger is in BJP’s favour. In Bengal, it is now the only opposition and capable of playing a constructive role. In Assam, it has won a second successive term. NDA is in power in Puducherry and BJP has won four seats in Tamil Nadu
A good part of Mamata Banerjee’s sway on the direction of the election in West Bengal since then has been predicated on the substantial Muslim vote bank and the alleged persecution of the Bengali Hindu. Bengal’s history and recent past, for decades now, have been marked by this feature. There is oral, anecdotal and documented evidence for this from the time the state was partitioned and even before. Over the last few decades, the steady influx of migrants from Bangladesh was acknowledged by key political actors in the region. However, political compulsions ensured that this fact was never specifically addressed or even acted upon by successive governments.
With the Citizenship (Amendment) Act of 2019 (CAA), Narendra Modi and BJP frontally challenged and finally corrected a narrative that had been loaded against Bengali Hindus and the overarching story favouring minority appeasement. In tackling the issue of Bengali Hindus, especially those migrating from Bangladesh due to persistent persecution and deprivation of social identity, the CAA ensured a rightful place for these communities, orphaned and neglected by history. The CAA was itself crafted against the backdrop of successive ruling regimes of West Bengal wantonly turning a blind eye to the rapid militarisation of radical Islamists across the border, the increasingly normalised attacks on Hindu festival processions, including those involving Saraswati Puja, Durga Puja and so on, besides the abduction and rape of Namasudra women in Khulna and the deliberate neglect of cyclone relief in Hindu areas.
It is in this context that Modi and BJP made efforts to woo the Namasudra community, numerically the largest among the Dalits and spread on both sides of the border. Compared to other Dalit groups, this community is least dependent on agriculture and is highly educated. Directly proportional to that is its acute sense of disillusionment at being disenfranchised socio-culturally and politically. The founder of the Matua Mahasangha, Harichand Thakur, from Orakandi in Gopalganj, Bangladesh, founded the platform to counter the marginalisation of lower castes in Bengal’s social landscape, something that persists to this day. The importance as a vote bank that the Matuas claim, or the rise of subaltern icons in public memory, is a strong indicator of the paradigm shift transforming the cultural milieu of Bengal. Neither can any Bhadralok in power afford to impose his worldview on these increasingly vocal sections. The drastic erosion of their position as the prime influencers has hit the Bhadralok leadership very hard.
BJP’s strategies against TMC, however, did not prove sufficiently effective. A big boost to TMC came from the ruling party’s welfare schemes, including the Swastha Sathi health insurance scheme and fair price pharmacies for medicines statewide. Specifically, Banerjee’s measures for the two ‘M’s, Muslim and mahila, propelled a consolidation of both sections behind her. Besides distributing bicycles to girl students from underprivileged homes, TMC, which ‘course corrected’ a year-and-a-half prior to the Assembly election, also designed policies oriented towards women and young girls. The Kanyashree is a case in point and has, for years, ensured aid to girls in the 13-18 age group who remain unmarried and in school. The Rupashree scheme gave a grant of Rs 25,000 to low-income sections to ensure that no early marriages were preferred. Election Commission (EC) figures say that a big 3.59 crore chunk of the 7.32 crore electorate in the state is made up of women.
Banerjee also pit the state’s Krishak Bandhu scheme against the Modi government’s PM Kisan scheme, insisting that the state be made an intermediary for the latter to be implemented. The pull of other schemes for food security, such as the Jai Johar scheme for Adivasis, which gives Rs 1,000 per month to beneficiaries, and the Bandhu Prakalpa for Dalits also helped TMC shore up its popularity. That was particularly visible in Dalit and Adivasi-dominated areas where BJP had worked assiduously to notch up wins in the 2019 General Election. The dramatic collapse of the Left and the meltdown of Congress facilitated Banerjee’s task further, with the entire anti-BJP vote bank consolidating behind TMC.
IF THE RESULTS from West Bengal show that BJP has some distance to travel in the state, what about the other side of the coin, the political equation as it stands at the national level, between Narendra Modi and the putative claimant for power in Delhi, Congress?
As things stand, Congress and its leader Rahul Gandhi are yet to get their act together to mount even a half-decent challenge to BJP. Overestimation of the party’s strength, its inability to realise the scale of the challenge at hand and, in general, a misplaced self-confidence that is at odds with reality are now all too apparent in the case of Congress.
Rahul Gandhi’s emphasis on stale issues that he has been talking of for years in his addresses has only served to highlight that the Member of Parliament from Wayanad has to face the bitter truth that his cheese-hole, here now, gone tomorrow, political career will yield virtually nil results at the national level. Many of his statements, while attracting notice, have been politically at odds with the goals of his party. At a meeting in Thiruvananthapuram in Kerala in mid-February, he said, “For the first 15 years, I was an MP in the north. I had got used to a different type of politics. For me, coming to Kerala was very refreshing as suddenly I found that people are interested in issues and not just superficially but going into detail in issues.” This was a comment that even his party members disagreed with.
Then, in early April, in a conversation with former US diplomat Nicholas Burns, Gandhi said, “I don’t hear anything from the US establishment about what’s happening in India. If you are saying partnership of democracies, I mean what is your view on what is going on here.” He further added, “I fundamentally believe that America is a profound idea. The idea of freedom the way it is encapsulated in your constitution is a very powerful idea but you have got to defend that idea. That is the real question.”
Such statements, while having the power to attract media-attention and political uproar, have virtually no effect on electoral politics or even the longer-term prospects of Congress. In Kerala, where Gandhi spent considerable time and energy in his party’s campaign, Congress lost in a state where it is unusual for a party to win a second consecutive term. The party’s decimation in West Bengal in any case is not a matter of surprise.
The results of the recent clutch of state elections have driven home the point that Congress—which fancied itself as the strongest challenger to Modi at the national level—has been debilitated and reduced greatly in the recent past. In both Kerala and Assam, where it had much more than just a fighting chance, Congress faced a drubbing despite Rahul Gandhi investing an immense amount of time and energy in the former. In Puducherry, it lost a bird in hand without even putting up a semblance of a fight. In the politically crucial state of Uttar Pradesh, where elections are due next year, and in next door Uttarakhand, these developments are likely to have a telling effect on the morale of the average party worker.
BJP’s campaign in Bengal was a bold, in-your-face political attempt to gain power. The party’s ‘failure’ must be understood in the context of such attempts rarely succeeding at one go. Its tally went up from three seats in 2016 to 77
To the clear advantage of the Modi establishment, however, Congress, for the present, continues to remain the only party with a national presence even if only with a drastically lowered brand recall value in the political space. Mamata Banerjee may have emerged as the tallest leader of the anti-Modi opposition after these elections but, as history has demonstrated in opposition victories over BJP in Karnataka and Maharashtra, merely gathering myriad opposition leaders pulling in different directions on a single physical platform for swearing-in ceremonies is unlikely to pay political dividends. A decisive leader with a strong alternative narrative to that of BJP and its tallest leader Modi are essential to take on the latter. Importantly, the opposition needs to unite as one in support of that leader. As of now, both requirements appear remote.
Meanwhile, between now and 2024, as Modi has demonstrated in the case of intense criticism about the post-lockdown migrant exodus, troubled economy and demonetisation, there is every possibility that he will—as the most popular leader at the Centre—be able to control the national narrative decisively.
The Left, although it lost its heft long ago, has remained an important part of the section that attempts to create optics against BJP. With this election, the centre of gravity of the party has shifted from Gole Market in Delhi to Thiruvananthapuram. The spectacular victory scored by the Left Democratic Alliance (LDF) under Pinarayi Vijayan’s baton is certain to lead him to seek more autonomy. The triumph came on the back of social engineering that he unveiled—a move that brought Muslims, the more transactional sections among Christians and the core supporters among OBCs—on one platform. The first to take a tough position against the CAA by passing a resolution against it in the state Assembly, Vijayan ensured that Muslim votes remained firmly with the LDF and that Congress was left with a drastically shrunken social base.
In the days and weeks before the election results were announced, a flurry of tweets, other social media posts and comments on several public platforms by prominent liberals began displaying a marked unease. After the first two phases of elections in West Bengal, a narrative was sought to be created that mass public rallies would lead to a massive jump in the number of Covid-19 cases in the state. These two phases were incidentally the ones in which BJP performed better relative to the later phases. Then, as results neared, it became fashionable to ask why the EC was holding multi-phase elections. No one bothered to understand the administrative and security-related reasons behind this long-settled practice by the EC.
This phased manner of holding elections has worked well in ensuring fair and peaceful elections and has banished memories of ballot boxes being stuffed or looted in the more unruly provinces of India. But in the absence of any worthwhile argument that points to India actually backsliding as a democracy, anything has become fair game for those who think Modi is acting unfairly. Unfortunately this time, it was the EC’s turn. It is another matter that no sooner had the results been declared, everything was forgotten.
THERE IS NOTHING surprising here. Back in 2013, on the eve of Modi’s nationwide campaign, lurid depictions of where India would go politically, or the state to which it would regress, were common. These ranged from democracy being squashed by a strongman to even ‘fascism’ descending on India. Seven years later, none of these doomsday scenarios has come to pass. If anything, BJP has seen a mix of successes and failures in these years. The first shock for the party was in Bihar (2015) where it was trounced by the Janata Dal-United (JD-U)-Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) combine. Over the years, similar defeats have been standard: in late 2018, the party was trounced in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. In 2019, it was defeated in Jharkhand. Then there have been cases like Maharashtra where BJP emerged as the single-largest party but could not form the government. These are not signs of any destructive ‘ism’ befalling India but a standard fare of victories and losses punctuating each other.
BJP’s strategies against TMC did not prove sufficiently effective. A big boost to TMC came from its welfare schemes. Mamata Banerjee’s measures for the two ‘M’s, Muslim and mahila, propelled a consolidation of both behind her
That, however, has not stopped the ‘narrative factory’ of liberals spinning stories at odds with reality. For example, when BJP was defeated in Bihar, it was not uncommon to hear that the state had backed ‘secularism’ and it was the start of BJP’s unravelling. What has changed over the years is the inability of the narrative-setters and analysts to explain the party’s repeated victories at the national level and its ‘refusal’ to die. Now, it is normal for desperation to masquerade as explanation. Even as the second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic has torn through India, foreign commentators and their domestic followers have continued with a barrage of stories about BJP being about to be held ‘accountable’ at last.
What is clear is that India is a robust democracy where people decide whom to back and whom to eject from political office. The real problem for analysts is their inability to understand these rhythms of Indian political opinion. There are good reasons for that. BJP is neither a revolutionary party nor a status-quoist one. It remains viable for what it brings to the table. And that is its unique mix of ideological, welfarist and national security ideas that other parties have not been able to match.
The best example to help understand what is going on is the election result from Assam. Many analysts predicted that Congress had more than a fighting chance in the state. The party’s leadership dispatched Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel to the state for the campaign. In the end, Congress lost the state by a wide margin. The reaction in the national press and among analysts was that ‘identity politics’ had worked for BJP. No one bothered to state that it was Congress that was indulging in its own brand of identity politics when it tied up with Badruddin Ajmal and AIUDF, something that the late Tarun Gogoi, the long-running former chief minister of the state, had studiously avoided formally.
That single political act sealed Congress’ fate. The party managed to score handsomely in Lower Assam where demography favoured it but was routed in Upper Assam. Ultimately, among the determining factors were choices in peripheral areas of Assam, such as the Bodo region. Here, BJP made astute choices. But even otherwise, BJP’s own tally is double that of Congress. But such is the power of narratives in Delhi that what BJP does becomes ‘identity politics’ and what others do is a fight for secularism.
What Congress does not realise and probably BJP does not appreciate at the moment is that, with this campaign, the first shots towards India becoming an ‘ethnic democracy’—a term of abuse for certain intellectuals—have been fired in Assam. The Congress-AIUDF alliance may not persist, for various reasons, but within Assam, the demand for implementing the recommendations of a committee to safeguard the interests of the Assamese people (the so-called Clause 6 Committee, named after a section of the Assam Accord of 1985) is likely to gather pace.
Unless BJP responds, it will have a challenge on its hands in 2026 when the state holds its next Assembly polls. But when the narrative-setting games begin, this reality of Assam—the fear of its people of land passing to outsiders—is likely to be characterised again as ‘identity politics’. It is worth noting that Narendra Modi and BJP have not touched any of the struts that hold democracy in India. Nor are they likely to do that in future. But never mind. Narrative sports continue.