Updated: May 3, 2021 8:54:43 am
Seldom would one be analysing the outcome of a round of elections while facing deaths and suffering on a scale that victories and defeats make no sense. Of course, the democratic practice of elections needed to go on, but the Election Commission owes us an explanation for the protracted schedule in West Bengal (except that it suited the ruling party at the Centre). Some damage could have been avoided if the elections concluded a fortnight earlier and restrictions were imposed on mass campaigning. So, in the backdrop of what is happening in the country and what the irresponsible campaigning may bring to these states in the near future, the election outcomes need to be seen with absolute sobriety. The outcomes have humbled a mighty party no doubt, but the humiliation that the pandemic will continue to cause is something that the new governments will do well to attend single-mindedly.
Politically, too, only a sober reading can help us make sense of the outcome. Understandably, there will be considerable jubilation in the anti-Modi camp. Given the increasing strength of the BJP, the value of TMC’s victory cannot be overstated. Like the Mahagathbandhan victory in Bihar in 2015, the TMC win now can be a focal point for politics against the BJP. However, this is where both sobriety in reading the outcome and maturity in building on it might be badly needed, but, alas, found wanting.
It must be remembered that while the outcome (particularly in West Bengal) has fallen far short of the BJP’s boast, the party has not done badly either. It has retained Assam, almost managed to breach the cosy bipolarity of Kerala by consistently polling over 10 per cent vote, and, above all, in West Bengal, it is now the only force to take on the TMC in the future.
Yes, it is important that a state party has fought back the full might of the BJP and the central government. But it would be naïve to ignore the expansion of the BJP in West Bengal. The BJP increased its vote share from 10 per cent in 2016 to 40 per cent in 2019 and then, retained almost all of that after two more years. Now, the Trinamool Congress will be ruling West Bengal with a notice served to it. Add to this scepticism about the democratic commitment of the TMC and the outcome begins to look only like a pyrrhic respite from complete takeover by the BJP. It will be an exaggerated expectation that the TMC will change its style of internal functioning or governance. The embers of violence and hatred will dot the political skies of the state, giving little opportunity to any civilised competition. What the West Bengal outcome suggests is a possible shift, where one could see a new non-BJP configuration shaping up.
This possibility is strengthened by the inability of the Congress to begin its comeback. There are many excuses for this, but the unwillingness of Congress to address organisational issues on an urgent basis is the root cause for its inability to bounce back. With its defeat in Kerala and failure to wrest back Assam, the Congress has yet again lost an opportunity to be a node around which non-BJP politics could take shape. In this sense, we are likely to witness a rehash of the 1989 moment when state parties played a pivotal role (though, back then, there still was a larger but loosely structured party called the Janata Dal). As state parties are rushing to congratulate Mamata Banerjee for her feat, the moot question is whether she has the skill to coordinate these disparate non-BJP forces or does she only symbolically represent the spirit of the fight against the BJP.
There are at least two more points of introspection for the opponents of the BJP. One is the BJP’s second consecutive victory in Assam despite the negative atmosphere it had to face on account of the CAA-NRC issue. Overcoming that negativity was not easy, but the BJP managed to retain power. Similarly, despite its expected failure to make many gains in Kerala, the BJP can draw satisfaction from the fact that it has contributed to the rupture in the predictable alternation in that state between LDF and UDF. Of course, this has happened also because of the consistently good record of the LDF government in handling crisis after crisis in the past five years. But let us not forget the defensive stance both the Congress and LDF had to take on the Sabarimala issue and one realises how the BJP’s presence is producing a churn in public discourse in the state.
Looking at Assam, West Bengal and Kerala, an interesting pattern about the BJP’s entry and entrenchment in new states emerges. In 2014, it was mainly a party of west and north (plus central) India. Since then, it has entered a number of new states by finding ways to combine regional identity with Hindutva. This has not meant the dilution of Hindutva but its diversification and hence greater acceptability. Second, in terms of competitive politics, it has first sought to disrupt the rhythm and framework of state-level competition by both bringing in an all-India rhetoric and the image of a supreme leader. Once the rhythm is disrupted, it diminishes the state-level forces either by opposition or by coalition. Only then the ideological intervention begins. By setting aside the Congress in Odisha and the Left in West Bengal, the BJP ensured that it is now located at a position of advantage in these states. The only state where this is yet to happen is Tamil Nadu. In all other states, the BJP has altered the framework of competition or the framework of polemic, or both.
Apart from this homogenisation (notwithstanding the superficial state-specificity that this model allows), the larger and more challenging dimension of the BJP’s politics has always been its majoritarianism. A populist style of politics and authoritarian practices are only the entrées about which much scholarship and commentary is being spent. Both these are not exclusive characteristics of the BJP either. What has historically distinguished the BJP and continues to distinguish it from all other parties is the project of majoritarianism. In Assam, the BJP did not require it this time but has already manoeuvred a space on that basis; it is extending that project in Kerala with much caution due to demographic constraints, but in West Bengal it explicitly brought forward this project. That is why its limited success there is a shrill warning bell, just as its inability to win power produces a sigh of relief.
Unfortunately, the many state leaders who are currently busy congratulating Didi are conveniently unaware of this lurking danger to democratic politics. In the absence of clarity on why they oppose the BJP, the non-BJP parties will be doing a great disservice to the democratic character of our politics even if they choose to come together to form a non-BJP front. More than anything else, this limitation of opposition politics requires a sober reading of the outcome.
This article first appeared in the print edition on May 3, 2021 under the title ‘Lessons from Bengal’. The writer, based in Pune, taught political science and is currently chief editor of Studies in Indian Politics
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