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Tuesday, May 18, 2021

Five states, five distinct political ecosystems: A primer for what’s the history of politics here

From the possibility of a historic return of a Left government in Kerala, the probable strong inroads being made by the BJP in West Bengal, to the future of Dravidian politics in Tamil Nadu, there is much at stake.

By: Express Web Desk | New Delhi |
Updated: May 2, 2021 2:46:50 pm
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Four states and one Union Territory will see the culmination of a much controversial election season on Sunday. From the possibility of a historic return of a Left government in Kerala, the probable strong inroads being made by the BJP in West Bengal, to the future of Dravidian politics in Tamil Nadu, there is much at stake. Here’s a look at the brief political histories of each of the states and the issues that formed the core of this election.

West Bengal (294 seats)

The capital of the erstwhile British empire in India and a hotbed of the nationalist movement, the elections in West Bengal have been most keenly observed in the past few weeks. Politics in this east Indian state has had ramifications for the entire country since the pre-independence days.

British rule in India started out from Bengal when in 1757 the English East India Company executed a decisive victory over the Nawab of Bengal. A long period of British rule exposed the people of the region to western education which impacted its social-political fabric. This was the seat of one of most influential Hindu reform movements of the 19th century in the form of the Brahmo Samaj. This was also the place where the Hindu right wing was born in the post-renaissance period of the 19th century. “The coinage of ‘Bharat Mata’, the first possible use of the word ‘Hindutva’ in print, the ‘Bande Mataram’ slogan, the iconic image of ‘Bharat Mata’, and even the notion that Hindus are in danger of extermination all originated in Bengal and later spread to other parts of the country,” writes research Snigdhendu Bhattacharya in his book, ‘Mission Bengal: A saffron experiment’.

Under the British, Bengal saw two catastrophic famines, one in 1776 and another in 1942, and two Partitions, one in 1905 and another in 1947 which resulted in the province being divided along religious lines for good.

Post Independence, till 1967, the government in West Bengal was held by the Indian National Congress. From 1967 to 1972, the United Front, a coalition between the United Left Front and the People’s United Left Front ruled the state. In the 1970s, the state witnessed one of the largest youth revolutions in the form of the Naxal movement, left by CPI (M) leaders Charu Mazumdar and Kanu Sanyal. Consequently, in the 1977 Assembly elections, the Left Front headed by the CPI (M) emerged as the majority party, and held on to the government of the state for the next 35 years.

In 2011, West Bengal shook away its image of being a Left bastion with the victory of the Trinamool Congress led by Mamata Banerjee. The key incident that led to the ousting of the Left government in Bengal was the violence at Nandigram, where a heavily armed police force stormed in to wipe out protests against the state government’s move to acquire land for a Special Economic Zone (SEZ). The result was repeated in the 2016 Assembly elections as well, with the TMC winning 211 out of the 294 seats. The BJP had won three seats in the election and the CPI(M) 26 seats.

In 2011, West Bengal shook away its image of being a Left bastion with the victory of the Trinamool Congress led by Mamata Banerjee.

The BJP has emerged as the strongest opponent of the TMC in the 2021 election, making historic inroads in a state where it was never considered a strong contender. The TMC’s contention of the BJP being an outsider to the state, and the latter’s argument of Banerjee indulging in minority appeasement are have made this a heated campaign despite the looming spectre of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Kerala (140 seats)

The southern state of Kerala came into existence in 1956 when the Travancore-Cochin state was merged with the Malabar district of Madras and Kasaragod taluk of South Canara along linguistic lines. When elections were held in the state in 1957, the Communist Party of India (CPI) emerged victorious, and E. M. S. Namboodiripad became the chief minister. This was the first time ever that a Communist government had been democratically elected to power anywhere in the world. Consequently, large scale land reforms were initiated in the state with the objective of bringing down rural poverty.

Since the conception of the state, the government of Kerala has swung between the Communist Party and the Indian National Congress. Since the late 1970s, the state has alternated between two political fronts- the CPM-led Left Democratic Front (LDF) and the Indian National Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF). In the last election, the LDF won 91 seats, the UDF won 57 and 2 seats were divided between the BJP and an independent candidate.

This will be the first Assembly election since the formal split of Kerala’s largest Christian party, the Kerala Congress. The Kerala Congress had been an ally of the UDF for the last 40 years. However, the official faction of the party, led by the party’s late chairman K M Mani’s son, Jose K Mani, has now switched from the UDF to the LDF. This change may affect the UDF’s traditional voter base in central Kerala.

There have also been other tensions within the Christian community, which makes up roughly 20% of the state’s voter base. The BJP has been looking to capitalise on those tensions by supporting the Jacobite community in a recent court case and promoting alleged links between the UDF and extremist Muslim groups.

The UDF in turn will expect to see certain gains after the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML) general secretary P K Kunhalikutty resigned his Lok Sabha seat to become an Assembly candidate. While his decision has been criticised by some for mandating an unnecessary bypoll, alliance leaders hope that his support could prove crucial. The IUML is an important member of the UDF, possessing a strike rate much higher than its Congress counterparts.

This will be a decisive election for Left politics in India after the Left Front lost its stronghold in West Bengal in 2011, in Tripura in 2018 and has seen its number of seats in the Lok Sabha fall from a high of 59 in 2004 to a low of 6 in 2019. If the LDF does come to power as projected, it will be a historic win since for the first time a party would form the government for two consecutive terms in the state.

Assam (126 seats)

Nestled along the Brahmaputra river in the north eastern region of India, politics in Assam is governed largely by its geographical location and a complex history of migration it gave rise to. A key factor here is the large influx of refugees from erstwhile East Bengal since the Partition and more so after the formation of Bangladesh in 1971. Ever since, Assamese socio-political landscape has been dominated by tensions between Bengalis of the Barak Valley and the Assamese who are a majority in the rest of Assam, much of which falls in the Brahmaputra Valley.

The ethnic conflicts between the two communities reached a boiling point in 1961 when the Assam government passed a legislation making Assamese the sole official language of the state. Violent protests broke out in many parts of the state and culminated in the death of 11 people in Silchar where Assam Rifles soldiers opened fire on protestors. Consequently, the government was forced to withdraw its decision.

Yet another historic moment in the politics of the state was the six-year long Assam agitation in the 1980s led by the All Assam Students Union (AASU) and All Assam Gana Sangram Parishad (AAGSP), demanding the identification and deportation of illegal foreigners in the state. The movement culminated in the signing of the Assam Accord in the presence of the then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi. As per the memorandum, the government agreed to deport all refugees who entered the state after 1971. However, it remained unimplemented, thereby causing much discontent over the years.

The Memorandum of Settlement on the Assam problem was signed between Central Government and the leaders of the Assam movement at the residence of Prime Minister of Rajiv Gandhi (Express Archive Photo)

Until the 1980s, the Indian National Congress was the major political player in Assam. However, the Assam movement led to the formation of new political parties, including the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP). Before the 2016 election, when the BJP came to power in the state, politics in Assam revolved around the Congress and the AGP. The BJP made a historic victory in the state in 2016, winning 86 out of 126 seats. The Congress in turn was reduced to 26 seats.

The biggest issues in the current assembly election are that of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA)+ National Register for Citizens (NRC) proposed by the central government in 2020. While the people of Assam have long demanded the deportation of illegal immigrants, they believe that the CAA would nullify the cause since it would give citizenship to all non-Muslim refugees.

Tamil Nadu (234 seats)

In the 20 years following independence, politics in Tamil Nadu (and Madras before it,) was dominated by the Congress party, with K Kamraj as its most influential leader. However, in 1967, the DMK was formed and since then, the two Dravidian parties, the DMK and AIADMK, have held control of the State. The roots of Dravidian politics in the state lies in the Justice Party founded in 1916, which demanded the establishment of an independent state called Dravida Nadu. In 1944, the party was renamed as Dravidar Kazhagham by Periyar E. V. Ramasamy. Later, in 1956, due to differences between Periyar and C N Annadurai, the party split. The latter founded the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagham (DMK).

The main goal of Dravidian politics is to achieve caste equality and to reduce the stronghold of North India on the politics and economy of Tamil Nadu.The DMK’s rise to power came on the backs of anti-Hindi agitations. In 1972, a further split in the party led to the creation of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), under the leadership of the actor-turned-politician M G Ramachandran (MGR). Since then, the political landscape of Tamil Nadu has been dominated exclusively by the DMK and the AIADMK. Members of Kollywood have been very popular amongst Tamil voters, with three of the most influential CMs in M. G. Ramachandran, M. Karunanidhi and J. Jayalalithaa coming from the film industry.

For the first time in decades, Tamil Nadu has gone to the polls without AIADMK’s J Jayalalithaa and DMK’s M Karunanidhi, two charismatic icons of Dravidian politics. The AIADMK formed an alliance with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the DMK joined forces with the Indian National Congress. The former is led by current Chief Minister EK Palaniswami and the latter by Karunanidh’s son, MK Stalin, an experienced politician who wields considerable influence in the state. If EK Palaniswami were to win, he would become only the second CM since 1982 to win two consecutive elections in the state.

Karunanidhi with friend-turned rival MGR. (Express Archive photo)

The DMK is projected to be the frontrunner. In 2016, the Congress, its coalition partner, won only 8 of the 41 seats that it contested. This election, the DMK has reduced the number of seats allocated to the Congress in order to accommodate two left wing parties, the Communist Party of India and Communist Party of India Marxist, in the alliance. The DMK exceeded expectations in the 2019 parliamentary elections, winning 37 out of 39 seats to become the third largest party in the Lok Sabha. Meanwhile, its biggest opponent, the AIADMK, lost 37 seats in that election.

Despite Modi’s strong overtures to the state, the BJP has historically struggled to establish a foothold in Tamil politics. Tamil Nadu and Kerala were the only two major states where the BJP or its allies fared badly in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections and the BJP’s first seat in Tamil Nadu was won only in 1996. It is commonly known as the 2% party in the state, due to the fact that it has secured only 2-3% of the popular vote when contesting alone.

Puducherry (33 seats)

Formerly a part of French India, Puducherry is a Union Territory rather than a state which implies that its administration falls directly under federal authority. However, it is one of the three Union Territories in India that is entitled to have an elected legislative assembly under the provisions of a special constitutional amendment.

The last three months have been tumultuous for the voters of Puducherry, a Union Territory that is currently under President’s rule. The Indian National Congress-led government fell in February, just before completing its five-year term under the Chief Minister V Narayansamy, sending the political future of the territory down an uncertain path.

Since 2001 elections have been dominated by only two parties, the Congress and the NR Congress, a breakaway party from the Congress formed by N Rangaswamy in 2011. Before then, power was shared between the Congress party and the Dravidian parties from neighbouring Tamil Nadu, the DMK and AIADMK.

The two main election contenders in this election are the Congress-DMK alliance and the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) comprising All India NR Congress, the AIADMK, and the BJP. The latter appointed influential politician and leader of the NR Congress, N Rangasamy, as its CM candidate. Both the BJP and the Congress have ceded a significant number of seats to their coalition partners in this election.

The BJP and Congress led alliances both face significant obstacles in this election. The BJP was reluctant to put forward Rangaswamy as its CM candidate and conversely neither the AIADMK nor the NR Congress wanted to be associated with the BJP during the campaigning phase. Since February the situation has seemingly improved, with Rangaswamy insisting that Puducherry needs strong support from the Centre and several BJP leaders visiting the state to facilitate campaign support.

The Congress has also faced substantial challenges, with officials contending that the BJP sought to “topple” the government by urging unprecedented defections from the Congress to the BJP despite the latter not holding a single seat in the Puducherry Assembly. The Congress party lost its second in command along with a leader holding an important ministerial portfolio, both of whom were expected to bankroll the Congress campaign. Additionally, former CM V Narayansamy was not included in the list of candidates contesting the election.


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