What India needs right now is good governance at every level
These are exceptionally difficult times for the people of India. A devastating second wave of Covid is extracting a grim daily toll. Social media is awash with cries for help, seeking hospital beds and oxygen cylinders. Yet, on May 2, a piece of news momentarily dispelled for many at least a bit of the gloom.
Results for the recent state assembly elections had just come in, and even after throwing everything it had into the fight, the Bharatiya Janata Party led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi had lost by a large margin to the Trinamool Congress led by Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee. In Kolkata on Sunday, there were a few stray fireworks, and even the odd loudspeaker blasting upbeat tunes including the one that had been the slogan and superhit theme song (a dance remix has 21 million hits on YouTube) of Banerjee’s campaign: Khela hobe. Game on.
It had been quite a match. The elections had been spread over more than a month and divided into eight phases, with Kolkata itself voting in six phases. The schedule had been drawn up in such a manner in the middle of an ongoing pandemic, Trinamool alleged, to favour the BJP. It enabled that party to narrow-focus its campaign in particular geographies, where its party bigwigs from Delhi -- led by Modi, Home Minister Amit Shah, and Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, along with a series of senior cabinet ministers -- could hold rallies and roadshows.
Modi himself held 15 big poll rallies in Bengal in the run-up to the polls. Shah held 62. The others together notched up over a hundred. Large sections of the national media, especially television news media, were deployed to act as propaganda wings of the BJP. News channels that are famous for their prejudiced and provocative coverage launched Bangla editions just before the polls. More than 100,000 central paramilitary soldiers armed with automatic weapons were deployed.
In the end, for all their efforts, the BJP was able to win only 77 seats in the assembly of 294. Trinamool won handsomely with 213 seats. The Congress and Left parties, for the first time since 1947, drew a blank. Parties that either overtly or covertly held forth a promise of Muslim identity politics were also rejected by voters. The All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) led by Asaduddin Owaisi, in its maiden foray into Bengal, failed to win a single seat. A new party called the Indian Secular Front led by Muslim cleric Abbas Siddiqui, the head of Furfura Sharif, was able to win one seat, contested by Abbas’s brother Nowshad.
Hindu and Muslim identity politics had made their reappearance in a big way in West Bengal politics in these elections for the first time after Partition and Independence in 1947. It is therefore truly historic that this time around, the majority of both Hindu and Muslim Bengalis of West Bengal have rejected such politics.
The fact that the BJP under Modi and Shah, with Adityanath in tow, represents hardline Hindu majoritarian politics is undeniable, and not denied. Rather, it is proudly highlighted. As for Owaisi, his party is descended from the Razakars of Hyderabad, and has a hardline Muslim identity, whose face is Asaduddin Owaisi’s brother Akbaruddin.
ISF attempted a less communal position, as evident in its name, but the very first big rally held jointly by that party along with the Congress and CPI(M) saw Abbas Bhaijaan’s young cadres flexing their muscles. Abbas himself marched onto stage in the middle of Congress leader Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury’s speech, interrupting it, while his followers raised chants of his name.
In the end, it was the Trinamool that most Bengalis reposed their trust in, despite the anti-incumbency that had accrued over its two consecutive terms. A big part of the reason lay in the quite sensible apprehension among large sections of the population across communities that voting for parties with muscular religious politics would disturb the peace.
The BJP and its pet media had made its campaign look like an invasion of Bengal, which had to be reclaimed from alleged illegal migrants from Bangladesh, and the equally hated bhadraloks who suffer from the fatal flaws of being liberal, secular, and educated. They came in with the slogan of “Jai Shri Ram,” as overtly religious as a political chant can get. Trinamool countered with “Joy Bangla,” and wall paintings and banners for Banerjee declared in Bengali: “Bangla nijer meye kei chay,” while calling the BJP a party of outsiders.
The syncretic Bengali identity has prevailed, for the moment. The campaign brought out a spontaneous outpouring of cultural and artistic works that stood boldly and squarely against the forces of communal politics in Bengal. The TMC itself ran a smart campaign and did well on candidate selection, with political strategist Prashant Kishore aiding the party leadership in the task.
All the money, media, and men that the BJP deployed proved unequal to the task. However, Mamata herself lost the Nandigram election by 1,737 votes to her former protege Suvendu Adhikari of the BJP after initial reports had declared her the winner by 1,201 votes. She has pointed out that the server went down multiple times during the counting and was down for four hours, and demanded a recount, but this was denied by the Election Commission. Her defeat was somewhat unexpected, because she has not lost any election since 1989. With the state showing a wave in her favour, her own defeat was against the trend of the entire elections.
The modestly celebratory mood in the aftermath of the victory itself has been vitiated within 24 hours by reports of sporadic incidents of violence between party workers of the BJP and TMC in which till the time of writing, six BJP and three TMC workers were reported dead. This is tragic and unfortunate, but it is not a surprise, given the history of political violence in the state and the bitterly contested nature of the elections.
What has happened since is, however, unusual. The BJP propaganda machinery has swung into action, with calls for retribution. Actress Kangana Ranaut, a hardcore fan of Modi, wrote on Twitter: “She is like a monster unleashed, to tame her Modi ji please show your Virat roop from early 2000s.” The “she” can logically be interpreted to refer to Mamata. As for the reference to “early 2000s,” the thing that comes to mind first is the Gujarat riots of 2002.
The state’s governor, a Modi appointee himself, described the scattered political clashes as a breakdown of the law and order situation. Ironically, he is in charge of the state and its law and order until the new government is sworn in.
Mamata will be taking oath for her next term as chief minister of West Bengal, her third, this evening. She will have to stand for elections again within the next six months and win to remain CM. She has her task cut out for her. The eight-phase polls have left Bengal with a skyrocketing Covid count. On top of that, it is clear that the BJP has no intention of letting her settle in and get on with her job even for a day. The attacks against her have begun even before she assumes office. There is a reason for this. This is the first substantial defeat in a large state that Modi and Shah have faced after 2014. It was a prestige fight, billed as Modi vs Didi, and Didi won.
Now there is talk of Mamata being the leader of an opposition coalition to take on Modi in 2024. As a former Congress leader, she has a good equation with that party’s top leaders. She also served as a Union minister under Atal Bihari Vajpayee and has acceptability among the more moderate sections of the Hindu Right. Yashwant Sinha, who was minister of finance and external affairs in Vajpayee’s cabinet, has recently joined the Trinamool. Disparate regional forces, from Maharashtra to Bihar to Tamil Nadu, have also hailed her victory. It is likely that Modi and Shah see her as a threat.
India is now confronted by a situation where there is a raging pandemic gone out of control, a problem on the border with China, and an unstable neighbourhood with Afghanistan and Myanmar in different stages of chaos. Adding political and religious tensions into this already awful mix would be suicidal. What the country needs right now, urgently, is good governance and policy-making at every level. However, political sagacity has been notable for its absence in recent years. A sudden burst of wisdom is perhaps too much to hope for.
Samrat Choudhury is a journalist and author, and a former editor of newspapers in Delhi, Mumbai and Bengaluru.