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OP-ED: The centre cannot hold: India’s state elections

  • Published at 05:32 am May 7th, 2021
mamata banerjee west bengal

How Kerala, Tamil Nadu, and West Bengal said no to BJP

In the throes of the most apocalyptic Covid-19 surge any part of the world has suffered, three crucial Indian states have rejected the BJP political juggernaut. 

Those losses, as well as the ruling coalition’s complicated and contradictory win in Assam, underline broader trends that are rapidly transforming the electoral landscape across much of the country outside the band of North Indian states referred to as “the cow belt.” 

The BJP’s striking defeats in Kerala, Tamil Nadu, and West Bengal, also comprise an unmistakably sharp repudiation to the brutish political (and often extra-legal) forces that the ruling coalition has become accustomed to exerting to get its own way. 

“I have never seen a more partial election commission” said the strategist Prashant Kishor, immediately after the election results. 

Credited with being one of the crucial factors in the victory of the Trinamool Congress in West Bengal, as well as the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam in Tamil Nadu, he told The Telegraph newspaper: “This is not only about Bengal, [it] is about India and about the survival of democracy. Every democrat in India, and every political party, should be concerned.”

Kishor said: “[The election commission’s] role in Bengal has been scandalous, they have behaved like an arm of the powers in Delhi. Without the help of official machinery, the BJP would not even have won 50 seats. The way they were taking dictation was obvious to everyone. I will name just one factor: The BJP led a most communal campaign, it was predicated on naked Hindutva, on Jai Shri Ram, on all sorts of religious symbolism and religious disaffection. What did the election commission do to stop that? Nothing. And that is a danger, a grave danger that will live beyond this election.”

In three successive elections (Bihar, Delhi, and Bengal), Kishor has bested the BJP’s tactical mastermind. He says: “Amit Shah is a most over-rated political and poll manager. A disaster. He has the most charismatic leader in Narendra Modi to put on stage, he has humongous resources at his command, he has an elaborate party network supported by the Sangh, he has the backing of the government and its agencies, he has an election commission playing footsie, and still he lost! That must tell you something about Amit Shah and his reputation.”

What does all this say about future possibilities in Indian politics, once assumed to be heading towards inevitable majoritarianism? 

Kishor told The Telegraph: “Polarization is a bogey, absolute bogey. In no part of India have Hindus got polarized in a way that they themselves become the majority, not even in Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh, the two strongholds of the BJP. You do not want folks who make excuses, you want people who will get into the pit and fight, and fight seriously. Mamata Banerjee was prepared to do that.”

The battle for Bengal, with its dramatic imagery of diminutive “Didi” battling valiantly against the heavyweights Shah (who held 79 huge rallies in just 20 days), and PM Narendra Modi (whose derisive catcall of “Didi, oh Didi” turned many women decisively away from his party), wound up galvanizing the nation.

“Most Assamese followed the Bengal elections avidly, and it’s interesting that many of the same people who voted BJP here were rooting for Mamata there,” says the award-winning writer Mitra Phukan, whose The Collector’s Wife is one of the best Indian novels of the 21st century.

Via email from Guwahati, Phukan told me: “I feel the BJP won in Assam primarily because of one man, Hemanta Biswa Sarma, the health minister, who has worked indefatigably throughout the pandemic. In fact, many were saying that they would vote for whichever party HBS belonged to. Now there is a movement for him to be chief minister.”

Phukan says: “In many ways, the BJP in Assam is different. For instance, the anti-beef-eating stance will not work here. We do not worship cows. We are Devi worshippers (Kamakhya) and followers of Srimanta Sankardev’s Ek Sarana Dharma that is much more inclusive than the hate filled rhetoric we hear from other parts of the country. What worries me is the attempt to ‘North Indianize’ Hinduism as we know it. The muscular Hinduism, the Ram worship is alien to us. In fact, Ram is hardly worshipped here. And yet there were posters urging us to donate to the Ram Temple on the streets of Guwahati a while ago.”

There can be no doubt it is precisely the BJP’s aggressive “Hindi, Hindu, Hindutva” idea of India that was repudiated in Kerala, Tamil Nadu, and West Bengal.n

“The threat posed by the BJP was, literally, the destruction of our lifeways,” says Professor Ananya Jahanara Kabir of King’s College in London, “as a Bengali Muslim, I know how unsafe we feel under the BJP’s regime and also how safe we feel in Bengal. Undoubtedly, for a lot of Hindu-identified people in Bengal, the BJP poses a threat too -- but as a Muslim, you feel this threat at an existential, primal level. When we can’t even eat the food that is part of our cultural history for fear of being lynched, what is left?”

Immediately after the election results, Kabir exulted on Facebook that “Our Bengal is safe!!!”

When I asked her to explain what had been saved, she said: “I would pin it down to two sites I experience personally: Rural Bengal, where Bengali Muslim culture lives and thrives in a particular symbiosis with agricultural and natural rhythms, and Kolkata, where Muslim communities differentiated by language and denomination have interacted with each other, with different Christian communities, and mercantile groups such as the Armenians and Baghdadi Jews, within the frame of colonial modernity.”

Kabir told me: “This is a unique culture I’ve inherited, of intermarriage, inter-community friendships, convent schools, clubs and music, and a particular cuisine, constellated around specific neighbourhoods such as Park Circus, where I grew up. This unselfconsciously cosmopolitan, creolized legacy, and its potential to cock a snook at Hindu majoritarianism is what remains undefeated.”

Vivek Menezes is a writer based in Goa, India.

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