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OP-ED: Curb your enthusiasm, Bengalis

  • Published at 04:48 am May 8th, 2021
Mamata Banerjee

Any euphoria on part of Modi’s detractors may be ill-advised

Like most ethnic Bengalis, I too take a wicked pleasure in seeing “Didi” Mamata Banerjee dispatch the juggernaut of the BJP-led central machinery in India last week and stop, for now, the relentless march of the saffron combine across India’s length and breadth. As an admirer of pluralist, liberal democracy, the victory of Didi’s TMC at the West Bengal polls heartens me even more.

The erstwhile lecturer of politics in me, however, finds any euphoria on part of Prime Minister Modi’s detractors to be decidedly ill-advised.

It doesn’t take away from the signal triumph of Mamata Banerjee’s thumping victory against a powerful foe to admit that one of the sharpest weapons in her arsenal in the 2021 state elections -- being the authentic daughter of Bengal -- is likely to turn into a liability as the potential prime ministerial alternative. 

India’s prime ministers have almost all come from the broad Hindi-conversant northcentral heartland; even Narasimha Rao of Telegu vintage could be considered an “assimilated” Hindi-speaker given his years of service in Delhi in the several Congress(I) governments. Mamata Banerjee, despite her short stints in Delhi as an MP and minister, remains a quintessentially Bengali politician, albeit with a national, even international, bevy of fans. For good or bad. Hindi = All India is a dictum deeply ingrained in the Indian political psyche at too many levels.

In addition to language, religion may also work against any national ambitions Didi may have, though not necessarily in the way her detractors suspect. Impolitic as it is to point out, TMC pretty much got a vast majority of the votes of Muslims in West Bengal where they form more than a quarter of the electorate. Not only is the rest of India less proportionately Muslim, but the BJP, despite the image, has been making small but steady inroads into the Muslim electorate in the Indian heartland: There is considerable evidence that one in five Muslim women voted for the BJP in the last Uttar Pradesh legislative elections, while the proportion of Shia Muslims going that way may have been even greater. 

Muslims of the rest of India may not share more than a religion with brethren of their faith in West Bengal. Conversely, upper caste Hindus in the Hindi belt are less likely to be open to ideological concerns that their counterparts steeped in or aspiring to Kolkata’s bhadralok culture.

The law of politics’ unintended consequences has also underlined an unheralded asset for the BJP in the throes of TMC’s massive victory in Bengal: That victory has come almost entirely at the expense of national parties like the Congress and CPIM who have been pretty much decimated in Bengal now, continuing their decline across large parts of India. 

That leaves, at least for now, Prime Minister Modi’s party as the only one with something close to a national reach. Politics, like physics, abhors a vacuum, but it is hard to see powerful regional parties like TMC in Bengal or AIADMK in Tamil Nadu or Akali Dal in Punjab or NCP in Maharashtra having enough of a national footprint together to prop up the battered Congress in any nationwide contest against the entrenched and well-funded Hindutva alliance led by the BJP.

Though rumblings abound about a grand national anti-BJP front made up of those parties to go up against the ruling coterie in the 2024 Lok Sabha elections, the sheer diversity of ideologies and ambitions make that a herculean task in the absence of some “above the fray” national leader to notionally unite them like, say, the late VP Singh did in 1989 for the anti-Congress coalition.

None of this is to say that Narendra Modi is impregnable or that Mamata Banerjee is a non-starter as a combined national opposition leader and potential prime minister. As a professor of mine used to say often, “a day is a lifetime in democratic politics ... and a week an eternity.” This gem of wisdom is all the more applicable in a country with a federal system and a kaleidoscope of ethnicities, religions, castes, and languages in the mix. A highly volatile public health crisis that India faces today on Modi’s watch is but only one of many interconnected factors that can change the whole khela of national politics in the blink of an eye. 

And if Didi is ready at the right moment -- with a good brush up on her Hindi speaking skills --who knows! Stranger things have happened in our times!

But for now, let’s have a rosogolla or two to savour the moment!

Esam Sohail is a college administrator and writes from Kansas, USA. He can be reached at [email protected]