Secular surge stuns Sangh Parivar

Print edition : May 21, 2021

Prime Minister Narendra Modi at an election rally at Laupara in Assam’s Baksa district on April 3. He addressed 20 meetings in West Bengal alone. Photo: PTI

Mamata Banerjee, Trinamool Congress supremo and West Bengal Chief Minister, during an interaction with the media in Kolkata on May 2. The BJP’s vaulting, Hinduvta-driven ambitions were pulverised by the Trinamool. Photo: Swapan Mahapatra/PTI

DMK president M.K. Stalin during an election rally in Chennai on April 4. The BJP’s hopes of retaining control over Tamil Nadu by proxy were spoilt by his secular alliance’s impressive performance. Photo: ARUN SANKAR/AFP

Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan at an election campaign at Ponnani in Malappuram district on March 19. He had his own economy-oriented welfare schemes that helped his government buck the anti-incumbency factor. Photo: THULASI KAKKAT

Congress leaders Priyanka Vadra, Rahul Gandhi and party president Sonia Gandhi. While regional leaders have consolidated their positions in the 2021 election, the Congress continues to be on a decline. Photo: PTI

The massive victory of the Trinamool Congress in West Bengal, the DMK-led alliance in Tamil Nadu and the LDF in Kerala, overturns the BJP’s grand plans of establishing Hindutva political hegemony across all regions and reinforces India’s political diversity and federal character.

LONG BEFORE THE ASSEMBLY ELECTIONS TO West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Assam and Puducherry were held in March-April, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah, and their associates in the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS)-led Sangh Parivar wanted them to be a watershed for their brand of politics. This strategy emerged from the realisation that although the BJP under Modi won two consecutive general elections in 2014 and 2019, capturing and retaining power at the Centre with huge majorities, the political arm of the Sangh Parivar has not been able to establish Hindutva political hegemony across all regions of India. The idea was to change this situation by winning this round of Assembly elections and, in the process, etch the concrete and permeant sociopolitical contours of Hindu Rashtra.

Central to this strategy was the electoral battle in West Bengal, the fourth most populous State in India, where the Sangh Parivar envisioned dislodging the Mamata Banerjee-led Trinamool Congress government, which has been in power for the last 10 years, that is, two consecutive terms. The path primarily chosen to achieve this goal was a blatant and aggressive communal campaign. The projection also had it that the BJP would retain power in Assam and that in Tamil Nadu, its loyal ally, the ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), would manage to return to power. The Sangh Parivar hoped for a vastly improved performance in Kerala, where it had won only one seat in 2016. In the southern Union Territory of Puducherry, the All India Namadhu Rajyam Congress (AINRC), a regional party led by N. Rangasamy, had been brought under the BJP’s yoke and the Congress government was toppled through defections and other political manoeuvres just a few days before the Assembly’s term was to end Thus, the Sangh Parivar’s calculation was that on May 2, the day the election results were scheduled to be announced, it would take a major step forward towards its goal of Hindu Rashtra.

However, as the results started pouring in, the outcome turned out to be the very antithesis of this political pipe dream. In its overall character and central thrust, the people’s verdict has strengthened India’s political diversity and the tenets of federalism ingrained in the Constitution. The categorial and stunning reverses the BJP suffered in West Bengal, Tamil Nadu and Kerala clearly upset its plans to obtain absolute control over all the geographic regions of the country. The political forces rooted in each of these regions for decades won convincingly, ensuring that the BJP is nowhere close to tightening its grip over these States. Ideologically, the winning parties and alliances in these States were united by their steadfast opposition to Hindutva and the Sangh Parivar’s attempts to erase the country’s political diversity and federal character. Significantly, the Trinamool Congress in West Bengal and the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Democratic Front (LDF) in Kerala bucked the anti-incumbency sentiment, which is normal in an election, while in Tamil Nadu, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhakam (DMK) wrested power from the AIADMK. The LDF’s return to power in Kerala was historic as it is the first time in 44 years that an incumbent government has been re-elected.
Also read: BJP+ retains Assam

The nuances of the verdicts in each of the three States were marked by specific and special ignominies for the saffron outfits. In West Bengal, the biggest of the five States that went to the polls, the BJP’s vaulting, Hinduvta-driven ambitions were pulverised by the Trinamool Congress. The ruling party restricted the BJP’s tally to 77 seats, while it won 213 of the 290 seats. The third front in the fray, the alliance of the Congress and the Left parties, drew a blank. Throughout the campaign, the claim by the BJP leadership, including Modi and Amit Shah, was that the party would rout the Trinamool Congress by winning at least 175 of the 294 seats at stake.

The BJP’s hopes of retaining control over Tamil Nadu through a subservient AIADMK were dashed to the ground by the vigorous electoral performance of the DMK-led Secular Progressive Alliance (SPA), consisting of the Congress, the Left parties, the Viduthalai Chiruthaikal Katchi, the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, the Indian Union Muslim League and the Manithaneya Makkal Katchi. A small consolation for the BJP is that it contributed four seats to the AIADMK alliance’s tally of 70 seats in the 234-member Assembly. However, the BJP’s vote share did not increase exponentially despite its marginal gains by way of seats.

In Kerala, where State-level BJP leaders claimed that the party had grown so much in the past five years that it would win at least 30 to 35 seats, the BJP drew a blank losing even the single seat it had won in 2016. The BJP retained Assam, staving off a rather stiff challenge posed by a Congress-led grand alliance of 10 parties, with a communal polarisation campaign. In Puducherry, where it does not have a base worth the name, the BJP rides on the back of the AINRC. These were small consolation prizes for the Sangh Parivar, which lost its larger game of capturing the regions that had been elusive for a long time.

Reasons for the setback

Several factors have been identified by political practitioners, including those belonging to the BJP and the Sangh Parivar, and observers for the unique play in the electoral verdict, especially the setback for the expansionist plans of the BJP-Sangh Parivar and the resurgence of regional forces.

A senior RSS leader based in Asansol, the West Bengal town along the Jharkhand border, told this correspondent over phone that while the anti-incumbency sentiment against the Mamta Banerjee regime was limited, the feelings against the Union government and the leadership provided to it by the Modi-Amit Shah duo were palpable during the election. “It was clear that there was a rising discontent against the Modi government, primarily on account of the crippling social and economic distress prevalent in urban and rural areas. The public perception that we, as Sangh Parivar activists, could come across in constituency after constituency was one where people showed great anger at the Centre’s handling of the COVID-19 situation, especially the way the first lockdown was imposed. Remember, a large number of people affected by that sudden imposition of lockdown in March 2020 were from West Bengal.”
Also read: Red-letter day in Kerala

The leader went on to add that at several places, people contrasted the efficacy of the welfare schemes launched by the Mamata Banerjee government with the mismanagement of the public health crisis by the Union government. “Moreover, we also made the big mistake of making the election in West Bengal one between Mamata Banerjee and Modi. Clearly, the people have held the Centre and not the State government responsible for pushing the country into repeated crises,” the leader said.

The social activist Sumani Singh, whose fieldwork on various issues, including agrarian rights, spans the States of West Bengal, Jharkhand and Bihar in the east and Tamil Nadu and Karnataka in the south, was of the view that apart from other factors, the campaign of the Samyukth Kisan Morcha (SKM) on a simple and straightforward “do not vote BJP” plank impacted the election, not only in West Bengal but also in Tamil Nadu. “That campaign was not just about the farmers’ movement and its opposition to the three controversial farm laws, but covered a lot of ground such as galloping fuel prices, the massive privatisation of public assets, ranging from banks, insurance companies and coal mines to the railways. ‘Didi’ (Mamata Banerjee) made use of all this in her own style through her own election machinery.” According to him, the sizeable minority community in West Bengal and Tamil Nadu were enraged by the threat to their citizenship posed by the Citizenship (Amendment) Act and related Acts.

Colonel (retired) Subash Singh Deswal, a keen political observer who is pursuing progressive farming in western Uttar Pradesh, was of the view that one of the factors that backfired on the BJP was its “extreme access to resources, financial and otherwise, and the vulgar, ruthless deployment of the same”. He said: “The money power of the BJP was on display in all the States. You had so much money and you went on such an overkill that you could buy off as many as 40 senior Trinamool Congress leaders. As the key election strategist of the BJP, Amit Shah had virtually shifted the BJP’s central office, and almost the entire Union Ministry to Kolkata. Modi himself addressed several public meetings in the election-bound States, with 20 meetings in West Bengal alone. Amit Shah addressed 45 gatherings in West Bengal. Every top BJP leader, from Smriti Irani to Piyush Goyal to Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, hopped from one election-bound State to another. Many five-star hotels were commandeered in each of these States. People were watching all this. And they know that you and your binge on money and muscle power needs to be brought to an end. I think that too contributed to the BJP’s reverses in these elections.” Deswal’s view has many takers, even in the BJP.
Also read: Bengal retains Mamata to power

The retired Army officer further said that the BJP’s overkill, especially in West Bengal, gave the impression to large sections of the electorate that even constitutional entities such as the Election Commission of India (ECI) were being used in an unequal and unjust manner against the opposition parties. “The ECI created a schedule of ‘never-ending’ eight-phase elections which was evidently designed to help the BJP. The cumulative effect of this overkill and the sense of injustice it permeated was that the BJP’s time-tested ploys of communal polarisation failed. For, people have realised that it has only these games to fall back on and not concrete developmental plans,” Deswal said.

Economic initiatives of Bengal, Kerala

As pointed out by Deswal and other observers, issues relating to the economy and livelihoods have once again started impacting people’s electoral choices. Both Mamata Banerjee and Pinarayi Vijayan, two Chief Ministers self-professedly from divergent ideological streams, had their own economy-oriented welfare schemes that helped them buck the anti-incumbency factor. The Trinamool Congress government had initiated schemes such Kanyashree and Rupashree, while the LDF in Kerala promoted food kits and pension schemes to good effect. The importance of an economic issues-based campaign was witnessed in the Bihar Assembly election in November 2020. Tejashwi Yadav ran a spirited campaign on core economic issues such as health care, education and irrigation in that election. The young leader made the biggest impact on the campaign trail and almost won the election against the combined strength of the BJP and the Nitish Kumar-led Janata Dal (United).

At an individual level, the May 2 verdict is a huge setback for Amit Shah, who is repeatedly projected as the astute ‘Chanakya’ in BJP circles. Apparently, the promise made by Amit Shah to the RSS top brass in 2014, soon after Modi stormed to power, was that he would deliver both West Bengal and Tamil Nadu to the Sangh Parivar so that the agenda of ‘Hindutvaisation’ of the country was complete in all respects. Apocryphal stories of how Amit Shah was learning Bengali and Tamil in order to communicate directly with the masses in both States had done the rounds among the BJP and the Sangh Parivar circles during that period. Evidently, Amit Shah has not acquired mastery over the two languages and the distinct cultures of these States. Moreover, these States are certainly impregnable politically for a leader hailing from Gujarat.

At the larger level of national politics, the results have underscored the fact that the BJP will find the going tough if confronted by political organisations and leaders with strong roots. Mamata Banerjee, Stalin and Pinarayi Vijayan have demonstrated with their victories now while other regional leaders such as Uddhav Thackeray, Chief Minister and Shiv Sena leader; Sharad Pawar of the Nationalist Congress Party; Arvind Kejriwal of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP); and Tejashwi Yadav of the Rashriya Janata Dal (RJD); have shown in elections held in the recent past in Maharashtra, Delhi and Bihar elections. Add to this, the rising momentum against the Centre on several issues ranging from the inept handling of the second wave of COVID-19 infection and farmers’ agitation, the range of regional leaders who can do this will only grow.
Also read: Puducherry BJP flexing muscles without a base

While regional leaders have consolidated their positions in the 2021 election, the Congress, the grand old party of the country and the principal opposition to the BJP at the national level, continues to be on a decline. It could not make the expected gains in Assam and Kerala, where it was pitted primarily against the BJP and the LDF respectively. The younger scions of the first family of the party, former party president Rahul Gandhi and party general secretary Priyanka Vadra, campaigned extensively in both the States but without much impact. In West Bengal, the Congress had formed a coalition with the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Front, but drew a blank, creating history of sorts: for the first time since the formation of the State, the Left and the Congress have no representatives in the Assembly.

Five years ago, Frontline’s analysis of the elections to the five State Assemblies held in 2016 in its issue dated June 10, 2016, had opened thus:

“Three clear trends have marked the elections in India since 2014. The first is the Bharatiya Janata Party and the coalition it leads, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), occupying centre stage in the national polity. The second is the sustained growth of regional political forces, challenging the dominance of the BJP-led NDA. The third is the growing marginalisation of India’s grand old party, the Congress, at the hands of the BJP and the regional parties.”

Five years later, taking the period between 2016 and 2021 into consideration, these words aptly describe the political play in the country. If the phrase “growing marginalisation of the Congress” was right then, it is even more accurate now.

The strong show of Mamata Banerjee, Stalin and Pinarayi Vijayan has once again given rise to speculation about evolving a federation of regional leaders to take on the BJP at the national level. Those who make suggestions on these lines call for inclusion of Akhilesh Yadav, former Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister and Samajwadi Party (S.P.) president, Tejashwi Yadav, Sharad Pawar and Uddhav Thackeray in the fold. It remains to be seen how such an idea will get a concrete form, especially since the ego clashes among these leaders could be a stalling factor.
Also read: DMK storms to power in Tamil Nadu

While the debate on the possibilities, alternatives, challenges and deficiencies thrown up by the May 2 verdict is bound to continue, the immediate effect of the results is certainly the massive reverses suffered by the BJP and its associates in the Sangh Parivar in their quest to create a Hindu Rashtra in electoral terms. The debate on the huge embarrassment facing the BJP leadership, especially Amit Shah, following the electoral setback in three States will certainly precede the one on the possibilities and pitfalls of a collective regional leadership.