The crisis of the secular opposition

The central contradiction over a nationwide secular front against BJP is most evident in West Bengal. Is this setback or necessary autocorrection?

Published : Mar 21, 2024 11:00 IST - 13 MINS READ

Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad supporters in Guwahati burn a Mamata Banerjee effigy during a protest over the events in Sandeshkhali.

Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad supporters in Guwahati burn a Mamata Banerjee effigy during a protest over the events in Sandeshkhali. | Photo Credit: Abdul Sajid/ANI

INDIA is stumbling. That might be a good thing for India.

The opposition alliance has crumbled in West Bengal and Punjab and imploded in Bihar. As the INDIA bloc comes unstuck in some States, there is cause for gloom for those hoping for a united “secular” alternative to the BJP. But is the fracturing of an already tenuous opposition unity really such a bad thing for secularism? Or is it merely an autocorrection of a logically inconsistent blanket alliance that strengthens, rather than weakens, secular politics? Look no further than Bengal.

LISTEN: Is the fracturing of an already tenuous opposition unity such a bad thing for secularism? Or is it merely an autocorrection of a logically inconsistent blanket alliance that strengthens, rather than weakens, secular politics?

Tired of seat sharing talks with the Congress, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has decided to go solo with her Trinamool Congress in the coming election. She was unwilling to give the Congress more than 2 of West Bengal’s 42 Lok Sabha seats while the State unit of the Congress demanded 10. The Congress State unit reportedly told the central leadership that an alliance with the graft-tainted Trinamool would be political suicide (and if forced into one, they might as well be compensated handsomely).

Mamata’s Trinamool has always had a completely different take on the matter. It believes the Congress was lucky to have been offered two seats in the first place; going by its dwindling vote share, it would be a miracle if the Congress won even those two.

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In a way, karma has come back to bite the Congress. Once upon a time, it did not want Mamata and forced her out of the party. Now, Mamata does not want the Congress. All that a desperate Congress leadership can do is shrug off the rejection and keep trying to sweet-talk her into returning. “Without her, we cannot fight the BJP in Bengal and the rest of the country. She is the integral, essential pillar of the INDIA bloc,” said senior Congress leader Jairam Ramesh soon after Mamata pulled the plug on the alliance. Mamata still did not join Rahul Gandhi’s Bharat Jodo Nyay Yatra when it traversed West Bengal.

The tension over seat sharing in Bengal and the panic in the Congress are not just about the arithmetic of electoral strategy. Its origins and implications point to a much larger story: the crisis of India’s secular alternative, how it got here, and its implications.

Opening for the opposition

With Mamata facing anti-incumbency and increasingly adverse public opinion over a string of corruption cases implicating some of her closest aides, there is an opening for the opposition in the State, which the local Congress leaders had correctly identified. Their prescience became apparent when Sandeshkhali erupted in the national media. The small island has been in the spotlight after local people accused local Trinamool leaders of seizing their lands and sexually assaulting their women. Yet, strangely, the party that stands to gain the most from this is the BJP. Strange, because the BJP has traditionally been a marginal player in Bengal politics, with a wobbly organisation dependent on cadre imported from other parties, and has only just come into prominence here.

In the 2016 Assembly election, when Mamata was re-elected with a thumping majority, winning 211 of the 294 seats, the BJP won just 3 (from zero in the previous election). By the time of the last State election in 2021, the BJP’s seat share soared to 77, a 2,500 per cent jump, while the CPI(M) and the Congress failed to win a single seat.

The BJP’s sudden rise in West Bengal is not just a function of its clear-headed pursuit of national expansion but also the result of the failure of secular parties to offer an alternative to Mamata, leaving the entire opposition space to the BJP by default. And then, in all their wisdom, concretising this abdication by pulling Mamata into the broad opposition alliance—and, in the Congress’ case, desperately trying to forge an electoral alliance with her party. Bengal is where a central contradiction over a nationwide secular front against the BJP is most evident: in States not ruled by the BJP, any alliance against the BJP is predicated on the assumption that the only alternative is the BJP, not another secular claimant. The voter is given no choice but to lean towards the BJP should they want to vote against the incumbent.

With 42 Lok Sabha seats, West Bengal should have been central to the Congress’ revival strategy. But it has always ceded space here, first to the Left and then to Mamata Banerjee.

With 42 Lok Sabha seats, West Bengal should have been central to the Congress’ revival strategy. But it has always ceded space here, first to the Left and then to Mamata Banerjee. | Photo Credit: PTI

The BJP has recruited a crusading judge trying corruption cases against the Trinamool to run in the election, and Narendra Modi has been delivering rousing speeches in Sandeshkhali, building up the momentum against Mamata. But if the tide does turn against Mamata and the BJP dislodges her, it will not be because Bengal’s voters were swept up by a saffron wave. It will be because they could not find a viable secular alternative to the Trinamool.

The “essential pillar”

This is because secular parties decided that Mamata needs no secular alternative. That it is not worth offering one because she herself is the “essential pillar” of a secular alternative that will displace the BJP nationally and restore democracy. Many in Bengal may be forgiven for their confusion at this projection of Mamata as a defender of democracy. In the Bengal panchayat elections last year, the Trinamool won nearly 10 per cent of the seats uncontested as many opposition candidates were simply not allowed to contest. The figure was as high as 34 per cent in 2018, when motorbike-riding Trinamool cadres brandishing swords carried the day for Mamata.

Much is made of how secular parties have been thrown out of kilter by Hindutva’s identity politics. But Bengal shows that it is not just the lack of an effective grammar of secular politics that propels the BJP; it is also the failure of secular parties to stick around and look interested in, and show themselves capable of, wielding power. And then seeking opportunistic alliances to make up for their weakness, and failing.

Take the Congress in Bengal. With 42 Lok Sabha seats (the third largest after Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra), Bengal should have been central to the party’s revival strategy. But decades of voluntarily ceding space to the ruling party—first to the Left, then to Mamata—as a quid pro quo for support at the Centre have locked the party into a crippling inertia, to the extent that the Congress’ Bengal handlers in Delhi now accept the party’s irrelevance as a fait accompli in what should have been a battleground State for the Congress. This strategy of pragmatic defeatism is as evident in the frantic wooing of a miffed Mamata as in the Congress’ near-invisibility in the State in recent years.

A dozy voting centre

The sleepy voting centre in my neighbourhood in Kolkata’s Ballygunge seat could not have been more anticlimactic for somebody all excited to cast his vote after 18 years away, when my trip to India in 2022 coincided with a byelection. A handful of bored voters at noon was the last thing one expected in an election for this prestigious seat in the heart of the capital. The last time I cast my vote here, in the 2004 parliamentary election before I left India, there were mile-long queues at the same voting centre and all the buzz and chatter typical of elections.

In that election in 2004, the Congress had fielded the actor Nafisa Ali from the South Kolkata Lok Sabha seat (of which Ballygunge is an Assembly constituency). Most people knew and probably liked Ali, but no one knew what she was doing in politics or why she had been parachuted in to take on a heavyweight like Mamata, who had by then broken away from the Congress to form the Trinamool. Nearly two decades on, no one even knew who the Congress had fielded. I tried and failed to spot a single Congress poster.

It was odd that the Congress was not even trying as it had a rare opportunity. The BJP was cooling its heels after failing to live up to its own bombast of acing the Bengal election the previous year; the Trinamool was weighed down by anti-incumbency and serial corruption scandals; and the Left was still licking its wounds from the shock defeat ending its 34-year run in 2011 from which its once-mighty machinery is yet to recover. The Ballygunge byelection was a perfect opportunity for the Congress to make its presence felt and at least try wrest some of the opposition space that it has almost wholly lost. The contest was not particularly difficult either. The Trinamool had fielded the singer-politician Babul Supriyo, a turncoat from the BJP with a history of Islamophobic hate speech, whose candidature even a section of the Trinamool was not comfortable with, given the sizeable Muslim population of this Assembly seat. In short, a fortuitous combination of factors for a party looking to make a comeback. The BJP would throw itself at an opportunity like this with all its might for much less.

  • The collapse of opposition alliances in States like West Bengal, Punjab, and Bihar raises concerns for those seeking a unified secular alternative to the BJP. However, this may actually signal an autocorrection, strengthening secular politics rather than weakening it.
  • Mamata Banerjee’s decision to go solo in elections, rejecting alliances with Congress due to disagreements over seat sharing, reflects deeper tensions within the opposition. Despite Congress’s desperation to include her, Mamata’s rejection highlights a crisis in India’s secular alternative.
  • The rise of the BJP in West Bengal is attributed not just to its national expansion strategy but also to the failure of secular parties to provide a viable alternative to Mamata. Focusing on regional strengths rather than forming opportunistic alliances may better serve the cause of secularism in India.

A familiar Congress stasis

This familiar Congress stasis has a long vintage. Before Mamata’s rise, the State Congress had cosily settled down as the main but toothless opposition, happily playing second fiddle to the communists. Although it maintained a vote share of around 40 per cent through the Left years, there was no concerted attempt to revive the party because of its understanding with the Left for ideological support nationally.

As Mamata pushed back against this status quo, her local ambition hit the wall of the Congress’ national calculus when she, rightfully, staked her claim to lead the State unit. Her rival, Somen Mitra, an uninspiring relic of the 1970s Bengal Congress, was considered more suitable for the job. The Men from Delhi did the typical Men from Delhi things: mediating and manipulating while maintaining a facade of internal democracy through an organisational “election” for the post. Mamata stomped out in disgust. This was 1997. A tottering Congress under Sitaram Kesri was desperate for Left support to keep the party relevant in the then tumult of national politics. Mamata was a small price to pay. As I was saying, karma has come back to bite the Congress.

BJP supporters during a party rally in Sandeshkhali, in North 24 Parganas district, on March 10.

BJP supporters during a party rally in Sandeshkhali, in North 24 Parganas district, on March 10. | Photo Credit: PTI

Years later, Mitra, for whom the Men from Delhi sacrificed Mamata, joined her. As did Nafisa Ali. Mamata’s Trinamool today is among the top five parties in the Lok Sabha. The Men from Delhi, whose careers should have been toast for that singular error of judgment in failing to retain one of the party’s greatest talents, went on to prosper in the Congress, even as the Congress went on the decline.

Back in West Bengal, as the irrepressible Mamata began to eat into the Congress vote share, the party was forced to join hands with her. More and more dispirited Congress workers migrated to other parties, mostly the Trinamool. The Congress eventually ceded to her the same leadership role in an alliance that it had denied her in the party. Go figure. Election after election followed with the ungainly sight of the Congress begging for seats from Mamata and getting fewer and fewer each time. The grand old party’s grovelling has not stopped. The urgency to stem the BJP’s seemingly unstoppable march has only made it worse.

From its inception, the INDIA bloc has had Mamata front and centre, standing shoulder to shoulder with the Gandhis in alliance group photographs. However good it looked in terms of a national united front, it is not hard to guess the impact of these optics on beaten-down State Congress workers. Imagine the humiliation of being told by the bosses to play second fiddle to what they call a “cancer-ridden” party (State Congress president Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury), a party that only helps strengthen the BJP (Rahul Gandhi), a party that says the Congress may not win even 40 seats nationwide this time. Imagine the confusion when the bosses call the same Mamata an “essential pillar” of the united INDIA bloc.

More regional, less INDIA

Election maths in many States admittedly may point to a polarisation between the BJP and non-BJP vote, thus making sense to present a unified opposition to the BJP, as in Bihar. But in many States, it does not, especially States not ruled by the BJP. I have lost count of the “expert” analyses lamenting the Congress’ arrogance in shutting out INDIA partners in the recent Assembly elections. The most common reading was that if the Congress had worked with its allies, it would have somehow done a better job of pushing back the BJP. But the most important takeaway is actually the opposite: more regional, less INDIA. Nothing says this better than the Congress’ own recent performance. Its wins in Telangana and Karnataka and even its failures in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, and Chhattisgarh—where the party has retained a sizeable vote share despite the losses—show that it fights the BJP the best in States where it relies on its own organisation, even if diminished. That is, where it fights at all; not where it has outsourced its local existence as part of a grand national bargain.

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In short, the cause of secularism is best served when secular parties concentrate on building their own organisations and compete with each other, rather than seek opportunistic alliances that push voters towards the BJP.

For a State like Bengal, the cartelisation of secular parties is particularly dangerous, not to mention undemocratic, in its conscious denial of choice to the voter. As Hindutva forces close in on power, a State with a nearly 30 per cent Muslim population is edging ever closer to mayhem. A political force that believes it can underwrite its success with a strategy of humiliation and subjugation of Muslims, and considers communal hate a political strategy, risks casting Bengal into an unending cycle of violence if it achieves power. Its leaders are already talking about the mandirs in Bengal destroyed by Muslim invaders. Ram Navamis are now marked by nervous police guarding Muslim localities from Hindutva bike rallies.

We know how this ends. West Bengal has been there before. If it is dragged there again, we will only have the “secular” parties to thank for it. But if Mamata’s rejection teaches secular parties, primarily the Congress, to concentrate on rebuilding their base and contesting one another rather than look for free rides with pointless alliances, she will have saved India by ditching INDIA.

Debasish Roy Chowdhury is co-author of To Kill A Democracy: India’s Passage to Despotism.

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