BengalI is the second most spoken native language in India after Hindi. In West Bengal’s rejection of the BJP and the thumping win of the regional powerhouse, the TMC, led by Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, is mirrored the larger message of the limitations of the Hindi belt template that had so far worked successfully for the national party. Two years have gone into the second term of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the disenchantment is now showing.
It's happening at a time when there has been a serious loss of face for the national regime because of the Covid crisis. There is, therefore, a clear image dent in losing Bengal, an election on which the BJP leadership staked so much. They made it a prestige election, so now there is, indeed, a loss of prestige. It’s that much more damaging as the votes have been counted at a time when the body count from Covid deaths is mounting. The BJP has much to ponder over, including the rising deaths, the scarcity of oxygen and vaccines and the flailing economy.
But since the party is usually described as the ultimate election fighting machine, it may also ponder over the efficacy of its Hindi belt politics symbolised by the slogan ‘Jai Shri Ram’, through which it launched its aggressive high-decibel campaign in Bengal — and failed to generate enough friction on the Hindu-Muslim fault-line to actually win. Because numerically, the Hindi belt dominates, its nature of politics is often wrongly presented as an all-India phenomenon.
This election is a reminder that India is a polyglot nation of many cultures and subcultures. Cow belt politics, it turns out, could have peaked and does not appeal across the land.
It would be wrong, however, to conclude that communal polarisation was not a factor in Bengal: it was there, and was festered in the months leading up to the polling, but not all Hindus were convinced that they were in danger from the minorities, most are Bengali-speaking anyway. The state’s very large Muslim population (27 per cent) was alarmed enough to vote with their hand and feet for the TMC.
Former journalist Swapan Dasgupta and BJP candidate for the seat of Tarakeshwar (that he would eventually lose) had once famously written in a magazine: “Between good governance and chaos stand the Muslims of India.” This line of reasoning is probably what the BJP would like to put out as the alibi for a resounding defeat.
Yet, it would be a mistake to see the TMC as landing this mandate only through the Muslim voter bloc; the large vote share difference between the two parties, with the TMC ahead by over 10 per cent, should put an end to any such speculation. In the final reckoning, across the state, across castes, communities, urban and rural folk, Didi’s party was preferred over the BJP.
The national party does now get to be the principal opposition in Bengal, with the Left all but gone into oblivion, along with the Congress.
There were other factors responsible for the triumph of the extraordinary woman in hawai chappals, with her foot famously plastered, who got the better of the PM and the big guns of the Union Cabinet. For, when Goliaths rain down with all their might and fury Davids do come through as heroic. Mamata Banerjee, the only woman chief minister in India at present, has always been exceptional in giving women representation in both the Lok Sabha and the Assembly.
The Bengal mandate was also a victory for federalism, as is that in Tamil Nadu and Kerala. The BJP dream of ‘one nation one poll’ certainly looks more distant after this round of state polls. India’s federal nature has been reasserted and the numbers are not good for India’s pre-eminent party. Add to the Bengal defeat the zero balance from Kerala, a state where the RSS cadres are always in pitched battles with the Left cadres, the latter now triumphant; on top of that is the decisive win for the DMK-led front in Tamil Nadu, and we have a reminder that all of India is not under the sway of the Prime Minister and his resource-rich party.
True, the BJP retained power in Assam. And IT cell chief Amit Malviya (also co-in-charge for Bengal) was spotted on a TV channel saying that it would be wrong to deduce that the PM’s popularity is coming down as the party is likely to be a partner in an alliance that has come to power in a front in the Union Territory of Puducherry. Since the BJP will not get the CM’s post there, Malviya’s serious defence on May 2 was a comic clutching at straws.
The next round of state elections takes place in Punjab and Uttar Pradesh in early 2022. The protest against the farm laws is now a part of a lived reality of Punjab and there is nothing to suggest that the BJP could make a mark in the state whose farmers are shuttling between the borders of Delhi and their farms. And then there is UP that has just concluded a four-phase panchayat poll in the course of which reportedly 700 teachers forced to do election duty died due to Covid-19; that’s besides the thousands who have perished from the virus in the state accused of undercounting the dead.
At this stage, there does not appear to be a strong political opposition in UP, but extraordinary circumstances have consequences. Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath had campaigned vigorously in Bengal where he promised to create, as he had in UP, anti-Romeo squads once the BJP came to power because he said women of Bengal were not safe with the TMC — his way of dog-whistling about minorities.
Clearly, the people of Bengal had no desire for such offerings from the Hindi heartland Chief Minister. They have their own language, idiom, politics and culture to follow in the streams, forests and meadows of Bengal. They have sorely disappointed the BJP at a time the national party needed the oxygen of victory.
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