There is only one fact about Indian politics that matters: the sole thing capable of stopping the Modi-Shah Hindutva election machine in its tracks is federalism. It should come as no surprise that the states where the Bharatiya Janata Party just lost state elections are ones where a strong regional – indeed, sub-national – identity predominates. Mamata Banerjee, MK Stalin and Pinarayi Vijayan all, to a greater or lesser degree, made this election about their states forging a path within, but distinct from, India’s. They have shown us the answer to the question that is the last resort of the Modi fan faced with facts about the union government’s poor performance, “So, what is the alternative”? The alternative to Modi is: Everyone else. Voters outside the Hindi heartland have been telling us this for years, but Delhi’s intellectuals and media, blinded by their parochial obsession with heartland politics, have spent decades condemning “messy” federal front politics.
Yet, every assembly election makes it ever clearer that it is only an alliance of strong state-level leaders that can hope to combat and control the centralising, domineering force that is the Modi-era BJP.
Had Bengal fallen to Modi and Shah in this election, I could not have written these words. This is the true significance of the West Bengal assembly election of 2021. It was the moment when the final frontier for Hindutva ideology was supposed to fall – but, instead, it was the BJP that fell.
The fact is that Bengal matters to the march of the Sangh Parivar in a way that no other state does. It is a state that provides a disproportionate number of the Left-leaning intellectuals that the current establishment so despises. It is the state where the Parivar’s most paranoid fantasies about the demographic decline of Hindus are supposedly being played out. And finally, the Bengali Muslim is Hindutva politics’ most reliable bogeyman: you can’t walk up to a Muslim from north India in 2021 and claim they are literally from Pakistan, but in today’s India, any Bengali Muslim outside the state’s borders can be attacked for being Bangladeshi. The most fanatical right-wingers in India today genuinely believe that Bengal is a few years away from becoming “another Kashmir” – jihadist, secessionist, Muslim-majority. And, it is the state that, after all, invented modern Indian communalism, the location of the worst killings during Partition, the home of multiple Hindu nationalist ideologues – including, of course, the founder of the Jan Sangh. How can this state fail to accept the Sangh’s ideology?
The defeat of Modi and Shah in Bengal is humiliating not just because they mobilised the entire machinery of the union government against Mamata Banerjee for years, or because they personally addressed super-spreader rallies, or because the party poured financial and other resources into the state campaign. It is humiliating because this will be seen as a repudiation of the Sangh’s claim that its ideology is the national ideology. Now, the Sangh Parivar will be forced once again to ask itself: can you be nationalist if you are not even national?
Nor can it take enough pleasure simply in being the principal opposition in Bengal. That is not in itself enough to claim ideological victory – and they know it. The BJP is the Bengal opposition by default: the Left gave it a walkover. The Bengal Left, betrayed by its central leadership, lost the plot shortly after its ouster ten years ago – and it lost the streets when it was unable to protect its remaining cadre from Trinamool violence. They escaped to the only party which claimed to promise a degree of protection, the BJP. Had someone else offered, that’s where they would have gone. They were followed by Trinamool dissenters. Had someone else bought Trinamool leaders the way the BJP did, they would have been the principal opposition instead.
It is not as if this mechanism has not worked for the BJP elsewhere: after all, it was just re-elected in Assam after buying outright an entire political class and party machinery less than a decade ago. The difference in Bengal is that in the battle between sub-nationalism and Hindu-Muslim polarisation, sub-nationalism won in Bengal and lost in Assam. Perhaps this is because of the unique nature of Assamese sub-nationalism, in which Bengalis and Muslims are both the demonised other, and have been for decades; unlike in Bengal, sub-nationalists in Assam are an easy target for mainstream Hindutva.
The central point about the Trinamool’s victory in Bengal is this: Bengali Hindus did not choose the BJP. In parts of the state, polarisation may well have worked, particularly in the border districts of central Bengal. But what happened in Jangalmahal – the belt in South Bengal with the lowest percentage of Muslims in the state? The BJP swept this area in the 2019 Lok Sabha election; the Prime Minister held multiple rallies in the area. It was the first section of the state to go to the polls, so there was no Covid effect. And yet, the Trinamool won over 80 per cent of the seats in the area in 2021.
If anything, the tracts of northern Bengal where the BJP demonstrated its resilience even in this election underline the importance of sub-nationalism to Indian politics today. The home of the Gorkhaland and Kamtapur agitations voted for the BJP not because it is in enamoured of Hindutva, but because the BJP and the Trinamool are just actors in North Bengal’s own sub-regional narrative.
The 2019 Lok Sabha election, fought in the shadow of Pulwama and Balakot, may not be the best guide to Indian politics in the 2020s. In today’s India, politics is regional politics, and every party is – to some degree – a regional party. The BJP has carved out a presence for itself pan-India, but unlike the Congress of decades ago, this presence is fragile, driven by money and muscle. Meanwhile, the Gandhi Congress’ failure in Bengal is a reminder of how it has essentially been supplanted as the “national” presence in state across state. True, as long as Kerala continues to shut out the BJP, the Gandhi Congress remains the only Indian party that could win at least one seat in any state in the country, but its power bases have shrunk enough that in the Lok Sabha, it has twice now won just about as many seats as a regional party would. Yet it remains the only party capable of being the glue in an all-India coalition. And for that reason, it is up to the Gandhi Congress to determine the future of Indian politics. Is it capable of embracing the new federalism? If it can do so enthusiastically, if it takes the initiative in forging a coherent political foundation for a federal front, if it creates a persuasive narrative around the new federalism, then the Modi-Shah BJP is not invincible even in a Lok Sabha election.
This will not be easy. Regional leaders like Banerjee and others carry a complex history of resentments against the Congress of the past. But they too have a choice. If they continue to fight their regional, sub-national battles, they will always be fending off the malevolent institutions of what one former Chief Minister used to call the “Delhi sultanate”. As Banerjee’s battles against the CBI, the WB Governor and the Election Commission show, this saps their energy and their political capital. Regional leaders can accept this as the way things are. Or they can recognise that their own states’ development, their own sub-national histories, will remain stunted if they are permanently locked out of power in Delhi. Coalition with the Modi-Shah BJP is not an option; this is not a party capable of sharing power the way Vajpayee’s BJP did. These assembly elections are a victory for regionalism, yes. But they are also a reminder of why those who care about a federal India need greater unity of purpose if they are to survive.
(Mihir Swarup Sharma is a fellow at the Observer Research Foundation.)
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