A huge victory for an embattled single woman in a wheelchair who stood for an India and a Bengal for all. And an equally big defeat for a juggernaut so hungry to crush obstacles in Bengal that it refused even to acknowledge the Covid death machine that is bringing unbearable grief across India.
The BJP has no doubt retained Assam, but even there, the results might have been different had its elections been held two weeks later than they were, for the Modi government’s failure on the Covid front seems to have impacted minds across India. That daunting front will now require all the energies of the newly-elected state governments.
The Prime Minister marvelled aloud at a huge cheering crowd in West Bengal. He, Amit Shah and the BJP threw all the money they had into their bid to capture the state. Modi and Shah spent time electioneering in Bengal even when Covid’s race across India needed their total attention. Stars and BJP Chief Ministers were put to work in Bengal. Much of the national media echoed the Modi-Shah predictions of a BJP sweep there, and their party seemed to possess all the advantages from a staggered voting schedule, even though that schedule assisted Covid’s advance.
But the voter had the last word. In a democracy, she, the voter, is Queen.
And this time, under the surface, democracy was indeed a major election issue, especially the equality pillar on which democracy rests, and especially the equal rights of minorities in India. Mamata Banerjee was pilloried by the juggernaut as an appeaser of Muslims, and the state’s Hindu majority was exhorted to unite against the 27 percent Muslim minority who were portrayed as anti-nationals more loyal to neighbouring Bangladesh.
Moreover, the sarcastic “Didi, O Didi!” cry that Modi repeated, to great applause, in rally after rally did not sound respectful to women. But Bengal’s women have had the last word. The equality for which Bengal has voted is not only between Hindus and Muslims. It is equality between women and men too.
It requires no thought to recognize that equality is precisely what the virus has taught. Covid did not differentiate between people. Here the death-dealing virus was superior to us humans. Will we learn equality from it? At one level, Covid has already enforced equality. In India’s greatest cities, the rich and the influential are at one with the humble in begging for oxygen and a hospital. Covid the Horror is also the Covid the Leveller.
Also noteworthy is the failure of the mighty BJP machine to obtain any substantial benefit from the publicized defections secured by it of ministers and legislators from Chief Minister Banerjee’s party. Modi and Shah saw nothing strange in extolling ministers from a government they were condemning in the strongest language once they had defected to their side. Voters were not impressed. They were impressed more by the fighting spirit of their own Didi.
I should add that the BJP’s poor show in Kerala, where the CPM’s Pinarayi Vijayan has impressively won a second term, and Tamil Nadu, where M. K. Stalin of the DMK will lead the state as his famous father had done, confirms that the politics of communal polarization faces hard geographical limits.
Apart from the attempt to intensify and exploit communal ill-will, the Modi campaign in Bengal and elsewhere also featured Modi himself as the individual who brings relief, who arranges vaccinations, and cares personally for every citizen. The personality cult is also a force that has received a welcome setback.
Isn’t Mamata’s a personality cult too? Perhaps. But there may be a closeness between her and her people, a simplicity and an identification that seems to be missing in Modi’s relationship with the people who thus far have placed their faith in him.
Mamata seems to be much more of a genuine people’s person than Modi, but she and the others who have been elected or re-elected to their high offices will have to face a major weakness in India: the erosion of the institutions of governance.
Charismatic individuals may collect votes. But only institutions can provide policing, or justice, or medical relief, as Covid has shown.
Today’s results will give a measure of hope to the many who have been deeply troubled about India’s democracy. Some will want to know if non-BJP parties will now come together in something like a federal front. An important question. Even more important, perhaps, is the need for our institutions, of which the Election Commission is one, to recover, preserve and strengthen their autonomy. Voters in West Bengal seem to have embraced Covid’s message of equality. But Covid has also underscored the inefficiency of our institutions, including the cabinet and its committees, the agencies responsible for public health, and the body that brings the central and state governments together.
The claims of victory over the virus, and the failure to use the apparent lull in the Covid storm to prepare for the next wave when every country had a succession of waves, are now painful memories. When most needed, the government was nowhere to be found. The voice that was heard every day seemed suddenly to go silent. Yet exhausted doctors and nurses, and compassionate strangers, have saved many lives.
Bringing Covid under control and saving as many lives as possible will be the first task of every new and old state government, as it remains also the task of the central government. Yet, Covid’s horror cannot suppress the fact that the Indian voter has breathed hope back into our democracy.
(Rajmohan Gandhi is presently teaching at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.)
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