The Battle For Bengal Is The Election To Watch

Of the four states where there will soon be assembly elections in April-May, West Bengal’s will be the most keenly watched. It is the state where the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is the biggest challenger to the incumbent All-India Trinamool Congress (AITC) government, which, led by chief minister Mamata Banerjee, is completing 10 years in power.

For several years, the eastern state has been a hard nut to crack for the BJP but in the last parliamentary polls, the party managed to win 18 member of parliament seats from Bengal, which was a feat considering that the party has traditionally managed to get no more than two MPs elected from the state. In the West Bengal assembly, the BJP currently has just 27 of the 294 seats (the AITC and its allies have 211).

The BJP’s formulaic approach to winning in the states – the party enjoys power in 18 of India’s 28 states – thus far has been a combination of caste and religion based politics. In the Hindi belt states as well as in the western states this has worked well. But in Bengal, caste politics and religious issues have mattered less in the past. That, however, could change. The Muslim population in Bengal has grown steadily and is estimated now at nearly 30% compared to the all-India proportion of a little more than 13%.

This has two implications. A larger proportion of Muslim voters has stood in the way of the Hindu nationalist-leaning BJP becoming popular in the state. But it has also created a sort of backlash among Hindu voters many of whom perceive Ms Banerjee’s government as being one that appeases the minority community. The BJP wants to turn that sort of backlash to an electoral advantage.

The BJP is also following a strategy that challenges Ms Banerjee’s government with charges of corruption, particularly against her nephew Abhisek Banerjee, who is an MP and a powerful member of her party. The party has also managed to chip away at the AITC by getting some of its prominent leaders such as former railway minister Dinesh Trivedi, former state ministers Subhendu Adhikary and Rajib Banerjee to defect to the BJP. Although these leaders have limited mass following in the state, their exits have triggered some dissension within Ms Banerjee’s party.

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There are other factors that might help the BJP. A large part of the urban population comprising middle-class could be a bit restive about Ms Banerjee’s government, which despite promises has not really been effective in ensuring the state’s economic progress at a more rapid pace. The continuing impact of the pandemic has not helped either.

But yet, the AITC led by the feisty Ms Banerjee has many strong advantages in the state. For instance, the BJP really doesn’t have a credible face to project as its chief ministerial candidate for the state. Also, the backlash against Muslims may have grown but the fact remains that at in 100 of the 294 constituencies, Muslim voters will be the ones who will decide who wins. And the BJP is unlikely to get their favour.

The AITC has also employed the services of a poll strategist with a good track record – Prashant Kishor, who has worked with several Indian parties and leaders, including his efforts in Gujarat where he is believed to have played a key role in ensuring that Narendra Modi got a third term there as chief minister in 2011. The other niggling factor that might affect the BJP is the first ever formal seat-sharing arrangement in the state between the Congress and the Left parties. Both are not significant players anymore (both have just 46 seats between them) but an alliance could dent both, the AITC as well as the BJP’s fortunes in the elections.

The other states that will go to the polls are Tamil Nadu, Assam, Kerala, and Puducherry. In Tamil Nadu it will be a repeat of the traditional battle between two regional parties, DMK and AIADMK. The BJP, which is likely to have an alliance with AIADMK (in power now), hopes to piggyback on that party if it manages to be re-elected. But early analyses show that DMK may have an edge this time. The Congress and Left parties in the state are allied with the DMK.

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In Kerala, the pattern has traditionally been one where every five years the fortunes swing between the Left and the Congress. In other words, the opposition gets elected to power. By that logic, the Congress-led alliance may come back to power, dislodging the Left alliance which forms the incumbent government. The Congress is hoping that the fact that Rahul Gandhi represents Wayanad (he was elected MP from that constituency in Kerala) will give it more of an edge.

Meanwhile, the BJP looks confident in being able to retain power in Assam but the Congress party there is focussing its strategy on opposing the National Registrar of Citizens and the Citizenship Amendment Act, two thorny issues that have divisive effects in the state. In Puducherry, a union territory, the Congress government has collapsed recently and although this has created uncertainties, it could well work to the advantage of a BJP-backed alliance if that can be formed.

But it is West Bengal that will steal the show during the state elections. The battle for Bengal could be one that is fought tooth and nail by both, Ms Banerjee who wants to come back for a third term; and the BJP, which wants to wrest control of a state that has always posed formidable challenges to it.

Are India’s Probing Agencies Becoming Political Puppets?

Last month the Jammu & Kashmir People’s Democratic Party (PDP) president and former chief minister Mehbooba Mufti said the Centre was “weaponising” central investigating agencies such as the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), National Investigation Agency (NIA), and the Enforcement Directorate (ED) by using them to probe and harass her, her friends and family, and her party leaders. She scathingly remarked that the ruling regime, led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), was using these agencies as its “mistresses” to target her and her party.

Jammu and Kashmir is now administered as a Union Territory under the terms of Article 239A (which was initially applied to Puducherry is now also applicable to the Union Territory as per The Jammu and Kashmir Reorganisation Act, 2019) of the Constitution of India. Before that Act was passed, J&K was administered by a coalition government that was formed by an alliance of the PDP and the BJP. That alliance was ill-fated and in June 2018, it broke down, leading J&K back to Governor’s Rule.

Ms Mufti’s remarks alleging that the Centre is using the government’s investigation agencies to target the ruling regime’s political opponents is not an isolated one. This is not the first time that CBI, NIA, ED, and other central investigative agencies have been accused of being used politically by ruling regimes in India. The CBI is India’s premier investigating agency and functions as a national investigating and security organisation as well as an intelligence agency; the NIA acts as the Central Counter Terrorism Law Enforcement Agency; and the ED is a law enforcement agency and economic intelligence agency that is responsible for enforcing economic laws and fighting economic crime in India.

Targeting political rivals or opposition leaders by using the services of such agencies is not new in India. Successive ruling regimes have been observed to have done it. However, the rising concerns are about the alleged spread of the practice since 2014 when the incumbent BJP-led coalition came to power at the Centre and, subsequently, was re-elected in 2019. The BJP’s clearly-stated objective is not only to make India emerge as a country “freed of the Congress” (Congress mukt Bharat, in Hindi) but also to wrest control in as many of the Indian states as it can. So, its political rivals include, not only a national party such as the Congress, but also several regional parties that hold sway in the states.

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The first of the apparently politically-motivated actions by investigating agencies during the BJP-ruled regime began early. Soon after the BJP-led coalition came to power in 2014, investigative agencies swung into action. There were raids at the Delhi chief minister (and vocal opponent of the BJP) Arvind Kejriwal’s office; and old cases against Uttar Pradesh’s Samajwadi Party leader Akhilesh Yadav and Bahujan Samaj Party president Mayawati were revived. In 2019, just before the general elections, the CBI raided the Kolkata police commissioner’s office without a warrant in what was an action quite clearly directed at undermining the Trinamool Congress’ Mamata Banerjee who is the chief minister of West Bengal and also a huge critic of the ruling regime at the Centre.

The list of such political targeting by investigative agencies is long. In 2019, former Haryana chief minister, Bhupinder Singh Hooda, faced raids in connection to old cases of alleged corruption in land deals; Congress MP and political secretary to Sonia Gandhi, Ahmed Patel (who passed away in 2020) was linked to a money-laundering scheme in Gujarat; and the homes of leaders close to the Biju Janata Dal leader and Odisha chief minister Naveen Patnaik were raided before panchayat elections in that state. These are only a few examples of what Indian political parties, particularly those who oppose the BJP, call “political vendetta” against them. Last month, when the ED summoned a Shiv Sena leader’s wife in Mumbai for questioning in connection with a bank fraud, the party’s workers put up a banner in front of the city’s ED office, which proclaimed that it was a BJP office.

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It should not be anybody’s case the charges that are levelled by the investigating agencies against opposition politicians are rigged or false. Some (or perhaps, even all) of them may have some basis for investigation. But it is the concerted manner in which the agencies are used that is of concern because it smacks of government interference in the role of the agencies that are supposed to be autonomous and apolitical.

One of the most high-profile cases was the one involving former finance minister P Chidambaram in 2019. He was accused of being involved in the INX Media scandal. Chidambaram was charged with allowing an irregular transfer of overseas funds to the media company. Chidambaram was arrested and the CBI tried to extend his custody many times. But that case has now gone nowhere.

That is the other thing. Many of the cases on which investigative agencies have based their actions against opposition political leaders have either died down, reached a dead-end, or not been pursued after the initial raids, arrests, and so on. While that could reinforce the opposition parties’ allegations that the ruling regime is using the agencies for political vendetta, the more serious issue is about what such a practice could do to the reputation and autonomy of India’s central investigating agencies, which are, by law, meant to be non-partisan, apolitical, unbiased, and independent. If these institutions and their functioning are prone to political interference, not only will their functioning be eroded but Indians will lose their faith in the establishment and its ability to function without fear and favour.

Who Is Next On BJP’s Radar?

Forget the Congress and Jyotiraditya Scindia drama. The Congress already seems to be in political ICU facing last rites having been crushed by BJP’s Congress-Mukt campaign. The next on the BJP’s predatory game are the regional parties. There is much nervous ness within the smaller regional parties as loyalties among their members are being tested.  

The members of the smaller parties are easier to “manage” and more susceptible to allurements and pressure tactics generally employed to “win” over vulnerable opponents. The saffron party made a beginning in this direction last year when four MPs from the Telugu Desam Party and three from the Samajwadi Party switched loyalties to the BJP. However, the regional parties can expect to feel the heat once the BJP leadership is satisfied that it has succeeded in its mission of decimating the Congress.

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The immediate provocation for engineering these defections is to push up the BJP’s tally in the Rajya Sabha where it does not have a majority. At the same time, the saffron party is also busy toppling state governments as it did in Karnataka last year and is currently in the process of bringing down the Kamal Nath government in Madhya Pradesh. 

The BJP felt cheated when it was prevented from coming to power in Karnataka in 2018 when the Congress and the Janata Dal (S) teamed up to form the government. The BJP had since then been waiting for an opportunity to get back at the Congress-JD(S) combine. It eventually met with success last year when sixteen MLAs from the Congress and the JD (S) resigned and crossed over to the BJP, enabling it to form the government in the Southern state.

In Madhya Pradesh, the drama unfolded when former Congress minister Jyotiraditya Scindia decided to switch sides when he found himself being sidelined by his party rivals – chief minister Kamal Nath and senior leader Digvijaya Singh. Denied political space in his home state and a Rajya Sabha seat by the Congress, Scindia chose to walk out along with his supporters. Sixteen Congress MLAs have sent in their resignations and were airlifted by the BJP to Bengaluru where they have been sequestered in a luxury resort.

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At the same time, the Congress is facing trouble in Gujarat where five MLAs have put in their papers, jeopardizing the party’s chances of winning two Rajya Sabha seats in the March 26 election. The Congress has since been struggling to keep its remaining legislators safe.

These developments are predictably being followed closely by the regional parties which realise that they are next on the BJP’s hit list. The Samajwadi Party and the Telugu Desam Party have already lost seven MPs to the saffron party and they don’t know what awaits them in the coming days. With West Bengal assembly polls due next year, the Mamata Banerjee-led Trinamool Congress has reason to worry. As it is, a number of Trinamool members had crossed over to the BJP in the run-up to last year’s Lok Sabha election and the party has every reason to believe the BJP will pull out all stops to weaken Mamata Banerjee before the assembly polls.

Moreover, regional parties feel that the weakening of the Congress and the emergence of a unipolar polity will hit them hard. Although these parties have been battling the Congress in their respective states, there is also a realization that if the grand old party faces extinction, the possibility of putting together an anti-BJP opposition front will become more difficult. Any such grouping necessarily needs the Congress to anchor it. However, if the Congress is rendered incapable of playing that role, it will become so much more difficult for the regional parties to mount a combined offensive against the all-powerful BJP because there will be no nucleus around which the parties can coalesce.

And this will make the regional parties more vulnerable to the BJP’s predatory moves. These parties will then have a choice of playing second fiddle to the BJP or facing erosion in its ranks. This situation suits the BJP as its leaders privately admit that they find it easier to deal with regional parties because they are “ideologically flexible” and purely focused on the interests of their respective states. Consequently, they can be co-opted with the lure of Central grants and special projects as regional leaders are made to realise the benefits of keeping the Centre on their right side. Odisha and Andhra Pradesh chief ministers Naveen Patnaik and Jagan Mohan Reddy have understood this well as their parties extend full support to the Modi government and are not inclined to rock the boat at the Centre.

Regional parties, especially the smaller ones, often stand to lose their identity and their political space if they throw their lot with the larger national party. The Uttar Pradesh-based Apna Dal is a case in point. The BJP wooed the party and even gave a ministerial berth to its leader Anupriya Patel in order to get the support of the Patels in the electorally-important Hindi heartland state of Uttar Pradesh. But now that the Patels have shown a preference for the saffron party, Apna Dal and Patel now find themselves sidelined in the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance.

From all accounts, it appears the regional parties face tough times ahead. BJP the predator is on the hunt and they appear to be easy game after Congress.

Watch – ‘Kejriwal Spoiling Our Generation With Freebies’

Supporters of Bharatiya Janata Party in Delhi feel that Aam Aadmi Party is setting in a culture of muftkhori (freebies) which will prove costly in the long run for sustainable supplies. Besides, the subsidies are only targeted to the owners and not tenants, mostly immigrants from other states, because they do not constitute AAP’s core voter base.