Weekly Update: India’s Intriguing Reaction To Ukraine Crisis; Time For Poll Results

When it comes to what is happening in Ukraine, the discourse in Indian media, among its politicians and in the noisy environment of social media is all about one thing: how the 20,000 Indians, mostly students, were being evacuated back to India as the Russian military attack there gained momentum. If your news sources were solely Indian, you’d be bombarded with information on what the government was doing to get back its citizens from what was becoming a war zone. 

The political capital to be gained from making a huge fanfare of the evacuation is obvious. Prime Minister Modi has had widely publicised interactions with Indian students who have come back home. His ministerial colleagues have chanted slogans that portray him as a sort of saviour. 

Some of his ministerial colleagues have also provided us with a bit of comic relief. The civil aviation minister, who is known more for his sense of entitlement than any modicum of humility, went to Romania where Indians fleeing Ukraine had been sheltered. The minister was ostensibly overseeing their evacuation to India but true to his traits, he launched into a bombastic speech. It was interrupted by the Romanian mayor of the city who pithily told him that it was he who had provided the fleeing Indians with food and shelter and not the minister whose job it is to take them home. The entire episode, caught on video, went viral much to the chagrin of the Indian government. 

It is not anybody’s case that during crisis situations such as the one in Ukraine governments should not put in every effort to evacuate its stranded citizens. It is their duty to do so and they should. But to use such attempts to boost the popularity of a political leader or to squeeze political benefits from such moves is in pretty poor taste. But then taste or finesse has not been the hallmark of India’s ruling regime. Instead, it has usually appalled us with its reactions and responses to developments such as the one in Ukraine. When the focus was on the evacuation project, hubristically named Operation Ganga, some political leaders criticised Indian students for going abroad to study and not stay in India.

Such loonies abound in Indian politics and public life–recently a well-known TV host who had two foreign guests on his show carried on berating one of them not realising that he was mistaking him for the other person on the show. Instead of directing his rant at the American foreign policy commentator, he aimed his high-decibel rant at an Ukrainian journalist and carried on doing it till the hapless journo could protest and set things right.

The more intriguing question about how India, its government, its political leaders and its media are handling the Ukraine crisis is about why the Indian official reaction to Russia’s aggression in Ukraine has been so muted. Last week, the three other members of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, colloquially the Quad or QUAD, which is a strategic security dialogue between the United States, India, Japan and Australia, urged India to join the rest of the group in condemning the aggression in Ukraine. But India hasn’t complied yet. It is among the 35 nations that have abstained from voting on a United Nations resolution against the Russian attack. 

As the world’s most populous democracy, India needs to be a bit more assertive on the global stage. In recent times, the country’s leadership has demonstrated episodic reactions to global developments. With Russia India has enjoyed favourable trade and investment relationships that date back to the Soviet era. And Russia continues to be the largest supplier of defence equipment and arms to India. But when a country like Russia is aggressive towards another, much smaller nation, is it not time for India to condemn such a move? Or is it that in the new world order, India has begun to take sides and align with a new superpower? If that is the case, there could be another corollary question: If another powerful neighbour of India–China–decides to get a bit aggressive on India’s eastern border, what kind of support does the country expect from other nations, including Russia? India should ponder that.

Time for poll results

Be prepared to be assailed by a barrage of exit polls, some of which will undoubtedly be wide of the mark. After March 7 when the last phase of the Uttar Pradesh elections are completed, marking an end of elections in five states–Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Uttarakhand, Goa, and Manipur–the speculation about who will win in these states will be swirling around in discussions in social media and mainstream media, of course, but also among India’s ordinary citizens. Elections are the most secular festivals in India, even as the other “real” festivals get more and more communalised. 

While it will be foolhardy to predict who is going to win in these states–even seasoned analysts quite often get their predictions wrong–it may be worth the while to keep in mind a few issues that could be important. First, in Uttar Pradesh, would the BJP win again? And if it does, would it scrape through or have a decisive victory? Also, would the highly divisive hardcore Hindutva proponent, Yogi Adityanath, get another term as chief minister? In Punjab would a relatively newcomer party, Delhi’s Aam Aadmi Party manage to top the scale when the results are out? That could mark a breakthrough for its leader, Arvind Kejriwal? And then, of course, it would be interesting to see whether Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee and her party, the Trinamool Congress, makes any headway in Goa.  On March 10, we will know it all.

‘Mamata Is The Only Leader Who Can Challenge Modi’

Chintan Patel, a sports physiotherapist in Panaji, Goa, feels Trinamool Congress has taken a calculated risk to enter a small state like Goa before emerging on the national stage

Owing to the fact that Goa is the smallest state in the country (40 seats), its political landscape is a little different from that of the other states, especially from that of West Bengal (294 seats). Perhaps Mamata Banerjee decided to start her national political innings from here because it is good to start on a small scale. That according to me is a wise step: to take only as much as one can easily commit to and handle.

The physical and metaphorical distance between the voters and representatives in Goa isn’t that much unlike in larger states. The cook employed at my house is a Goan native and says that local representatives do pay their residential areas regular visits. The voters are aware too and take active interest in local politics. Politics isn’t just about making promises to the janta, but also executing them properly. Mamata Banerjee and her party candidates will have to build a very strong base in Goa, if they want to make inroads into national politics.

Goa, being a small state, is no stranger to personality politics. It is also no stranger to ideas of cosmopolitanism and being open to other cultures, given its thriving tourism industry. Mamata Banerjee will have to strike a fine balance and really try to understand the local lifestyle well. It is good that she visited the state last month for a few days.

The Goa Assembly elections are scheduled in February 2022. As a sports physiotherapist working with the Goa Cricket Association and Goa Football Association, I come in contact with many star players regularly. One of my friends, footballer Denzil Franco joined TMC recently.

Patel comes from a politically conscious family in Gujarat

Anyone who fulfils their promises or tries to show genuine intent to understand and solve local issues will win the voter’s minds and hearts. During the second wave of Covid in May, Goa wasn’t able to handle it well and in the post-pandemic world people are looking for leaders who can be strong and lead from the front in moments of crisis.

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The voter nowadays is also more aware thanks to social media and understands that state issues aren’t independent from that of the centre. The central leadership does affect and influence state politics in certain cases, such as a pandemic.

I am a Gujarati who has been living in Panaji for nearly five years now and my family is based in Gujarat. A few of my close relatives are actively engaged in politics and I am aware that the wind can change direction any time on any issue in politics. It depends on the charisma of the leader at top apart from the hard work of the party cadre on ground level.

Modiji or let’s say the BJP has managed to somehow win over the attention of the janta, but Mamata Banerjee is also a formidable opponent. Perhaps she is the only one giving strong ‘opposition’ to Modiji. Despite Congress being the single largest party in 2017, they lost Goa, but Mamata held the fort strongly in West Bengal and came back for a successive third stint as Chief Minister this year. It would be interesting to see if TMC can build a strong base in Goa and go from being a strong regional player to a strong national player.

Nuts & Bolts of Mamata’s Not-So-Nutty Plan For Goa

When the assembly elections in the tiny Indian state of Goa (population: 1.60 million) are held in February 2022, a prominent contestant for a slice of the 40 seats in the state will be Ms. Mamata Banerjee’s All India Trinamool Congress (AITMC). The “All India” part of her party’s name could seem a bit of a misnomer because, at least in terms of the number of seats that the party has won in states other than West Bengal in recent years. It is predominantly a regional political party from West Bengal where Ms. Banerjee has served two consecutive terms as chief minister and is currently serving her third.

But could that change? Ms. Banerjee’s ambition of spreading her political domain to regions other than Bengal is not new. In the past, her party has contested assembly elections in other states: in 2001, in Assam her party won a seat; in Manipur, in 2012, she won seven; in the same year, in Uttar Pradesh, she won one seat, and in Tripura, in 2016, she managed to get six Congress legislators to defect to her party. But her party’s faring has been patchy. In Manipur, where she had seven, she lost six seats in the 2017 elections and has just one now. In Punjab, in 2017, she fielded 20 candidates but none of them won.

Tripura, Manipur, and parts of Assam (particularly in the south where Bengali speaking population is considerably large) are actually low-hanging fruit for Ms. Banerjee. Tripura and Manipur are small and not too distant from her home base and with the right kind of alliances, she could make inroads in those states. But these moves have at best been relatively small ones and not part of a bigger plan to spread the AITMC’s wings.

Till now. Enter Abhishek Banerjee, her 34-year-old nephew and MP, who was appointed as the party’s national general secretary this summer. Banerjee’s rise within the party that his aunt leads has been phenomenal. He has also been in the eye of several unseemly controversies, including having ongoing charges against him in cases of money laundering and disproportionate assets.  But it is Abhishek who is driving Mamata’s party’s national strategy to spread its presence outside West Bengal.

That strategy, as it begins to unfold, is about AITMC venturing out of its comfort zone in West Bengal and its smaller neighbouring states and taking a shy at fresh challenges. And the tactics that make up that strategy seem to be varied. Recently, Abhishek convinced Mamata to get on board Sushmita Dev, the daughter of the late Congress leader Santosh Mohan Dev, who was a veteran politician from Assam and Tripura and Union minister for many years. It was a sort of a coup that could give the AITMC a bigger foothold in, at least, a part of southern Assam.

The reason behind the national strategy is simple. With a broader footprint across India, the AITMC could shed its Bengal-centricity but it could also give Mamata Banerjee the credibility and a raison d’etre for pitching herself as a challenger and alternative to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a notion that has often been raised, particularly after her party’s victory for the third time in West Bengal.

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The tactic of going to Goa to fight the 2022 elections has an interesting background. Let’s begin with political strategist Prashant Kishor. No other electoral strategist in India is as famous as Kishor has been. He has worked for parties of every stripe: from national parties such as the BJP and the Congress; and for regional parties such as Yuvajana Sramika Rythu Congress Party in Andhra Pradesh, the DMK in Tamil Nadu, AAP in Delhi, and now the AITMC. Kishor is not only AITMC’s strategic consultant but, it is learnt, that he has a five-year contract with the party, an arrangement of that kind that has not been common in India.

What is more, Kishor is the main brain behind the Goa foray by Mamata. If Abhishek is the driver, Kishor is the navigator. Kishor did a detailed survey of the electoral situation and mood in Goa’s 40 assembly constituencies and came back with the findings that the voters of Goa (where the BJP leads the government although it won 13 seats to Congress’s 17 in 2017) are not happy with either of the two central parties. Although the BJP upstaged the Congress in the 2017 elections because it was faster in forging alliances than the latter and proved a majority in the assembly, thereby forming the government, it is not invincible as it had been before. The death of Manohar Parrikar (who was BJP’s chief minister for three terms before he died in 2017) has dealt a blow to BJP’s clout in Goa. The party’s current chief minister Pramod Sawant has neither the charisma nor the political clout that Parrikar, who was also defence minister in Delhi in the first BJP government, enjoyed.

As for the Congress, in Goa, as in many other states, it is rudderless and lacks vision. In the 2017 elections it had the largest number of seats but it dithered about finding partners to make up the majority and ended up handing over the government formation to the BJP.

The AITMC intends to leverage this situation by adopting quick tactics. Thirty percent of the population of Goa is made up of Christians (mainly Roman Catholics) and the AITMC has adroitly picked up a leading politician, Luizinho Faleiro, a former Congress leader and ex-chief minister of the state. Faleiro joined the AITMC in September this year. It’s a political win for Mamata Banerjee because Faleiro, besides having political clout in his own state, has been an alliance strategist for the Congress and is credited with forging alliances for his old party in many north-eat Indian states to help the party form governments.

Besides moves such as that, the AITMC has inducted the former tennis champion, Leander Paes, who is now settled in Goa; the socialite Nafisa Ali has also joined the party; and both personalities would likely be visible during the party’s public campaigning in Goa. But Goa also has a sizeable Hindu population (estimated 66%), a base on which the BJP built its support and for AITMC to succeed, it would need to target those voters as well.

To do that, Mamata and her party have been reaching out to smaller parties with a focused following in the state. One of the targets for an alliance is the Goa Forward Party, which has three of the 40 assembly seats and quit its alliance with the ruling BJP, accusing the latter of giving away Goa’s mining resources to the private sector.

Whatever be the outcome of Mamata and her nephew’s electoral strategy in Goa, it has already caused both national parties to be concerned–the Congress more than the BJP. Directionless with a leadership that does not seem to translate into votes, the Congress is particularly concerned that the AITMC is weaning away some of its own leaders at a time when that commodity, political leadership, is a scarcity in the Congress. But one thing is clear. Thanks to Mamata’s moves, the fight for Goa will be watched intently.