Who Can Challenge The Modi Regime In India?

The origin of the acronym, TINA (or There is No Alternative) is credited to the late British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, the Conservative Party leader who was in office from 1979 to 1990. Thatcher used it as a slogan to lend credence to her belief that there was no alternative to a market economy where free trade and free markets were the only way to build and distribute wealth. Later, the phrase “TINA factor” was appropriated by Indian political commentators who have used it to describe situations where one powerful party or head of government seems so strong that there seems to be virtually no alternative to replace him or her.

Famously, the phrase was used for the late Indira Gandhi who was the second longest-serving Prime Minister of India (she served from January 1966 to March 1977 and again from January 1980 until her assassination in October 1984). More recently, even as the present Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi, is serving his second term, the phrase has been cropping up again with various political analysts speculating whether there is a TINA factor at work and whether there is in reality no alternative to Modi.

With the near decimation of the only other significant national party, the Indian National Congress, which after decades of being in power, is now reduced to holding a mere 52 of the 543 seats in the Lok Sabha; and 36 of the 245 seats in the Rajya Sabha, the question of whether the Modi-led, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-dominant regime has anyone to challenge it in elections. In addition, the BJP, or alliances in which it participates, is part of the government in 18 of India’s 31 states and Union Territories and the party has publicly proclaimed its mission to have a “Congress-free” India.

In the absence of a comparably strong and cohesive party to challenge the BJP at the national level, the alternative in the form of a challenger could, at least theoretically, be a coalition of parties—strong regional ones or one that can be led by the Congress but comprising many smaller parties. Some political analysts have punted for the Mamata Banerjee-led All-India Trinamool Congress (AITC) as a possible key player in evolving a coalition of regional parties. That view has gained ground in the aftermath of the recent West Bengal elections in which despite the BJP’s deployment of a high-powered campaign, Ms. Banerjee comfortably cruised to victory, effectively retaining chief ministership for the third term.

ALSO READ: Mamata In A New Challenger Avatar

Stable coalition governments are common in many parts of the world, including, in particular, in Europe where in countries such as Switzerland, Finland, Belgium, Italy, and Germany, it is almost a given. In India, both at the national as well as the regional levels, coalitions are not novel arrangements. They have been tried but the outcomes, at least in terms of stability, have been mixed. Unless led by a single party that has a significant clout in terms of the number of seats it wins in Parliament, coalition governments have been short-lived in India. In 1996, after a fractured electoral verdict, when the BJP, led by the late Atal Bihari Vajpayee, emerged as the single largest party in Parliament and was invited to form a government and cobble together a majority (by wooing other smaller parties), it failed to do so and collapsed in 13 days.

It was replaced by the United Front, which was closest to a copybook version of a political coalition with 13 different parties coming together to form an alliance. The coalition formed two governments between 1996 and 1998, the first headed by Prime Minister H.D. Deve Gowda, and the second by I. K. Gujral. The United Front managed to stay in power for less than two years.

The current crisis in terms of finding a worthy challenger to the BJP is accentuated by the fact that the Indian National Congress’ strength has been getting dissipated over the past few years. Its leadership, which for all practical purposes, rests with the Nehru-Gandhi family, has been unable to provide either cohesion or expansion. Rahul Gandhi, who briefly became head of the party between 2017 and 2019 has been an enigmatic leader, often appearing reluctant or indecisive. In recent months, the party has witnessed an exodus of key young leaders, many of whom could have been groomed to lead the historic party whose origins go back to 1885. Many of these young leaders have left to actually join the BJP, the Congress’ arch rival.

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Partly it is hard to make the concept of a coalition government functional at India’s national level because of the nature of the nation. India is a pluralistic society that is like few others. The sheer diversity of a country with a population of 1.4 billion that is more like a continent made up of several “countries” is what makes things particularly difficult when it comes to forging alliances between different parties. The differences in languages, cultures, economic development, among several other parameters, is so wide-ranging that very often it is difficult for outsiders to grasp the enormity of the complex politics in the country. There are differences between regions (north and south, is an example); between states that can be neighbouring ones (each of the southern states has a different language); and between castes and gender.

Coalitions work better in countries where the population is small and less diverse. In Europe, governments made up by alliances of political parties with seemingly different views and ideologies have been comparably more stable than similar arrangements in India. Besides being easier to govern because of their size (some European countries have populations that are smaller than those of large Indian cities), the degree of plurality when it comes to ethnic diversity, cultures, language, and so on, is much smaller than those that exist in India.

To be sure, however, even the ruling BJP-led government is a coalition. Modi is the Prime Minister of a coalition government formed by the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), which comprises at least 14 different parties. Besides being united by ideology (most of the NDA’s constituents are right wing oriented), in the BJP it has a powerful leader: of the 334 seats in Lok Sabha that the NDA now controls, 301 are BJP members. That is the kind of strong glue that makes coalitions work in India. For regional parties, such as Ms. Banerjee’s AITC, it can be difficult to achieve a position where it can provide such a cohesive glue. The same goes for other regional parties such as, for example, the Samajwadi Party or the Bahujan Samaj Party in Uttar Pradesh; or the Rashtriya Janata Dal in Bihar. All of them have the potential to score electoral victories in their respective regions but have little political leverage when it comes to making it big on the national scene.

Mamata In A New Challenger Avatar

Since May 2014, after its victory in the Lok Sabha elections, the BJP as a party, and the BJP government in New Delhi, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Union Home Minister Amit Shah, has been in ‘election mode’. Critics say it was this “obsession” for electoral victory that the government completely missed the deadly ‘second surge’ of the killer Covid-19 pandemic and failed to ramp up the healthcare infrastructure in time.

After a brief pause, the party leadership is once again switching to the ‘election mode’ with an eye on the coming Uttar Pradesh elections next year. For Modi and Shah, winning UP seems the last straw amidst a rapidly falling popularity graph.

However, the drubbing in West Bengal continues to rankle. Not only because ‘Didi’ has emerged as a ‘national icon’ after her incredible victory with Modi as her principal political opponent. But because she is tipped to be a possible leader of a secular opposition alliance in the next Lok Sabha elections.

Mamata Banerjee is not unaware of her new status. One can clearly witness that every political move of Didi since her victory on May 2, is designed to position herself as a ‘direct adversary’ to Modi, while attacking him routinely with an aggressive and creative consistency. This is bound to unnerve the ‘Dear Leader’ in New Delhi.

Take, for example, her statement after what seemed like the hounding of her chief secretary by the Centre on whimsical grounds: “There are so many Bengal cadre officers working for the Centre; if we confront like this, what will be the future of this country, Mr Prime Minister? Mr Busy Prime Minister, Mr Mann Ki Baat Prime Minister… what, do you want to finish me? Never, ever…. As long as people give me support, you cannot…” 

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The latest is the ‘big news’ of what seemed a predictable event – the return of prodigal son Mukul Roy, back into the Trinamool, which he founded with Mamata Banerjee in 1998 against the mighty CPM which ruled Bengal for more than 30 years. Undoubtedly, this was ‘breaking news’ not only in Bengal, but in the national scenario.

Mukul Roy was the second-in-command, responsible for organizational affairs in the Trinamool, appointed as Union Railway Minister at the behest of Mamata Banerjee, her point-man in Delhi’s power circles, even while he called the shots in Kolkata. All this changed after the Narada-Saradha scam, and the decline in his fortunes led him into the lap of the BJP – also perhaps because that was the only alleged ‘method’ to escape the Centre’s law enforcement agencies.

Mukul Roy was seemingly sidelined before the assembly polls in the BJP though he was the key strategist who lifted the BJP to 18 Lok Sabha seats in 2019, an unprecedented victory in Bengal for the Hindutva party.

Roy shared this ‘scam dilemma’, along with another high profile ‘turncoat’, Suvendu Adhikari, who switched over to the BJP before the 2021 polls, became a bitter enemy of his mentor, abusing her in the most communal and misogynistic language during the campaign, and is now reportedly a favourite with the Modi-Shah dispensation, adding to the angst and anger of the ‘original’ BJP workers and leaders like state party chief Dilip Ghosh.  

The inevitable return of Mukul Roy is therefore bad news for both Modi and Shah. In a party replete with discontent among its hardcore followers because it is filled to the brim with ‘turncoats’ — and several of them losing in the recent elections — his departure might trigger major defections back to Trinamool, including several MLAs. These defections are just a tip of the volcano – the BJP might be actually imploding in Bengal.

Indeed, with the BJP weakened in Bengal, and with Didi on the ascendant in terms of her ‘national stature’, it is believed by observers that all the signs are pointing to the beginning of the end of the Modi era, with a possible rainbow coalition of federal reassertion under a secular umbrella beginning to take shape in the national scenario. The latest is her move to send political strategist Prashant Kishore to meet Sharad Pawar, known for his tactical acumen; they had discussions for three hours.

Didi has called upon all opposition parties, including civil society organizations and NGOs to unite against Modi. Recently, in Kolkata, while yet again fully backing the farmers’ leaders who had come to meet her, she told journalists: “I have only one thing to say: Modi has to be removed from power.”

Besides, she told the farmers’ leaders that she will take the lead in organizing opposition leaders and chief ministers to hold a joint meeting in their support. Clearly, the importance she has been giving to the protracted movement and to specific leaders like Rakesh Tikait (the West Bengal assembly passed a resolution earlier in support of the farmers’ struggle), is evidence that she understands the political importance of the farmers as integral to future electoral dynamics, especially in the Hindi heartland, Haryana and Punjab.

Meanwhile, nursing the wounds of the massive defeat despite pumping in money and muscle, and the media hyperbole, the Modi-Shah regime started hounding Mamata Banerjee soon after May 2. First, there was this fake news campaign of organized violence against the BJP cadre and Hindus, with fake videos and Whatsapp campaigns trying to create a communal divide. She was blamed by central leaders, but the fact is that when the short-lived violence was triggered, the Election Commission was still in control, the central forces were still deputed in Bengal, and she had not been sworn in as the chief minister.

She took over, gave compensation to the victims across the political spectrum, and ordered a complete end to the violence. The violence stopped, even while Bengal celebrated the incredible victory of the secular forces against hate politics, with a deep, quiet and discreet dignity, mostly indoors.

Soon after, two of her senior ministers and two top leaders were arrested by the CBI, for being involved in the Narada scam. Mukul Roy and Suvendu Adhikari, also accused in the same scam, were left untouched. This was followed by the hounding of her chief secretary by the Centre, post Cyclone Yaas, for what seemed like a whimsical revenge act. Even the Congress and the CPM in Bengal criticized this, and there were rumblings within the BJP that this is indeed a terrible move by the Centre.

All this has been reinterpreted in Bengal and the rest of India as a display of arrogance and power, even while the feisty and resilient ‘Didi’ emerged yet again as a mass leader, street-fighter and formidable adversary against Modi. The more they hounded her, the more she has become popular, emerging as a ‘national icon’ who decisively took on Modi – and defeated him in his own game.

Clearly, as of now, it’s a win-win scenario for Mamata Banerjee. In a country where the Constitution and its federal structures have been so deliberately weakened in contemporary India, her brave and steadfast reassertion from the East might mark the rise of a new dynamics in mainstream politics in the country.

Racing Ahead – In A Wheelchair

Her opponents brand her as a ‘drama queen’ and she has been trolled by BJP supporters after she suffered multiple injuries outside a temple at Nandigram on March 10. This followed a highly successful rally where she invoked the secular shared spaces of a syncretic society, even while chanting shlokas and mantras which are familiar and embedded in the Bengali consciousness. Her medical reports show she has suffered injuries and a fracture on her left ankle. Her leg is in a cast, even as she continues to campaign from a wheelchair.

In such circumstances, if a chief minister of a state suffers injuries in an accident, or attack, the least that should happen, even in the bitterness and heat of the elections, is that good wishes would be sent to her-him for a speedy recovery. This is the basic protocol of public decency and democratic fair play. For reasons too crudely apparent in contemporary India, that dimension seems to have altogether disappeared from the political arena of opponents, especially in the current battleground that is West Bengal.

Not heeding the doctor’s advice, as she said, of rest for 14 days, she joined in the memorial service of party supporters in Kolkata to the 14 martyrs of Nandigram in 2007. She was paying tribute to a mass movement against forcible land acquisition for a multinational company, which toppled the ruling Left Front government, led by the CPM, after 34 years. She then led a long march in Kolkata sitting on a wheel chair.

Since the Nandigram fiasco, the Left has depleted in strength, confidence and inspiration, while under the indisputable and formidable leadership of Mamata Banerjee, Trinamool Congress has consolidated its hold on power and mass support, despite allegations of corruption and promotion of dynasty.

Besides, her government has done extensive social welfare work among the people, especially among the poor, including the minorities. For instance, rice, dal, oil, etc, is still being given in substantial quantity to poor people across the state even months after the lockdown was lifted. This has helped thousands of people survive without jobs or daily wages, and restart their lives once again.

ALSO READ: Battle For Bengal Is The Election To Watch

The 43 per cent vote bank of Trinamool has remained intact even while the BJP scored almost 40 per cent vote share and 18 Lok Sabha seats in Bengal, from being nothing but a marginal figure in the state’s political scenario. Since then, it has been a straight contest between Mamata and all the heavyweights of the BJP combined, led by Narendra Modi, Amit Shah and JP Nadda, who have become regular visitors to Bengal, accompanied by all the paraphernalia, pomp and show, and media glare.

And, yet, in these assembly elections, despite pumping in money and media support, a lot of rhetoric and grand promises like ₹15,000 in every farmer’s bank account, backed by convoys of cars and rath yatras with slogans of Jai Shri Ram, the BJP is still not able to find its scaffoldings, or the right strategy. Seasoned political commentators are certain that there is no BJP wave on the ground. After the flop rally at the Brigade Ground led by Modi on March 7, with vast spaces empty and an unenthusiastic crowd, and practically no celebrity joining them except an ageing Mithun Chakraborty, observers say they will struggle to even cross the 100 mark in a 294-seat assembly.

In contrast, Mamata seems to have touched the right chord. “I am hurt and unwell, but my goal remains the same. My pain is not greater than the suffering of the people whose rights in a democracy are being trampled upon by a dictatorship,” she said, sitting on the wheel chair, before the start of the march in memory of the Nandigram struggle on March 10. “I will continue to go around Bengal on this wheelchair. If I go on bed rest, who will reach out to the people of Bengal? …A wounded tigress is more dangerous.”

Street shows and rallies usually do not translate into votes. The Left-Congress alliance organised a massive rally at Brigade Ground in Kolkata with the crowd spilling over on February 28. In 2019 also, the Left had organised a massive rally at the venue. But, the Left scored zero.

It is believed in Bengal that large number of Left supporters, who obsessively hate the Trinamool, voted for the BJP in the last Lok Sabha elections. The Left-Congress alliance in the last assembly elections had trouble on the ground with the CPM getting less seats than the Congress because it was alleged that the Congress votes were not transferred to the Left.

ALSO READ: ‘Muslims Will Vote Bengal’s Didi, Not Owaisi’

However, processions and rallies have also been a catalytic indicator of mass support, and Trinamool has been able to translate it on the ground with its organisational strength, much of it refurbished on the erstwhile Left model. Hence, the failure of the BJP’s ‘Poribortan Rath Yatra’ across the five points of Bengal is significant. Besides, Jai Shri Ram did not resonate with the people who are worshippers of Durga, Kali and Krishna (Hari), and followers of the Bhakti-Vaishnav tradition of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, as much as the secular spiritual inheritance of Ramakrishna Paramhans and Vivekananda. Clearly, the Hindutva card of the Hindi heartland might not click in Bengal.

On March 15, Amit Shah had to cancel his rally at Jhargram in the crucial Jangalmahal area. The BJP said there was a helicopter snag. The ground reality is that the rally ground was virtually empty. The seven-minute virtual speech made by Shah saw the crowds walking off, in a state where Hindi remains an alien language. Shah’s short speech was too short, an indication that the BJP is losing the plot in Jangalmahal. Jhargram had earlier witnessed a similar flop-show with JP Nadda reportedly refusing to even visit the venue because of low audience strength. Earlier, Nadda’s rath yatra was jinxed in Barackpore too. Even Yogi Adityanath’s much-hyped rally at Balrampur in Purulia on March 16 saw a very poor turn out.

In fact, the low turn-out at BJP rallies have become a big worry in the party, as much as the internal tussle for tickets. Amit Shah had to rush from Guwahati to Kolkata to sort out matters even as BJP workers broke barricades at the Hastings party office in Kolkata. While a few Trinamool MLAs have crossed over to the BJP, there is resentment in the party against tickets being given to turn-coats or ‘outsiders’.

The question is: if the BJP has mass support, why is it not showing up in public spaces? Or, is it banking on its silent support base, as in the unprecedented Lok Sabha elections in 2019, especially among the economically deprived Hindu refugees who arrived from Bangladesh in the 1980s, migrants from UP and Bihar, and sections of the middle class? Is it still banking on the botched-up and sectarian Citizenship Act plank to woo the Hindu refugees and other backward and indigenous communities like the Matuas and Rajbongshis?

While, the BJP is still struggling to find a strategy, Mamata Banerjee, on a wheel chair, is moving from one rally to another of the 130 scheduled. As the battle unfolds, even a neutral referee would say, it is Advantage Mamata, as of now! In fact, nothing describes the current political situation in the state better than the Trinamool’s catchphrase which says: Khela Hobe! Bhaanga Payein Khela Hobe!! (The game is on! With a fractured foot, the game is on!!)

‘We Will Choose Bengal’s Didi Over Muslim Owaisi’

Maulana Shahidul Qadri, 45, from Dhankheti, Metiaburj in Kolkata, says local issues hold key to assembly elections and therefore he will prefer Trinamool candidate than a divisive BJP or AIMIM

At a time when many people around the country have given in to the politics of division and polarity, people in Bengal are still standing united, strongly. We Bengalis form an opinion after a lot of deliberation and in-depth understanding and analysis of a matter, and thus one cannot divide us so easily.

As a Maulana and also as an Imam of the masjid at Dhankheti (Metiaburj), I tell people not to fall prey to the politics of hate; firqakaparasti wali baton me mat aaiye. We also tell people through editorials in various newspapers that we should not forget local issues while state elections are underway.

I wonder why BJP makes every election, right down to even the civic body elections, about national issues. Wasn’t our election system created and upgraded so that issues at every level could find adequate voice and be solved subsequently?

BJP might try bringing in the big guns for the elections, but Mamata Banerjee will once again become the CM. We have chosen to support Didi even over a Muslim candidate, AIMIM’s Asaduddin Owaisi. It is not about Hindu-Muslim leaders, but rather on who as a leader has an understanding of local issues.

ALSO READ: Battle For Bengal Is The Election To Watch

The BJP-TMC face-off means everyday there’s some new statement from either side, but the electorate is noticing everything. The pandemic has shown us how important it is to have robust local leadership and we will keep focussing on that.

Bengal was a more peaceful place earlier, but now you hear news of BJP-TMC or BJP-Left clashes. I condemn incidents like attacks on JP Nadda; violence shouldn’t have any place in a democracy. We are Bengalis and Indians too, apart from being Hindus and Muslims.

Sometimes I wonder if like Assam, madarsa education will be banned in West Bengal as well! How will we then understand the basics of the faith we practise? There are many other ways in which the Muslim identity and the country’s Constitution and the institutions are being chipped away by the BJP but we have faith in both Mamata Didi and Allah.

NRC-CAA, Shaheen Bagh, illegal Bangladeshi immigrant, purportedly for whom the bill was brought in… was a burning issue just an year ago, do you hear as much of it during Bengal elections? Why? We can see through everything. The Prime Minister is not the leader of a party alone and not only of a particular party or community. He must take the whole country together and walk.

ALSO READ: It’s Bengal Trinamool Vs Outsider BJP

The first term of this government was all about sowing seeds of mistrust between communities that had been mostly living peacefully for so long. The second term was all about interpreting law in such a way that that hatred was normalised. Even though we respect the Ram Janmbhoomi verdict, it would have been nice if the bhoomi-poojan had been a calmer affair.

Triple talaq, Delhi riots, NRC and now the love jihad (which the Supreme Court has said doesn’t hold true because relationship between two consenting adults is their choice), I wonder when will all this stop and when will we begin focussing on issues that really matter for us as a country?

No leader is perfect, and Mamata Banerjee gets angered easily, but we feel ke unka dil saf hai aur hausla buland. She has our interests at heart. We hope in the coming years she will mature into a calmer leader and learn to strategize better, Bengal and the country can truly benefit from that.

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.

ALSO READ: It’s Bangla Trinamool Vs Outsider BJP

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.

It’s Bangla Trinamool Vs Outsider BJP In Bengal

The Poush Mela’, the famous winter festival at Viswa Bharati University in Santiniketan, was started by Devendranath Tagore, father of Rabindranath Tagore, in 1894. Over the years, it transformed into a collective celebration of arts, culture, music, craftwork, folk and oral traditions, dance and poetry. It would be held in an open ground on the campus where locals, adivasis, people from rural Bengal, and others, even from abroad, came over to participate, showcase their work, and sell their craftwork. The Mela is an annual event eagerly awaited by all those who celebrate the intrinsic beauty of ‘life and learning under the open sky’.

The current vice-chancellor of this central university, in which the Prime Minister is the chancellor, has stopped the festival. A wall has been constructed on the traditional ground which was open to all those who live in the neighbourhood. There have been protests against the wall by local residents and students of Santiniketan, but the VC has not budged. “It was both a tribute to Tagore as much as a reassertion of Bengali culture,” said Samirul Islam, president of the Bangla Sanskriti Manch, which commands a strong support base among the intelligentsia and locals, especially in this region of Birbhum. “Blocking the festival is an attack on Bengali culture and its secular ethos. This is just not acceptable.”

This refrain finds echo in Mamata Banerjee’s political campaign. You cannot undermine Bengali culture and Tagore in a land where both are deeply revered. On Thursday, the Chief Minister urged people to expel “outsiders” from Bengal. “BJP is a party of Delhi and Gujarat. They should return to those states… If you want to fight elections in Bengal, do it without bringing outsiders,” she said.

The call came hours after BJP president JP Nadda’s convoy had come under attack while he was on his way to Diamond Harbour in Kolkata. He escaped unhurt. The Trinamool Congress called it a stage-managed show. An adverse report by the Governor has triggered a Centre versus State conflict scenario yet again. In the uproar, BJP leaders are pointing fingers at the law and order situation in Bengal and at its ruling party.

Meanwhile, the Bengali-versus-outsider exhortation continues to be played by the TMC. A few recent faux pas made by BJP leaders have only given credence to the campaign. Amit Shah, in one of his recent visit to Bengal, garlanded a tribal’s statue thinking that it belonged to great tribal revolutionary, Birsa Munda, a highly revered figure among the adivasi community in Bengal. The TMC was quick to criticize Shah on this goof-up. Nadda too erroneously posted on a social media site that Tagore was born in Viswa Bharati. Tagore was born in his famous ancestral house Jorasanko in Kolkata, and the whole of Bengal knows it.

Indeed, the TMC’s constant targeting of the BJP proves that the saffron party has moved from the margins into the mainstream, appropriating both CPM and TMC supporters, while trying to position itself as the main opposition force. Some of its top leaders now were big shots in TMC. On December 9, in a typical local street corner rally in the bustling Garia market in South Kolkata, a local BJP leader equated both the CPM and the BJP as birds of the same feather, while glorifying Narendra Modi. He claimed, in a dark irony, that the Indian economy is booming, and so is the GDP and Sensex.

With a strong rhetoric against the minorities, and accusing Mamata Banerjee of appeasement, the BJP is tapping into the incipient communal polarization still festering in the post-Partition political unconscious of Bengal, especially among those who arrived here as refugees from East Bengal. This is a wound which the BJP wants to capitalize in a state which prides itself for its inherited secular, progressive and enlightened ethos.

ALSO READ: Winds In Bengal May Be Blowing Against Didi

The CPM is in a disarray. Its leadership, seems to be living in a warped time zone. Their position is best described in the words of Biplab Mukherjee, social activist, who said: “The theory, which seems to have gone down in its rank and file, is that let the BJP come to power, then the Left will automatically follow. Aage Ram, Pore Baam… (first Ram, then Left). This is a suicidal line. The BJP will totally decimate them.”

The CPM leadership seems to have rejected the appeal by Dipankar Bhattacharya, general secretary of the CPI-ML (Liberation), which did very well in the Bihar assembly polls recently. Bhattacharya declared that the Left should position the BJP as enemy number one, and, thereby, first and foremost, the fight should be against the politics of the BJP. If the BJP comes to power in Bengal, the Left, already extremely fragile, will be finished in the state.

Political observers are sure that the TMC is still the main scaffolding against communal forces in contemporary Bengal. Even on December 9, in a massive rally among the Scheduled Caste community of Matuas, Mamata Banerjee declared her total opposition to the NRC-CAA, and in rally after rally, she has declared support to the farmers’ struggle against the central laws. Her attack on the BJP is frontal and forthright, and despite the BJP’s gains in the last Lok Sabha polls, she remains the most formidable and popular leader in Bengal.

Indeed, among other measures during the pandemic and the lockdown, her scheme of free ration and rice to the poor across the state, and the relief operations in the Sunderbans after the cyclone, has endeared her to the masses, though her ‘Government at your Door’ scheme, apparently a brainchild of Prashant Kishore, is still a work in progress.

In this context, the weak alliance between the Congress and CPM, with the CPM playing second fiddle, is yet again making the tactical mistake of equating both the TMC and the BJP as two sides of the same coin. This is bad politics. By taking this line, the Left is only helping the BJP to gain a stronghold, even while a large chunk of its erstwhile support base is voting and supporting BJP.

The TMC too, despite the strong hold and charisma of Mamata Banerjee, is reportedly full of internal factionalism. The fissures are there for all to see. However, not all its leaders, like Mohua Mitra, for instance, will jump ship to the BJP.

The fissures inside TMC are directly linked to the parallel power apparatus being wielded by Abhishek Banerjee, Mamata’s nephew. His opulent lifestyle and alleged ‘authoritarian’ behaviour, and his apparent control on the party organization and its resources, with Mamata looking the other way, seems to have alienated sections of the young vanguard, as well as the old guard.

The party’s rebels are calling it ‘dynasty politics’, while choosing to join the BJP, or waiting for a tactical time to jump ship, as its East Midnapur strongman Suvendu Adhikari seems to be doing right now. With Abhishek, without a mass base or a history of political struggle at the grassroots, literally calling the shots, the future of TMC remains a conjecture.  However, as of now, Didi is still on a strong wicket, though it might not be all hunky dory for her in these assembly polls.

Winds in Bengal May Be Blowing Against Didi

The next big state assembly election after Bihar’s will be in four states—Assam, Kerala, Puducherry, Tamil Nadu, and Bengal. In Assam, a BJP-led coalition is in power; in Kerala, it is a coalition of left parties rules; in Puducherry, a tiny union territory, it is a Congress government. But of those elections, the one that will be watched most keenly are the elections in West Bengal where for the second term, it is the Trinamool Congress (TMC) that is in power, led by its feisty chief minister, Mamata Banerjee, fondly called “Didi”, by her supporters.

In the wake of the Bihar elections where the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) has won the recent elections, the focus on what happens in Bengal has turned sharper. But first, a quick rewind on Bihar.

Although Bihar’s incumbent government before the elections was an NDA one, it wasn’t meant to be when the 2015 election results were announced. Then, it was the coalition opposed to the BJP that got the winning numbers. But, famously, after the Nitish Kumar-led Janata Dal (U) quit that coalition and crossed over to support the BJP, the tables turned and Nitish Kumar became chief minister of a NDA government in Bihar. Before this year’s elections, there was much speculation about whether the BJP and Kumar would part ways (the latter has had a love-hate relationship with Prime Minister Modi and his party in the past). That did not happen and Kumar was sworn in as chief minister for a second term.

In Bengal, things are quite different. Ms Banerjee whose party won 222 of the 294 seats in the assembly in 2016 could look like she will contest the next elections, scheduled in 2021, from a position of strength. The Left parties in the state, which was run by a leftist alliance for more than three decades, have been decimated in the past decade—they have just 24 seats in the assembly—and the Congress with 23 fares no better. But all eyes are on the BJP. From virtual non-existence in Bengal, the nationalist party won 16 seats in 2016, and in recent years it has been trying to bolster and grow its support base in the state.

ALSO READ: BJP Now Dominant Partner In Bihar

The BJP’s main issues in its campaign will likely be charges of non-governance against Ms. Banerjee’s government, and allegations that it has been overly appeasing minorities in the state. The BJP has been fanning these sentiments for a while in its efforts to garner voters. If elections in Bengal are held as scheduled (in May), there is barely five months left before voters cast their ballot. The BJP has already ramped up their campaigning. Home Minister Amit Shah, and the party’s president JP Nadda have planned frequent visits to Bengal, to address rallies and strengthen the party’s state-level organisation.

The thing that stands in favour of Ms Banerjee, however, is that unlike the BJP or other opposition parties in the state, in her (as the two-time chief minister), the Trinamool Congress has a face and, obviously, a clear chief ministerial candidate for the election. The BJP doesn’t. At least not yet. But opposition parties, including the BJP, hope that anti-incumbency sentiments may finally begin to stir up against Ms. Banerjee and her Trinamool government.

Earlier this month, a small organisation, Crowdwisdom360 (it calls itself India’s first Political Prediction Market) carried out small on-the-ground polls to get a feel of the political mood in Bengal’s districts. Crowdwisdom360 claims that in the recently-held Bihar elections, its seat-level accuracy was 70%. In Bengal, its surveys appear to show that the BJP’s dual messaging against the Banerjee regime (poor governance; and minority appeasement) has been working better than the incumbent government’s absence of positive messages. Crowdwisdom360’s surveys have shown that voters are unable to zero in on concrete reasons why they should vote for Trinamool candidates.

There are problems with such surveys, of course. First, there could be sampling errors that let biases creep in; and second, in India’s electoral politics, things change sometimes quite mercurially. But even if such surveys are disregarded, the mood in Bengal as it heads for another election is quite different from what it was when Ms. Banerjee steered her party to victory for the second time in 2016.

There is discontent among rural voters, largely fuelled by what is perceived as minority appeasement; the COVID-19 pandemic has not helped matters; and the opposition’s campaigns, particularly the BJP’s, have been having an impact. In 2021, for Ms. Banerjee and her party, returning to power for the third time may not be a cakewalk.

Will JP Nadda Come Out Of Shah’s Shadow?

The humiliating defeat suffered by the Bharatiya Janata Party in the Delhi assembly election has not proved to be an auspicious beginning for the party’s month-old president JP Nadda. Though it is true that it was Union Home Minister Amit Shah who led the party’s high-decibel campaign in Delhi, history books will record the result as BJP’s first electoral drubbing under Nadda’s stewardship.

Out of power for over two decades, the BJP was predictably desperate to take control in Delhi. But the Arvind Kejriwal-led Aam Aadmi Party proved to be a formidable opponent and the BJP fell by the wayside once again.

Well before Nadda took over as the BJP’s 11th president, it was widely acknowledged that he will not enjoy the same powers as his predecessor Amit Shah did but, nevertheless, would be called to take responsibility for the party’s poll defeats as well as organisational matters.

Nadda began his tenure with a disadvantage as it is difficult to live up to Shah’s larger-than-life image. Amit Shah, who served as BJP president for five years has easily been the most powerful party head in recent times. Known for his supreme organisational skills, Shah is chiefly responsible for the BJP’s nation-wide expansion, having built a vast network of party workers and put in place formidable election machinery. No doubt Modi’s personality, charisma and famed oratory drew in the crowds but there is no denying that Shah contributed equally to the string of electoral victories notched by the BJP over the last five years.

ALSO READ: Shah Could Be Most Decisive HM

Given that Shah has revamped the party organisation from scratch and placed his loyalists in key positions, there are serious doubts that the affable, low-key and smiling Nadda will be allowed functional autonomy. Will he be able to take independent decisions, will he constantly be looking over his shoulder, will he be allowed to appoint his own team or will he be a lame-duck party president? These are the questions doing the rounds in the BJP as there is all-round agreement that Shah will not relinquish his grip over the party organisation. This was evident in the run-up to the Delhi assembly polls as it was Shah and not Nadda who planned and led the party’s election campaign.

In fact, it is acknowledged that Nadda was chosen to head the BJP precisely because he is willing to play the second fiddle to Shah. Party leaders maintain that the new president is unlikely to make any major changes in the near future and that he will be consulting Shah before taking key decisions. For the moment, state party chiefs appointed by Shah have been re-elected, ensuring that the outgoing party president remains omnipresent.

ALSO READ: Anti-CAA Protests Erupt In Country

Though Nadda has inherited a far stronger party organisation as compared to his earlier predecessors, the new BJP president also faces a fair share of challenges. He has taken over as party chief at a time when the BJP scraped through in the Haryana assembly polls, failed to form a government in Maharashtra and was roundly defeated in Jharkhand. The party’s relations with its allies have come under strain while the ongoing protests against the new citizenship law, the National Register of Citizens and the National Population Register have blotted the BJP’s copybook.

These developments have predictably came as a rude shock to the BJP leadership and its cadres who were convinced that the party was invincible, especially after it came to power for a second consecutive term last May with a massive mandate.

WATCH: Modi Has Woken Up A Sleeping Tiger

Nadda’s first task has been to boost the morale of party workers and make them believe that the recent assembly poll results were a flash in the pan and that the BJP’s expansion plans are on course.

After Delhi, the Bihar election poses the next big challenge this year. The party’s ally, the Janata Dal (U), has upped the ante, meant primarily to mount pressure on the BJP for a larger share of seats in this year’s assembly elections. Realising that the BJP cannot afford to alienate its allies at this juncture, Amit Shah has already declared Nitish Kumar as the coalition’s chief ministerial candidate, which effectively puts the Janata Dal (U) in the driver’s seat. This has upset the BJP’s Bihar unit which has been pressing for a senior role in the state and is even demanding that the next chief minister should be from their party.          

The BJP has to necessarily treat its allies with kid gloves as they have been complaining  about the saffron party’s “big brother” attitude and that they are being taken for granted. While Shiv Sena has already parted company with the BJP, other alliance partners like the Lok Janshakti Party and the Shiromani Akali Dal have also questioned the BJP’s style of functioning.

The crucial West Bengal assembly election next year will also be held during Nadda’s tenure. The BJP has been working methodically on the ground in this state for the past several years now and has staked its prestige on dethroning Mamata Banerjee.

ALSO READ: West Bengal Follows AAP Model

But the Trinamool Congress chief is putting up a spirited fight, sending out a clear message to the BJP that it will not be so easy to oust her. Banerjee has declared war against the Modi government on the issues pertaining to the CAA-NRC-NPR and also activated her party cadres who have spread across the state to explain the implications of the Centre’s decision to the poor and illiterate. The BJP, on the other hand, is struggling to get across its message.

As in the case of Delhi, Shah can be expected to take charge of the Bihar and West Bengal assembly polls while Nadda will, at best, be a marginal player. Again it will be left to Shah to mollify the party’s allies as it is too sensitive and important a task to be handled by Nadda.

Like all political parties led by strong leaders, a BJP defeat will be seen as Nadda’s failure while a victory will be credited to Modi and Shah.

Chandrababu Naidu, Naveen Patnaik, Mamata Banerjee And Mayawati

Do Regional Parties Hold The Key?

The performance and preference of regional parties will be watched closely as they could play a crucial role in deciding who forms the next government in the event of poll results throwing a hung house

While the various pre-poll surveys for the upcoming Lok Sabha election have predicted that the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance has an edge over its opponents, they have also forecast that “others” or regional parties not aligned with either the saffron party or the Congress, can win anywhere between 100 to 138 seats.

The performance of these regional parties needs to be watched closely as they could well play a crucial role in deciding who forms the next government if neither the BJP-led alliance nor the coalition stitched up by the Congress is unable to cross the half-way mark in the 543-member Lok Sabha. The regional parties do not have a wide-enough presence to form a government on their own but they are certainly in a position to play kingmaker in case of a hung Lok Sabha.

The “non-aligned” regional parties can be broadly clubbed into two categories. The Biju Janata Dal, led by Odisha chief minister Naveen Patnaik, the Telangana Rashtra Samithi, headed by Telangana chief minister K Chandrasekhar Rao and YSR Congress Party’s Jagan Mohan Reddy in Andhra Pradesh. All the three parties maintain they are equidistant from the two national parties but will have no qualms in going with the winner.

In fact, it is informally accepted by BJP leaders that these three parties will be amenable to a post-poll deal with them if their alliance falls short of the requisite numbers. From all accounts, the three parties are well-placed in their respective states and their leaders have not given any reason to believe that they will not be willing to do business with the BJP if it comes back to power.

The second category of regional parties includes Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party, Akhilesh Singh Yadav-led Samajwadi Party, N Chandrababu Naidu’s Telugu Desam Party and Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress. Their home states – Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal and Andhra Pradesh – collectively account for 147 Lok Sabha seats.

It is expected that these regional satraps will not align with the BJP and will instead drive a hard bargain with the Congress-led alliance after the elections. This will, of course, depend on the final tally and whether this grouping is in a position to form the government.

This was evident from Mamata Banerjee’s speech at an election rally in West Bengal’s Raiganj constituency on April 9 where she declared that the Congress will not be able to form a government on its own and that “the Rahul Gandhi-led party will have to seek help from others if it wants to form a government at the Centre”. The Trinamool chief is playing to win a maximum of the 42 Lok Sabha seats in her home state West Bengal so that she is in a position to call the shots after elections and, maybe, position herself as a Prime Ministerial candidate. To improve her acceptability outside West Bengal, Banerjee has directed that her party’s press conferences held in Delhi be conducted in Hindi. One such press meet was held on the eve of the first phase of elections on April 11.

All attention is currently focused on former bitter political rivals in UP, the BSP and the SP, who have now joined hands along with Ajit Singh’s Rashtriya Lok Dal to take on the BJP in the electorally crucial state. They have deliberately kept the Congress out of this alliance as they would like to maximize their gains in the election to be able to negotiate from a position of strength after the polls.

It has become imperative for this grand alliance (maha-gathbandhan) to succeed on the ground not only because the survival of the regional parties is at stake but also to weaken the BJP in Uttar Pradesh where the party bagged 71 of the 80 seats in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls. Though the BSP failed to win a single seat and the SP was reduced to four seats thanks to the Modi wave, the two parties have posted good results in the past.  

A good showing by these regional forces this time will improve their political fortunes in Uttar Pradesh and, at the same time, give them an opportunity to decide who forms the next government at the Centre. Like Mamata Banerjee, Mayawati is also looking to play a larger national role. Though her party’s vote share has been declining, the BSP has fielded candidates across states to bump up her tally by garnering a sizeable number of Dalit votes. Mayawati made her intention clear when she told her party cadre recently that she may have decided to keep away from the electoral fray but this will not impede her chances of becoming Prime Minister as she has the option of contesting a Lok Sabha election within a period of six months.

Chandrababu Naidu is pragmatic enough to realise that he is not in the race for the Prime Minister’s post but he certainly has ambitions of playing a kingmaker at the Centre. After he parted company with the BJP over his demand to secure special status for Andhra Pradesh, Naidu has made consistent efforts to bring together opposition parties on a common platform. He played a similar role in 1996 when a set of regional parties formed the government at the Centre by cobbling together a coalition. The hurriedly forged United Front forced the Congress to lend it outside support in order to keep the BJP out.

Naidu, who was the convener of the United Front, has now predicted that 1996 will be repeated this year. In other words, he is convinced that regional forces will be at centre stage while the Congress will be the pivot of this grouping. The game plan of the regional parties is self-evident. They want to be in the driver’s seat and want the Congress to align with them but on their terms.

Regional parties have realized their potential ever since coalition politics became a recurring feature of Indian polity in the late eighties. Having a presence at the Centre gives the regional leaders a place at the high table, helps them push the interests of their respective states and even influence national policy.

For instance, Mamata Banerjee walked out of the Manmohan Singh government in protest against its policy to open up the retail sector for foreign direct investment. Similarly, the Trinamool chief did not allow India to sign the Teesta river water sharing treaty with Bangladesh on the ground that it did not favour West Bengal. Regional autonomy and preserving the country’s federal structure are the buzz words in a coalition era. But, most important, a role at the Centre also ensures personal protection for the regional satraps and their party members as many of them are guilty of misdemeanors and need necessary legal safeguards.

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