We must compliment the voters in Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Assam and Pondicherry for their faith in democracy as they participated robustly in elections to assemblies when the country is coping with the 2nd wave of the Covid-19 pandemic. The Election Commission(EC) too played no small part in the successful conduct of the elections though its decisions and modus operendies are not without question marks and it came under heavy fire from the Madras High Court.
These elections were ‘special’ (there is hardly an election which is not ‘special’ in India!) for their locations on the fringe of the nation’s polity, as it were: two southernmost states, another two eastern states and a little eastern state went to polls together: so the political labyrinth of the country was not in the reckoning. The other reason is that together these states send around 25 per cent members to the Lok Sabha, despite the difference in their political fabric. Also, out of the two national parties-Congress and BJP – the Congress had no stakes except in Kerala and Assam and BJP was just an onlooker in TN and Kerala.
Moreover, the campaigning and its media coverage were focused mostly on Bengal where a do-or-die like the battle was being fought between Mamata Didi and Modi-Shaha(sic Trina Mool Congress and BJP ?). Both sides were hysterical and theatrical! Both had vowed to oust the rival out of the state. Foul language was stretched to the limit in mud-slinging and all norms of civil discourse were scrapped! The electorate was polarized to extremes. Voters were asked either to Love or Hate! Opponents demonized, party deserters, hailed as angels. Violent skirmishes could not be helped when emotions pushed reason decisively out! Ironically the once upon a time political makers of Bengal-congress and Left Parties were reduced to non-entities!
But the voters deserve another compliment here: they voted decisively; not only in Bengal but in all states. Is this a silver lining to the dark cloud of polarization? Except for Congress, all parties have something to show for their exertions. DMK in TN, Left Front in Kerala, BJP in Assam and Pondy! But the greatest achievement was reserved for Didi who fought single-handed a pitched fight and despite losing in Nandigram lead TMC to a third term in Bengal! Yet she is wary: the centre has asked the state Governor to report on the post-counting violence killing about a dozen workers and Didi is apprehensive whether this could be a ploy to enforce President’s Rule in the state. Certainly, the indomitable Chanakyas in the BJP cannot be expected to take this slap in their face lying down?
The mandate in Bengal is welcome because it burst the Modi-Shah bubble decisively. BJP was garrulous in predicting the ouster of Didi- yet got only less than one-third of the seats. Interestingly Didi not only retained her majority but polled 5 per cent more votes. BJP has done very well in taking its vote share close to 40 per cent but these must be mostly Congress votes and might return to it if Congress puts its house in order. TMC has expectedly done well in rural areas and amongst minorities; to balance this BJP has fared well in SC-ST pockets. BJP has already started congratulating itself on the big gain in vote share but must know that it is momentary.
Why have the Bengal voters welcomed Didi a third time? Analysts and pundits are vociferous in pointing to the “Bangla Identity” which has always been a favourite of Bengal right since the public furore against the partition of Bengal unsuccessfully muted by Lord Curzon over a hundred years. It is believed that Bengalis have a deeper linguistic bond than nationality: despite the creation of a nation right next –Bangla Desh. It is also apparent that Bangla Desh has its own identity issues to face and makes no eyes at Indian Bangla! It is also a fact that Bengal has always been on the fringe of national politics through ideologues and analysts abound there! So it will be naïve to predict a downward future for the BJP though it will hopefully stand chastised by the Bengal results. (In fact, this can be said about the results in other states too: they will have no impact on the national politics.)
Bengalis are highly sentimental and possess a rich culture. They also have an admirable combination of the East and the West. Modern Bengal gave us Vivekananda and Arvind Babu. It also has Bankim, Tagore, Sharad Chandra, Vibhuti Bhushan and Bimal Mitra. Satyajit Ray is the pride of all! The list can be continued but it is known to the lovers of culture, art, literature, cinema, theatre and music. If this is the much-vaunted Bqngla Identity there is no reason to deny it!
Yet the political identity of Bengal is quite unclear. Since the inconclusive leadership struggle of Subhash Chandra within the then Congress Bengal has had its own mind in politics and has followed its own path in politics-parallel to the national ethos. The political journey of Bengal has not been easy. Bose setting up a separate house; the British-managed famine during World War 2 and the ensuing ‘Dance of Death’; the trauma of Partition and the flow of Hindu refugees which helped the Jan Sangha founder Dr Syama Prasad Mukerjee; the disillusionment with the Congress after he was gone; rampant corruption of Congress rule and the desperate acceptance of the Left parties for three decades; another disillusionment which threw both Congress and the Left out of favour and created larger than life image of Didi! Their search seems to be never-ending… One thing is certain-Bengal is never in two minds—deta hai to chhappar fadkehi deta hai!
One shudders to think of the face of Bengal should Didi too disappoint them because the political economy of the state stands precariously between the old and the new models of the Congress and the Left and the TMC may find itself faced with a difficult battle with opposition worse than the BJP...
All the best to Didi and TMC!
- Vinay Hardikar
(The writer has been working in the public sphere of Maharashtra for the last five decades. His versatile personality has several dimensions, but the primary ones remain to be that of an established writer, journalist, editor, critic, activist, and teacher.)