(First in a projected mini-series on the West Bengal Assembly Elections. For non-Indian readers or others not immersed in the nitty-gritty of Indian politics, the state assembly elections determine which party will rule the state. In the present round of assembly elections, five states went to the polls in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, which has wrought havoc in India in recent weeks. Far from being suspended, elections in West Bengal were held over a period of five weeks.)
Indian elections have seldom been pretty affairs, certainly not in the last decade, and the gargantuan scale as well of even state legislative assembly elections makes elections in most countries look like tame affairs. However, even by the rough-and-tumble standards set by politicians and their followers in India, the just concluded elections to the West Bengal Vidhan Sabha will go down not only as one of the most keenly and even bitterly contested elections in the country’s recent history but as a sure indicator of the depth of depravity to which the BJP has sunk and the manner in which it has dragged down institutions such as the Election Commission in its naked quest for power.
However, before assessing the possible implications of the defeat of the BJP and in particular its chief stewards, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Home Minister Amit Shah, it is necessary to anticipate some of the objections that may be raised to the idea that this electoral loss is the most significant one suffered by the BJP in the last seven years. Having captured 77 seats and 38.1% of the vote, the BJP might even have reason to feel proud. Surely, what is most consequential is that the Congress, in West Bengal as well as in the elections fought in Kerala, Puducherry, Tamil Nadu, and Assam, has shown that the party is in its present state unelectable. Similarly, it is the absolute evisceration of the CPM, which not so long ago dominated the politics of West Bengal, that must strike any observer. The Left-Congress alliance has not won a single seat; yet, in the 2016 assembly elections, the Left won 76 seats. So, the defender of the BJP might argue, the party’s defeat is scarcely a “crushing” blow. The party improved its vote share from 10.2% in 2016, when it won all of three seats out of 294, to 38.1% in 2021. Nearly all of the seats that the BJP has won have been at the expense of the Left and the Congress.
But this is of course far from being the whole picture. The previous benchmark is not in fact the 2016 state elections but rather the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, where the BJP won 40.2% of the vote. The decline of 2% in the party’s vote share may appear insignificant, especially to the person who swears by statistics. The real story, of course, lies in the fact that Modi and Shah, whose writ does not run in much of South India, as the resounding defeat of the BJP in Tamil Nadu and Kerala confirm yet again, have long been eyeing Bengal as the last big prize in the non-Dravidian Aryavarta (broadly defined) that had been evading their clutches. Consequently, Modi put his heart and soul into making Bengal submissive to him, and thus made it tacitly clear that the election was practically a verdict on him. Only some days ago, while addressing a large rally, he observed with his characteristic pomp that he saw only a sea of faces around him, more faces indeed than had ever been seen at any election rally. This remark has justly earned him notoriety around the world: all around him, thousands have been dying on account of Covid-19 because of his government’s willful obliviousness to the pandemic. His principal deputy, Amit Shah, had similarly prophesized that the BJP would win 200 seats.
There is still far more to this crushing defeat—a defeat that, it should be stressed, is even more so than a loss for the BJP an absolute humiliation for Modi. Though the Election Commission as an institution must in principle be respected as a guardian of Indian democracy, Modi had rendered it into his handmaiden. The first piece of engineering was to have the West Bengal election held in eight phases staggered over a period exceeding five weeks. This is itself unprecedented, except in a national election—and of course that alone is a sign of the fact that Modi construed the election to be as vital as the Lok Sabha elections. The supposition was that the BJP could over weeks pour in vast sums of money and put to use its massive machinery which serves no other purpose except to win electoral battles and thereby gain an advantage over the Trinamool and other opposition parties. And still the BJP and Modi lost. Then various central agencies, all of them firmly in Modi’s pocket, summoned TMC leaders to answer often decade-old corruption charges, while other TMC leaders were literally purchased and seduced into defecting en masse into the BJP camp. And still the BJP and Modi lost. The BJP is, of course, far from being the first party in India to have exploited the communal card. But Modi and Shah played the communal card with vengeance, showing utter contempt for Muslims and instigating Hindus to revive Hindu pride. The Election Commission mouthed the usual pieties advising politicians to abjure from stirring communal passions and then did nothing. And still the BJP and Modi lost.
No doubt, in the days ahead, a full autopsy of this election will be carried out by television channels, newspapers, and social media. The anti-incumbency factor has long been viewed by the political pandits and psephologists as a key factor in Indian politics but West Bengal and Kerala show amply the futility of such predictions and the increasing irrelevance of what passes as social science wisdom. In an election marked by obscenities—the rank appeal by the BJP to the worst communalist sentiments, the vast sum of money thrown into the elections, the BJP’s massive command over social media and its deployment of trolls whose appetite for tactics of terror and intimidation is insatiable, and, most of all, the impunity with which lives have been sacrificed while a pandemic devours the country—what also stands out is the singular fact that the image of Prime Minister Narendra Modi as a man who knows how to win elections has been shattered.
In ancient Aryavarta, the ruler upon achieving victory let loose a horse and performed the Ashwamedha yagna. Modi will not be performing this sacrifice, not yet; but he did let loose Covid and sacrificed tens of thousands lives so that he and Amit Shah could hold their roadshows. What is remarkable is that it is still too early to say whether his popularity will have been considerably dented by the triple loss of Bengal, the drubbing that his image has had to endure in the international press, and the catastrophic loss of lives in the wake of his mismanagement of the coronavirus pandemic. Mamata Banerjee, following her victory, pronounced that ‘Bengal Saved India Today’. But it would be a mistake to accept her verdict as anything more than a rhetorical gesture in a moment of exultation. For one thing, it must be said loud and clear that the TMC is not much more principled than the BJP. One hopes that one will be spared that aphorism in which Bengal has long reveled, ‘What Bengal thinks today, the rest of India thinks tomorrow’. Whatever the veneration for ‘Didi’ in Bengal, the rest of the country would be better advised to view the outcome not as an endorsement of her but rather simply as a defeat for Modi and the BJP and the politics of relentless divisiveness. Modi will almost certainly see this as a passing phase and his followers will, to invoke an old cliché, remind the country that he may have lost a battle but is still primed to win the war. The bitter and inescapable truth is that the country will require a new political imagination to take it out of the morass of adharma and asatya in which it is mired. The electoral outcome in West Bengal is only that slight sliver of hope in one of the country’s darkest moments in recent history that there are perhaps better days ahead.
First published at the ABP website under the title, “Modi Goes Down to Crushing and Wholly Deserved Defeat in West Bengal”, here.
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