Regardless of the outcome in West Bengal, it is palpable that the State is going through a tectonic ideological shift towards the Hindu Right. Even if the Mamata Banerjee-led Trinamool Congress (TMC) wins the Assembly election and forms the government, lessons from Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh suggest that she might not be able to run it for another complete term. For a complete term, she would have to win by a massive margin, like the Aam Aadmi Party did in Delhi. For the TMC, it is not victory itself but the margin of that victory that will determine its future. This means that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is in a win-win situation regardless of the outcome.
The decision on the part of the Left-Congress coalition to run on their own making the electoral competition triangular has made the task for the BJP very easy to emerge as a dominant player. Nonetheless, the internal crisis of the Left parties, particularly the CPI(M), the big partner, both at the leadership and organisational level, is not any different from the Congress. The only difference is that the Left does not have a Gandhi for critics to take regular potshots at. With the Left cadres buckling in West Bengal and Tripura, one wonders whether those cadres were indeed ideological or mere appendages to state power of the time, as is the case with most machine politics.
Finding its feet
According to Prashant Kishor, key strategist for the TMC, the BJP’s victory in Bengal would transform India into a “one nation, one party”. This is a little exaggerated. The results of Assembly elections in Delhi, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan indicate that the BJP as a populist party remains vulnerable. It will take a few more elections for the BJP to find its feet in Kerala and Tamil Nadu. Punjab, which will head to the polls next year, will present the most enduring electoral and ideological resistance to the Hindu Right. While the BJP has come very close to replicating the Congress in its heydays, its capacity to maim Opposition parties remains unparalleled in modern Indian history. This is where the BJP of Narendra Modi and Amit Shah is distinctly different from the BJP of Atal Bihari Vajpayee and L.K. Advani or even the Congress of Indira Gandhi. The Modi-Shah BJP realises that state power is central to ideological goals and means are inconsequential. This is something that even the Left could not figure out.
The BJP’s emerging dominance has brought a paradigm shift in West Bengal’s politics in at least two ways. First, it has introduced caste politics in a way that never existed in West Bengal and which is expected to sharpen in the future. Second, it has resuscitated Hindu-Muslim politics on antagonistic lines in ways that might even surpass the bloody days of the 1930s and 1940s in Bengal. The politics of polarisation around the Citizenship (Amendment) Act will perpetuate ethnic unrest in Bengal’s various regions. This will have repercussions far beyond its shores, both inside and outside India. Peace between Hindus and Muslims is the single-most significant accomplishment of the Jyoti Basu-led Left Front regime. Now that stands in tatters. The Sachar Committee Report of 2006 and the Pratichi Report of 2016 documented the rather spectacular failure of the Left and TMC regimes in addressing poverty among Muslims.
No other social group will be more devastated by the arrival of the BJP as Bengal’s ruling party than the Bengali intelligentsia, which has helped build the dominant narrative against the Hindu Right. Despite being direct victims of India’s violent Partition, prominent figures like Amartya Sen have remained consistent critiques of dark forces of Hindu majoritarianism. The secular narrative of Bengali intelligentsia will continue, no doubt. But it is also time to introspect and ask why it failed to be adequately organic, and failed to stop the obituary of secular Bengal from being written under its nose.
Shaikh Mujibur Rehman teaches at Jamia Millia Central University, Delhi, and is the author of the forthcoming book, ‘Shikwa-e-Hind: The Political Future of Indian Muslims’