By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.
India currently faces numerous grim challenges, but the prospect of voting in the first-ever state government in West Bengal to be led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is no longer one of them.
Today, sitting Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’ Trinamool Congress Party (TMC) is as of the time of posting projected by the Times of India to cruise to a repeat victory, despite the personal appearance by Modi and several other BJP luminaries at numerous massive election rallies. In spite of the raging coronavirus crisis, India’s Election Commission only last week called a halt to the rallies – one of two crowd-convening measures the BJP promoted to shore up Hindu support. As economist Jayati Ghosh wrote in Why Covid-19 is Running Amok in India in Consortium News:
The unfolding pandemic horror in India has many causes. These include the complacency, inaction and irresponsibility of government leaders, even when it was evident for several months that a fresh wave of infections of new mutant variants threatened the population. Continued massive election rallies, many addressed by the prime minister, Narendra Modi, brought large numbers to congested gatherings and lulled many into underplaying the threat of infection.
The incomprehensible decision to allow a major Hindu religious festival — the Mahakumbh Mela, held every 12 years — to be brought forward by a full year, on the advice of some astrologers, brought millions from across India to one small area along the Ganges River and contributed to ‘super-spreading’ the disease.
In fact, what I’ll call the BJP’s ‘carpetbagging strategy’ – a term that won’t be familiar to Indian readers, so I’ll define it here – to bring in numerous national political leaders, including Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah, none of whom spoke Bengali – appears to have backfired. Dr. Sunandan Roy Chowdhury, editor of Eastern Review and head of the Kolkata publishing house, Sampark, told me today:
While Modi and Shah attracted crowds, leaders like the UP Chief Minister Jogi Adityanath, BJP president J P Nadda and many others could not attract attention of the voters.
One reason for the decision to import outsiders to campaign in West Bengal is the BJP apparently fields a very weak bench there. This weakness further suggests the party might continue to struggle in future contests in the state. Over to Chowdhury again:
This also shows that BJP possibly does not have enough skilful leaders who are from Bengal and who the party can trust to run a campaign in Bengal. The BJP does need to build a slew of Bengali leaders who can attract voters’ attention in future elections in West Bengal.
Instead, West Bengal voters opted to return the home-grown Banerjee, whom everyone calls ‘Didi’ – the Bengali word for elder sister. Even Modi employs the term, according to the NYT, Modi’s Party Loses a Key Election, Held Under the Cloud of Covid:
Mr. Modi sent out a Twitter message on Sunday night that said, “Congratulations to Mamata Didi,” which means sister Mamata.
“The Centre will continue to extend all possible support to the West Bengal Government to fulfill people’s aspirations and also to overcome the COVID-19 pandemic,” Mr. Modi wrote.
Banerjee has served as the state’s chief minister since 2011, when the TMC overturned decades of leftist dominance of politics in the state. Earlier in the year, some pundits predicted that voters might have tired of the incumbent, as well as repeated allegations of TMC corruption and TMC authoritarianism. Nonetheless, Banerjee was able to put together a package of populist measures that resonated with voters. She also deployed her considerable personal charisma, and spoke to the voters of West Bengal in their native tongue.
Implications for Modi: Immediate
In terms of national implications, there’s both more and and less than meets the eye for Modi and the BJP following from the announcement of projected results in the states of Assam, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, and West Bengal, and the union territory of Puducherry. In Assam, the BJP retained power, as it was expected to do. The BJP has not captured a single seat in Kerala, and the Left Democratic Alliance, led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) looks set to retain power in the state. In Tamil Nadu, current projections show the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) alliance projected for a substantial win, and Modi has already congratulated DMK leader MK Stalin according to News 18, Tamil Nadu Election Results 2021 Live Updates: DMK Set for Big Win, PM Modi Congratulates MK Stalin.
Even in West Bengal, the significance of a BJP loss is less than that a win might have held. Reason: although the BJP has regularly contested elections in West Bengal, it has never attained a majority in any state-wide contest, either for seats in the national parliament – the Lok Sabha – or for the state Legislative Assembly. So, whereas a BJP win today in West Bengal would have been unprecedented, a loss merely reaffirms the status quo.
Along with West Bengal, Kerala is the only other large Indian state that has never seen a BJP-majority government. Both West Bengal and Kerala have Muslim minorities comprising about 1/3 of each state’s respective population – higher than the national average – and each has a long history of rule by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and other left parties and alliances.
Implications for Modi and the BJP: Longer-Term
The NYT’s take is that the West Bengal election represents a major setback for Modi:
By Sunday night, with nearly all the votes counted, Mr. Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party was badly trailing despite its heavy investment in West Bengal, a prize it desperately wanted to win. The party won more seats in the state assembly than it took in the last election — a sign of how dominant it has become nationwide. Nevertheless, the All India Trinamool Congress party, which holds power in the state, was safely ahead.
The horrific COVID situation now unfolding in India would seem to augur poorly for the future political prospects of Modi and that of the party he heads. Alas, a closer look suggests it’s still far too early to call time on the prime minister.
Modi has retained considerable popularity and won elections despite considerable policy missteps. Two in particular come to mind: the ill-conceived November 2016 demonetisation exercise and the botched rollout of a Goods and Services Tax, beginning in July 2017. Neither threatened Modi’s popularity, despite damaging the operating environment for smaller businesses – a core constituency for BJP’s support – and which was reflected in a slowdown in Indian economic growth. Modi won a comfortable majority in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, in part due to the BJP’s dominance in campaign financing and its adroit use of social media.
More recent policies that have led to widespread demonstrations – I’m thinking of the protests in major metros in 2019 and early 2020 over the government’s Citizenship Act and the more recent farmer protests – have likewise not necessarily foretold Modi’s political doom.
The other reason not to count the the BJP out is that at the moment it’s the party in India with an effective national presence. The Congress limps along, hobbled by the unwillingness of the Gandhi family to step aside and allow other leaders to take a turn; for their part, those other potential Congress leaders have thus far lacked the courage to challenge the Gandhi dominance.
Will Banerjee be able to build on her decisive win today to spearhead a national anti-Modi coalition? Her party showed once again how formidable it remains in West Bengal, after a brief wobble in the 2019 elections, but it remains a regional power only. The Modi government’s recent spectacular mismanagement of the COID situation might seem to offer an opening to challengers. But as the old aphorism goes, it’s hard to beat something with nothing. Moreover, the BJP enjoys considerable advantages in raising campaign finance from Indian business, especially due to changes in Indian law that first showed an impact in the 2019 elections. The BJP was able to devote those funds to building effective social media campaigns (and the latter were effective in causing that 2019 TMC wobble, which is beyond the scope of this post to address).
2022 Uttar Pradesh State Elections
The next test for Modi and the BJP will be the 2022 UttarPradesh state elections. Until then, I’d read the West Bengal result as more an affirmation of the TMC’s continued regional strength, rather than as necessarily signalling any new BJP vulnerability. Whether the depth and severity of the COVID crisis will cause Modi’s supporters to turn on him and his party remains to be seen.
So, the big question in Indian politics is whether the still-fragmented opposition can seize this opportunity to come together and do what they’ve not managed to do since 2014: present an electable alternative to the BJP and Modi.