Assembly elections 2021: Modi’s Invincibility Shattered
By Dr Santosh Kumar Mohapatra*
It is believed that money and muscle power, corporates’ support, media’s backing, colossal propaganda, rallies, roadshows with the concomitant rhetorical ability of leaders win election. But it happens often but not always. Many Indian voters may be emotional, credulous and gullible, but they cannot be hoodwinked or cannot be taken for granted always.
The voters, especially at grassroots levels, decide the election result by exercising suffrage boldly and independently. This is clearly manifested in the recent outcomes of Assemblies’ election of four states -West Bengal, Assam, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and one union territory -Puducherry, voted between March 27 and April 29. Although assembly elections were held in five Indian states, the real battle was over West Bengal.
Assembly election results mean different things to different people. Each of the upshots in these states had an exceptional element, making it politically important for both national politics and the future of regional parties in India. But the West Bengal election was a prestige issue for BJP as it had invested its human, political, and financial resources to the utmost capacity to trounce its fierce critic Mamata Banerjee. Even the election was seen as a battle for political suzerainty between Prime Minister Modi and Mamata who is known as the “daughter of Bengal”, “Bengal tigress”, and a street fighter.
Exit polls had predicted a tight contest between Trinamool Congress (TMC) and the BJP. But India’s only female Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee single-handedly powered her party to a stupendous victory for the third term in a ferocious battle marred by violence, denigration, mudslinging, caste politics and communal polarisation.
Corruption, infiltration and a clash of cultures have dominated the political rhetoric. The BJP promised all-around development in the state, accused the TMC of widespread corruption and appeasement politics, and promised to stop infiltration through the Bangladesh border. The TMC denied all charges and termed the BJP a party of “outsiders” that did not understand Bengal’s issues.
According to analysts, the BJP focused on consolidating Hindu votes cutting across caste lines, while the TMC has tried to appeal to the larger idea of Bengaliness. But those corrupt people who deserted Mamata and joined BJP for power actually helped Mamata to refurbish her image. Many of them have lost too.
Many BJP leader, supporters, including Prime Minister, expressed elation in public to hide disappointments of failures by stating that the BJP’s presence has significantly increased to 77 seats out of 3 in 2016. But this is an illusion and deceptive. Despite all its money power, its dominance over both mainstream and social media, its heavy-hitting leaders, the party couldn’t even improve on what it had achieved two years ago in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls.
At that time, it had bagged 40.64 per cent votes and won 18 out of the total 42 MPs and had got majority votes in around 121 Assembly constituencies, emerging as the main challenger to the ruling TMC which had got 43.69 per cent votes with a majority in around 163 Assembly constituencies. This incredible performance has spurred BJP to capture West Bengal.
The precipitous decline of BJP’s popularity is clearly palpable in the 2021 election as TMC has increased its vote percentage to 48 per cent while BJP’s share has decreased from 40.64 per cent. In 2016, the TMC won 211 of the 293 seats it contested. But this time it has not only smashed the anti-incumbency factor but also won 213 seats out of 292. The alliance of the Left parties and the Congress that had won 76 seats in 2016 have been reduced nonentity.
The Congress and Left parties had managed to get about 13 per cent of the votes in 2019. If CSDS-Lokniti’s survey got it right, about 8.5 per cent of this consisted of Muslim voters. Muslim votes might have gone to TMC. Muslim voters shifting to TMC is not due to their disillusionment with the Left but winnability of TMC and an attempt to keep BJP away from power for its communal agenda.
Many think that the BJP’s rise had then come mostly at the cost of the Left and Congress, but this is wrong, though it had also managed to take away a small chunk of Mamata’s Hindu votes. The Saffron party had wrested only 15 from Congress, 9 from the left and winning as many as 48 seats that TMC had held in 2016. In 2021, TMC had wrested 29 from Congress and 22 seats from Lefts.
Another fascinating outcome is that trend pertains to the BJP’s performances in the West Bengal elections. Of the 8 phases of polling in states, the BJP won about 31 per cent of the 180 seats in the fray in the first five phases of the election. But in the final three phases of the election, when Covid restrictions and infections were on the rise, the BJP ‘s strike rate fell to 21 per cent of the 112 seats that were contested.
Conversely, the TMC share in seats for the last three phases was over 81 per cent, much more than the 68 per cent in the first 5 phases. Hence the pandemic has reduced the popularity of Modi. Further, those, those who believed that the election commission’s decision to suggest the election over eight phases did not have a bearing on the poll result should think again.
In Tamil Nadu, after a decade, M K Stalin led Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) buttressed by the Left, and Congress has wrested power from of its arch-rival All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) -BJP alliance. In Kerala, the reigning Left Democratic Front under the leadership of Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan shattered a 40-year jinx winning a second time consecutively.
In Kerala in the last 40 year, never any incumbent government had won second times. Left Democratic Front and congress led United Democratic Front (UDF) used to win alternatively. However, BJP trying to emerge as a third force ended with losing the lone seat it had in the previous house despite its all-nefarious propaganda. LDF won a decisive mandate, clinching 99 seats and surpassing its tally in the previous House.
Assam is the only state where the BJP, Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) and United people’s party liberal (UPPL) alliance retained power with a reduced majority. In small Puducherry, the alliance between the BJP and All India NR Congress (AINRC) dethroned the congress government.
Celebrating the win, Mamata said West Bengal had “saved” India with the result while Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan dubbed victory as the victory of the people. While TMC supporters are joyful with Mamata’s massive victory, many left cadres, progressive people are in a pickle as they find nothing difference between BJP and TMC.
Their disillusionment with Mamata is not linked with her economic policies or political philosophy of the party but the way TMC goons and thugs have been perpetrating violence, crime on left cadres and even murdering and ransacking local party offices since 2011 when she rode into power vanquishing Left front. Many Left cadres are feeling like second-class citizens. What is disquieting is the manifestation of Mamata’s capricious and pugnacious nature while meeting the press and dealing with oppositions.
However, a thorn can only extract another thorn. As far as national politics is concerned, or the fight against neoliberalism, disinvestment, privatization, is concerned, BJP’s victory would have done more harm. Its fascist juggernaut was needed to be checkmated, otherwise, it would have galloped roughshod on masses at greater rapidity. Mamata fought fascist forces with courage, boldness and fortitude. A very few leaders in the world can match the courage that Mamata has.
The West Bengal results reveal that Modi’s personal, divisive and aggressive campaign has backfired. The voters have also rejected the BJP’s divisive anti-Muslim politics in Bengal which was the main thrust of its campaign. The belief that Modi is invincible has got shattered.
This government is now battling a public backlash on their mishandling of the Covid pandemic. Critics have assailed Narendra Modi’s handling of the crisis. India’s covid crisis has shaken Modi’s image of strength. There is a catastrophe, illness everywhere. As covid devastates India, death goes undercounted.
BJP leaders were accused of prioritising politics over their response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Despite warnings from scientists of a looming second wave in India, Modi addressed a large rally in West Bengal leading to -a major failure of his prime ministerial duties. His own Covid-19 task force did not meet for months. This is a crisis of his own making.
To signal that India was open for business, Narendra Modi himself obfuscated the gravity of pandemic and declared a premature victory over Covid in late January, during what proved to be a mere lull in infections. Much of India has since dropped its guard. That, along with the emergence of more treacherous variants and a sluggish vaccine campaign, is believed to have fuelled the amazing number of infections, the worst numbers the world has seen.
During its last term in office, when India reeled from the disaster of demonetisation, the BJP had gloried that its electoral victory in Uttar Pradesh proved that the electorate was behind the Prime Minister. A victory in Bengal might have achieved the same effect even if it involved scrambling, over the bodies of those who had died during the unprecedentedly long campaign that the Election Commission designed to enable the Prime Minister and other central leaders to address more rallies, roadshows.
For the BJP, a victory in the West Bengal polls could have served as a morale booster in the midst of a crisis and absolved it from the culpability of being super spreaders of coronavirus and the prime Minister would have thought that people are behind him despite the catastrophic and ghastly shape of a pandemic. Narendra Modi’s failure to seize Bengal and massive failure in Tamil Nadu and Kerala can be viewed as a referendum on the government’s mishandling of the second wave of Covid-19 infections spreading across the country.
Reacting to the result of the West Bengal election, in an article published in “The New York Times”, on May 2, Jeffrey Gettleman and Hari Kumar write one of India’s feistiest opposition parties cruised to victory in state elections in West Bengal, dealing a blow to Prime Minister Narendra Modi in a campaign held during a catastrophic surge in Covid-19 infections. The Prime Minister’s party lost big in West Bengal amid criticism that his mishandling of the pandemic had fuelled a catastrophic surge of cases in India. its heavy investment in West Bengal, a prize it desperately wanted to win.
Similarly, an article in “The Guardian “mentions that India’s prime minister has suffered a rare political defeat in a key state election amid sign of a voter backlash over his handling of the coronavirus disaster as the country record number of deaths. According to Nomura Global Markets Research, the BJP’s defeat in West Bengal may be seen as a referendum on the central government’s handling of the second wave of the pandemic.
The grim reality is that a BJP win in West Bengal would have given arsenals to the Modi Government and the Sangh ecosystem to claim that Indians have faith in the centre’s actions against COVID. The loss, on the other hand, weakens that claim and strengthens opposition voices.
Had BJP own in West Bengal, it would have not only a catastrophic impact for West Bengal but also on the entire political scenario of the nation. Democracy cannot survive without a strong opposition as absolute power leads to autocracy, oligarchy and makes ruler more supercilious, arrogant, vindictive, and nonchalant, and insensitive to others’ problem as seen today. If there will be no strong brake, then the ruling steamroller with its brute majority, will bulldoze and crush masses and become more pro-rich, pro-corporate and embrace cronyism as already experienced in the last few years.
India is no more free democracy, rather a “partially free democracy (as per the US-based non-profit Freedom House), flawed democracy (as per 2020 Democracy Index report of The Economist Intelligence Unit (EI), electoral autocracy (as per Sweden-based V-Dem Institute). There is continuous slippage in the democracy index from a global ranking of 27 in 2015 to 53 in 2020. In this deteriorating phase of our democracy, the formation of a non-BJP government in three states will not only halt the ruling class juggernaut but save our democracy to some extent from further deterioration and degradation.
The Modi’s tyranny, surreptitious design of decimating opposition, dissenters and critics will be pushed back. The centre’s move towards centralisation of power and hostile federalism, communal polarisation, step-motherly attitude towards non-BJP ruled states will be clamped a little bit.
In the keenly-watched Nandigram seat, aide-turned-rival Suvendu Adhikari overpowered Mamata by a whisker following several flip-flops over the results. But defeat is always painful whatever margin may be. This defeat must enable Mamata to understand the grim reality of politics and will harbour a compassionate approach for oppositions. She should not forget that many have voted her not to be pleased with her governance but wanted to keep BJP away from power. She needs support of Left to fight fascist forces who have already started tormenting her.
If Mamata does not change her approach or her party resorts to violence, the same people who have elected her party with the mammoth majority can annihilate her again. If the Left -front can be pushed into such nadir after ruling seven consecutive terms from 1977 to 2011, why not Mamata. Left must introspect that why it did so well in Kerala, while failed miserably in West Bengal. The Congress must rethink its strategy otherwise, it may be just get reduced to regional status. BJP should introspect why in a state like Kerala with cent per cent literacy and being number one in human development in the country, it is facing such outright rejection.
The author is an Odisha-based eminent columnist/economist and social thinker. He can be reached through e-mail at [email protected]
DISCLAIMER: The views expressed in the article are solely those of the author and do not in any way represent the views of Sambad English.