THE Assembly election verdict provides an opening to everyone who believes in the idea of India. A much-needed opening in these dark times when our democracy, federalism and indeed our republic are shrinking by the day. But we can seize this opportunity only if we recognise what it is not, if we acknowledge that we have not earned it yet, if we are wise to what is not to be done.
The consequences of West Bengal’s verdict are truly momentous, beyond the normal calculus of electoral politics. In normal times, a popular chief minister getting a third term is not unheard of. In a normal election, the increase in the Bharatiya Janata Party’s vote share — from 10 per cent to 37 per cent — would be considered a giant leap. Normally, a political party has every reason to celebrate its arrival as the real opposition party in a state with 77 seats, up from just three in the last election.
But Bengal 2021 was not a normal election. This was the most audacious political heist attempted in recent times. Bengal was the final frontier that the BJP needed to cross to consolidate its hegemony. And it chose this election to launch an all-out attack. It threw everything into it: money, media, organisational machine and, of course, Narendra Modi.
And it threw every caution and norm to the winds — from the sanctity of the Election Commission to the neutrality of the security forces and Covid norms. The triumphalism of its leaders was unmatched, duly echoed by the darbari media. Yet, it was defeated. Not just defeated, but duly humiliated.
A modern-day Ashvamedha yagna has been interrupted, a magic show disrupted in the middle of a trick. Just think of what would have happened if the BJP had actually succeeded in capturing Bengal — the celebrations, the claims, the fear. Our republic has reclaimed that much space within a day.
At this juncture of history, an interruption like the Bengal result can open unanticipated possibilities. We are in the middle of one of the worst-tackled pandemics, one that has forced even die-hard bhakts to entertain second thoughts about this regime. We are not out of the lockdown-induced economic meltdown yet, and it could only get worse with the raging second wave. And we have a historic farmers’ protest that refuses to be cowed down.
In this context, a verdict like this one exposes the vulnerabilities of the Modi government, wakes up its credulous supporters and emboldens the resisters. Results from Kerala and Tamil Nadu can consolidate oppositional spaces. Bengal’s verdict can break the spell that has had the country in thrall for the last seven years. This could be the beginning of the end of the Modi juggernaut.
It could. It need not be so. It all depends on how we respond to this opening. The first step is to recognise what this verdict is not. While it shows the limits to dividends of communal polarisation, it is not a rejection of communal politics. If anything, the Bengal election has rekindled the pre-Partition communal fire that the state will have to deal with for a long time. Besides, mobilisation of anxious Muslim voters against the BJP is hardly a sign of secular politics.
Nor is it a verdict against the Modi government for its many acts of commission and omission during the Covid-19 pandemic and nationwide lockdown. The biggest public health crisis of post-Independence India was not an electoral issue anywhere, except Kerala.
As in the case of demonetisation, the people have not yet connected the consequences to the cause, their economic plight to the incompetent economic policies pursued by the Modi government. The Left Democratic Front’s victory in Kerala had little to do with popular acceptance of the Left ideology. And in all fairness, while the farmers’ organisations led to a vigorous no-vote-for-BJP campaign, this verdict does not demonstrate farmers’ rejection of the three farm laws. Not as yet.
We must approach this opportunity with a modest admission that this reversal for the BJP was the product of many quotidian factors that do not add up to a grand story of reclaiming democracy. In Bengal and Kerala, the popularity of the incumbent chief ministers was a key factor. It was not a verdict on good governance. If that was so, the All-India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) should have been routed. CM Sarbananda Sonowal, too, should not have come back to power in Assam. Mamata Banerjee’s governance record has also been moderate, at best. But some popular schemes did make a difference to the voters.
And let’s face it, deft election management played a key role in the Trinamool Congress’s victory in West Bengal and the BJP’s victory in Assam. These routine factors may not work against the BJP every time.
It’s time we publicly acknowledge the harsh truth about who this opportunity is not for. There can be many claims about who the real winner is: Mamata Banerjee or Prashant Kishor, Pinarayi Vijayan or the Left parties, Himanta Biswa Sarma or Sarbananda Sonowal. But there cannot be two opinions about the real loser today: the Indian National Congress.
The grand old party did not miss an opportunity to ensure it misses out on a regular opportunity to come back to power in Kerala, in the first Assembly election after Rahul Gandhi became an MP from the state. Similarly, in Assam, it allowed the BJP to come back to power despite massive anti-CAA protests in the state a year ago. It ceded power in Puducherry and sank to irrelevance in West Bengal. The message is as clear as it gets: the Congress in its current form cannot lead India in a battle to reclaim democracy.
Again and again, state elections have punctured the myth of Modi’s invincibility. Yet, the myth persists because the disaffection at the state level fails to translate into a national sentiment. The 2021 verdict is different. It provides a clear opening and shows a path. If this is followed by the BJP’s defeat in Uttar Pradesh in early 2022, it would certainly be the countdown for the end of the Modi regime.
Modi can be defeated, but not by the Congress, not by routine opposition unity, and not by knee-jerk anti-Modism. Here is an opportunity. And a challenge. Everyone who seeks to reclaim our republic must take this up.
Views are personal