BJP's political challenge to regionalism

By Ashis Biswas. Dated: 3/17/2017 10:00:20 AM

Mamata's sway on Bengal versus Modi

After the recent round of Assembly elections, there is little doubt that the ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC) in Bengal currently remains the strongest and most self-assured regional party in India.
Even as it takes stock of the new situation, where the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah combo-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is re-scripting the country's political narrative, the TMC enjoys major advantages. The rise of regionalism signalled the decline of the Congress party, as vote-bank obsessed regional parties made the running. It is no mean achievement of the BJP that it has begun reversing the process. It is winning growing support from non-Hindi speaking states, and the once mighty regional parties may soon face an existential crisis.
The AGP in Assam has been effectively sidelined. The AIADMK faces a deep crisis after the death of its supremo Jayalalithaa. The SP, BSP and the Akalis have lost ground. Even the Shiv Sena and the BJD are facing the heat.
Against this daunting backdrop, the TMC stands firm, havingsweptthe2016 Assembly elections, garnering 44 per cent of the total vote. And no one complained about rigging, either. The TMC's vote bank-dominated, populism-based electoral arithmetic may ruin Bengal economically. But TMC chief Mamata Banerjee has won two terms already, riding on the support of Muslims, (32 per cent of the population) and the rural poor, who constitute over 70 per cent of the voters.
Even Banerjee's worst critics will admit that she has proved an able administrator in some ways. The state administration has been shaken up as never before. The improvement of conditions in the rural areas, in terms of roads, lights, health facilities, welfare schemes and freebies like cycles, school uniforms, etc cannot be denied.
While big ticket industries and the manufacturing sector avoid the state like plague, the improvement in the urban infrastructure, in terms of metro railway and road connectivity projects, not to mention real estate development, have attracted notice. Both domestic and international tourism have grown.
The problem with other regional parties like the SP or the BJD has been that they might have also delivered, but their support base/share of total votes have not been nowhere near as commanding as that of the TMC's44 per cent. The TMC has ensured that the remaining 56 per cent of the aggregate votes have been split among the Congress(I), the BJP and the CPI(M)-led Left Front. Further, it has subverted all democratic norms by simply buying off leaders and workers of opposition parties with money power, the source of which remains officially unexplained. This in addition to implicating people in dubious cases, which regularly ensures scathing attacks from the judiciary against the state government.
Most suggest that the Saradha chit fund's large sums had been used to help induce large-scale defections from other parties. The close involvement of TMC leaders with notorious chit fund operators, their arrests and admissions made by Saradha chief Sudpita Sen substantiate such allegations.
It can be argued that after six years in governance, the TMC fell victim to a measure of self-destructive hubris prior to the polls in UP and elsewhere. "Some of our leaders think India is an extension of West Bengal, which is a dangerous miscalculation," admits a senior TMC leader.
Nothing else can explain Ms Banerjee's overconfident go-for-broke post-demonetisation attack on Narendra Modi personally and the BJP generally. She personally organized meetings and rallies in Kolkata, trying to whip up passions. It did not work. Then she visited Delhi and Lucknow, where she evoked even less interest, let alone get any response.
When everything failed, she kept up a relentless campaign on the social media which did not exactly set the Yamuna on fire.
Worse, the TMC grievously miscalculated and misread the mood of the people even as lower level polls were held in Maharashtra and Odisha. Then came the Assembly polls in the five states. Jumping the gun a tad too early, the TMC went overboard to express its support for the SP and the AAP, but also putting up 16 candidates in Punjab. None won. A TMC candidate won in Manipur, but the BJP, a virtual non-starter, won many more seats there.
No wonder TMC's daily roars on Twitter turned into the faintest of squeaks after the results were announced. One observer described her mewing tweet on the results as "a remarkable model of repressed emotions".
As things stand, the TMC is about to face its hardest challenge to date. BJP chief Amit Shah lost no time declaring that now the party will seek to expand in the East. It has Assam in the bag and is giving a hard time to the BJD at the grassroot level. There is no reason to think that the BJP cannot become stronger in Bengal, where its vote despite fluctuations, is on a rising curve.
It may be argued that the BJP lacks the kind of organizational muscle to worry the TMC. But this may no longer hold valid, as a silent exodus of sorts has been occurring within other parties, to the saffron camp. Some have joined only to ensure their own safety, which was not guaranteed if they remained with Congress(I) or the CPI(M). Now the trickle of joiners could turn into a torrent, including dissidents within the TMC itself.
This process will not come about because of a new found love among the people for the BJP. But a stronger BJP will certainly act as an automatic magnet for sections of56 per cent voters who oppose the TMC. The Congress's vote share goes down by the day, while erosion continues in the Left camp as well, despite the steady 20-23 per cent of vote share for the CPI(M) and others.
Further, following repeated outbreaks of communal violence, where the Hindus have largely suffered, ignored by a totally partisan ruling party and administration - among examples are major incidents at Deganga, Canning, Dhulagari, Murshidabad and other places - there are angry mutterings within the majority community, irrespective of political affiliations.
It remains to be seen if the BJP, as urged upon by its state leadership as well as a section of central leaders, decides to fight back fire with fire. Senior leaders and MPs like Kailash Vijayvargia, Roopa Ganguly and others have been implicated in connection with corruption and criminal cases. Will the BJP now retaliate by strongly reviving the ongoing Saradha and Narada corruption probes?
On the administrative side too, with its debts to the Centre currently exceeding well over Rs 300,000 crore (it was a manageable Rs 180,000 crore when the Left Front lost in 2011), the TMC will be pushed to the ropes. Even its shouting brigade in the Rajya Sabha, egged on by other opposition groups will not work as before as BJP numbers increase.
All in all, Mamata's most difficult political challenge begins going forward from here, but for unforeseen eventualities.
—(IPA Service)



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