Bengal has defeated a political technique, more than a political party. The BJP might have drawn some consolation from the verdict as its vote share jumped from 10 per cent in 2016 assembly election to a whopping 38 per cent now, apart from becoming the main opposition with 77 seats, the message from the people is entirely different. Statistics from the past don’t tell the true story of Bengal.
The irrefutable reality is that the BJP was poised to wrest Bengal from Mamata Banerjee, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his trusted lieutenant Home Minister Amit Shah making the last push to finish the turnkey project that started in 2019 parliamentary election. The miracle was waiting to happen whether or not the BJP had the infrastructure in villages and towns to counter the formidable organisational machinery developed by Trinamool Congress over the years.
But the big bang political technique of making an entry through the window opened by communal polarisation and then deploying all the resources and energy to create a gigantic machine that would crush anything getting in the way, has been badly exposed. The media nurtures the myth of invincibility that the sheer size of propaganda weaves and the opponents feel dwarfed. The country saw the limitations of this technique in Delhi, where Amit Shah ran the bulldozer like he did in Bengal, but the message got lost in the power of propaganda. The message was clear: The giant machine generates noise more than substance. The abnormal hype about Shaheen Bagh protests, the deafening chants of 'Jai Shri Ram' and the flood of resources couldn’t dismantle the grassroots connect that Arvind Kejriwal had built with the people of Delhi.
Instead of drawing the right lessons, Shah relied on the same technique in Bengal, engineering hype without sewing up a connect, and predicted 200 seats for the BJP. Modi too got entrapped in the web of the hollow rhetoric and brazenly sang out, “Do Mai, Deedi gai.” The maddening force of the propaganda triggered a counter-consolidation with activists, academics, intelligentsia, actors, artistes… quietly starting a no-vote-for-BJP campaign. It was a cultural resistance to an uncultured invasion.
The composite culture of Bengal, where Muslims headed Durga Puja committees and Hindus loved their non-vegetarian food, woke up to repulse the divisive and discriminatory tenor of “Jai Shri Ram.” The conversation that Bengali society was having within itself wasn’t heard by the noisemakers and the outcome is there for everybody to see: Mamata returned with a bigger mandate despite a real 10-year-strong anti-incumbency. A refined, sophisticated technique might have helped the BJP reach farther.
Now, the talk of Mamata emerging as an alternative to Modi is clearly premature. Bengal has merely demonstrated how to counter Modi-Shah’s technique, not settled the leadership issue. The Bengal result is a prescription for treating Modi-Shah’s model of politics, not an opportunity to trigger competition among opposition parties. Leaders like Sharad Pawar, Uddhav Thackeray, M K Stalin, Akhilesh Yadav, Tejaswi Yadav, Chandrashekar Rao, Pinarayi Vijayan…etc would do well to forge solidarities, setting aside the leadership question.
The Congress too needs to show flexibility and a greater sense of accommodation to the regional satraps, instead of asserting its dominance which a reinvigorated regional leadership will find difficult to digest. Taking Modi lightly will be fraught with consequences as he remains a strongly popular leader with considerable clout no other party can match. There is no national alternative in sight, as the principal opposition party, the Congress, is in a miserable state.
The BJP’s ability to learn from its mistakes cannot be overstated. It has bounced back after losing three states – Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh -- just before the 2019 parliamentary election. It can retain its pre-eminence in national politics by winning Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat, two of its strongholds in the next round of elections. Whether Modi wins again or not, Indian democracy needs a strong opposition to enforce democratic principles and accountability.
The result should also jolt Modi out of political inertia as a more focused and energised approach is needed to rev up the economy, address the menacing unemployment problem, resolve the farmers’ protest and control the spread of Covid-19. India needs healthy politics and a constructive systemic and political engagement between the Government and opposition, not ceaseless hate-filled warfare that shuts down communication between the two. India has to rebound and reclaim its space in the global community; too many adverse events have taken place in the recent past, damaging our reputation as an emerging power.