THE BATTERING OF RELIGION-BASED POLITICS IN WEST BENGAL
About thejust-concluded West Bengal assembly elections, there are three things to
celebrate and one to be worried about. The celebrations are for the fact that:
a) people's will got expressed and to that extent democracy worked; b)
religion-based politics took a battering, but only just; and c) a new
charismatic woman leader has emerged whose sheer willpower, inexhaustible
energy, fighting spirit, self-belief and personal honesty could inspire a whole
generation of young leaders who may be able to steer India away from today's
corrupt politics and also be an example for the region.
It is most gratifying
to see democracy in operation next door while in many countries, including
ours, we are witnessing a highly controlled expression of people's will and a
gradual denigration of individual rights and freedoms. With governments
becoming more and more powerful, with public money being increasingly usurped
by those holding power for personal and party politicking purposes, and with
newer technologies empowering governments to spy on their citizens, manipulate
both their perception and opinion, control freedom of expression and punish and
even eliminate critics—the overall democratic culture is on the wane, to say
the least. In such an environment, to see a regional party headed by a woman
stand up against a giant of a party with an unending financial war chest and
inexhaustible muscle power, and defeat the politics of hatred and division
through democracy's most vital instrument—elections—is indeed heart-warming for
The battering of
religion-based politics in West Bengal is indeed a happy augury for us. West
Bengal going saffron would have had serious repercussions on Bangladesh's
politics. It would have given a spurt to our fundamentalists. The exponents of
religion-based politics could have seen the developments across the border as
an opportune moment for their own assertion. The religion-based politics that
the BJP is advocating all over India, and wanted to bring next door, is a
matter of great worry from which we appear to have been spared for the moment.
In addition to the
overall issue of secular versus communal politics, we in Bangladesh had some
specific concerns that naturally caused us to lean against BJP. To start with,
we were stunned by the negative image that was being portrayed of Bangladesh by
no less a person than the central home minister, who was also the chief of the
present ruling party of India, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). His words were
disrespectful and arrogant and, equally importantly, false. He exhibited
absolutely no concern as to how his words would impact the hearts and minds of
the people of the country that India terms as its closest and friendliest
Bangladesh as a country from where starving people were flocking into India. He
castigated the incumbent chief minister as an appeaser of Muslims, as if it was
a crime, and as if the people he was referring to were not Indian citizens.
What sort of inner impression of Bangladesh and what sort of feeling for its
people does Mr. Amit Shah harbour that could have made him call our citizens
"termites"? It is not lost on us that he never withdrew his comments,
let alone apologise for them.
The whole BJP
contingent that poured down on West Bengal over the election period made
Muslim-bashing one of their primary election strategies, implying that all of
them were part of a massive illegal migrant population which were a
"burden" on India and thus needed to be shunted out. The NRC
(National Register of Citizens) and the CAA (Citizenship Amendment Act, 2019)
both have strengthened the government's hands to implement this policy, which,
we feared, would be expeditiously implemented if BJP won.
The third point to
celebrate is the emergence of a new Indian leader whose stature and charisma
can now match anyone else's at the national level, especially that of Prime Minister
Modi, whose reputation of having a magnetic appeal among voters stands
significantly dented. If Modi gained from a humble-beginnings image, so did
Mamata. Additionally, she scored high for simple living, even after being in
power for two terms. In a recent TV interview, she said that she does not take
a paisa from the state exchequer—no salary, no TA/DA, no official residence
(she lives in her old, modest flat), no official car (uses her own Maruti),
travels economy class, pays for hotels and guest houses—and runs her family
affairs and personal expenses from the royalty she gets from her 87 books (many
of them bestsellers, she claimed) and numerous CDs where she is the lyricist.
It is indeed a very powerful story of an honest leader at a time when corruption
in politics is an everyday phenomenon, not just in India but also regionally.
(Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about many of her senior party
Purely from an
election point of view, Mamata Banerjee proved that if a leader is really connected
with her base and if people have trust in their leader, then money, muscle
power, administrative support, false and misleading propaganda and
religion-based campaign can all be overcome, and decisively so. The election
became an excellent example of a contest between two parties ultimately
reducing itself to a clash of two personalities. The more it became so, the
more it helped Mamata, who emerged as a lone lady standing against the all-out
efforts of a giant all-India party with more money than it needs, backed by the
prestige of a sitting prime minister with charisma and formidable popularity,
with all the attendant advantages of support from the administration that
holding the highest office in a South Asian country automatically brings.
So, what is it about
this election that should worry us?
Mamata's victory is another victory that is appearing to get buried under the
momentary relief that the saffron wave has been thwarted. That victory is of
the BJP. They may not have captured power but they have come a long way towards
it. They have expanded their presence in the Bidhan Sabha from a mere 3 seats
in the last election to 77 seats at present. By any standard, this can be
considered a significant victory. But because BJP had set itself a target of
getting 200 seats and created the hype of forming the government this time
around, their result—a significant success on its own—is appearing to be the
very opposite, creating a false scope for complacency of the victors. It is
quite possible that the real strategists of RSS-BJP knew well that capturing
power in 2021 could be an impossible task and have thus set their eyes on 2026
as the real turning point, making the present election a mere dress rehearsal.
This apparent defeat may germinate into something totally different in the
future, and there is a pertinent historical precedent to guide us here.
When the BJP-led
National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government lost to the Congress-led United
Progressive Alliance (UPA) in 2004, after being in power for five years, many
saw it as a defeat of communal politics to the secular forces. Then, when the
UPA coalition got re-elected in 2009, it was taken to be additional proof that
religion-based politics would never succeed in India and that the post-Independence
legacy of the ideals set forth in the Indian constitution had found sufficient
roots in the hearts and minds of common Indians for obscurantism not to have
any future in modern India.
The 2014 election saw
a complete reversal of the previous outcomes and the NDA's re-election with
massive support in 2019 shocked the secularists, bringing BJP to the centre
stage of present -day Indian politics where, some say, it will stay for a while.
So is Trinamool
Congress's victory a serious rebuff to communal politics, or is it a precursor
of a repeat of the UPA defeat at the hands of the NDA? The present outcome in
West Bengal elections may have sown the seed for a repeat of what had happened
at the centre in 2014.
But why should it
concern us, in Bangladesh, as to which political party comes to power in West
Bengal or in India? On the face of it, it shouldn't. But there is more than the
"face' to the rest of the reality. Didn't Trump's election and his
subsequent defeat affect us? Isn't the US and the world now a better place
because Trump is gone, along with his white supremacist politics? The reason we
are concerned is because BJP, along with RSS and others of the family of such
parties, are far more than mere political parties. Normally, a political party
asks for votes. But these religion-based political parties—like ours in
Bangladesh—ask not only for our votes but also for our minds, our intellectual
space, our emotional space, our cultural space—in fact, our whole being. As the
now-famous election strategist Prashant Kishor, who is credited for Mamata's
stunning performance, recently said in a TV interview, parties like BJP
"just don't want only your votes. They want to dominate the
mind-space—dictate what we should wear, eat, hear, see, how to run our lives.
They want to have a say in everything. That is problematic."
As we analyse
elections held in West Bengal and in four other states—as we did earlier for
the US elections too—we cannot but feel a tinge of jealousy. As we see robust
electioneering, spirited campaigning and finally people exhibiting the
"majesty" of the public will elsewhere, we naturally wonder what has
happened to ours. For, we too used to have such highly contested, freely
participated and fearlessly voted elections which reasserted, time and again,
that people were "sovereign" and that they were the ultimate arbiter
of who could be entrusted to run our affairs. Whatever happened to that?
When will we get our
Mahfuz Anam is Editor
and Publisher, The Daily Star.