The Turning Point
From all points of view, Mamata Banerjee’s spectacular victory promises to be a Turning Point.
Ten years ago too, she worked a miraculous change. But despite the larger implications on account of the ideology and the all-India character of the then adversary she defeated, that moment is not comparable.
BJP, the colossal , cadre-based party with Narendra Modi as its face, is a formidable force. It has complete control of Parliament. It has not fought shy of employing all agencies of the central government and other resources at its command to demoralise, weaken and even topple the opposition state governments. It has bent the media machine and used all the tricks on the social media to further its power game. And it has no qualms about openly resorting to communalisation of politics in the name of “ Nationalism “ of its conception.
Now, that party has been in power at the centre for seven long years and controls crucial states of northern India. And it was a party in ascent until its resounding defeat in West Bengal a few days ago. A quick comparison with the political environment ten years ago will leave no doubt that the electoral miracle worked out by Mamata Banerjee now is qualitatively far different and deserves to be recognised as a turning point.
The single factor that MB did not depend on any other regional or national political formation while carving out her victory speaks volumes about her political strength as well as judgement.She shrewdly and decisively turned the tables on BJP by revitalising the regional, linguistic and civilisational appeal of Bengal. And succeeded in contrasting it with the narrow,backward looking, communal, male-dominated, boorish and “ alien or out-sider “ image of her opposition.
Also, it should not be forgotten that her popular, welfare and support schemes “delivered at the door” of the poor, sub- altern classes translated her claims and promises into palpable, objective realities. There were no comparable “deliveries” from her powerful challengers except the cash and the “double engine “influence they were trying to peddle to their candidates and prospective supporters. And this also went to enhance the diminutive “David” image of MB in the eyes of her actual and potential supporters.
Another fall-out of the the delivery of concrete economic support schemes, including land titles, to the marginalised social and political categories such as Matuas and Rajbanshis, Santhals and Kurmis and her personal gestures to identify herself with such sections, has been that the appeal to Bengali sub- nationalism acquired traction far beyond the mainstream and, indeed, succeeded in neutralising the intensive efforts made by BJP to woo away those very sections to the bandwagon of Hindutva.
What imparts MB’s victory such crucial significance when there has been a similar “David” kind of victory in the recent past in the face of an apparently similar challenge in Delhi? Obviously, Delhi elections were essentially of a municipal character.
Leaving aside the scale, the historical and cultural ethos of Delhi does not inform its politics the way such ethos characterises the polity and politics of West Bengal. Above all, the objective, economic reality in West Bengal is far different , if not opposite , to what prevails in Delhi.
Not that BJP was not earlier trounced in some other states. But the opposition victory was not as decisive, whether in Rajasthan or MP. The only somewhat comparable victory was in Chhattisgarh but it remained a local phenomenon, with little all India significance. Indeed BJP too did not make those contests so high voltage. Nor did it claim that contest to be a turning point (‘ashol poribartan’) , as it did in West Bengal.
That leaves us with Maharashtra. There, the opposition victory came not as a clear electoral verdict but as a result of the adroit post- election political manoeuvre of a joint front of three parties. It succeeded and will probably abide. But in no sense, it can be compared to MB’s victory.
Except in one aspect, to some extent : The impressive pre - election rally and revival of NCP started and endured with a subtle but strategic appeal to Maratha regionalism or sub- nationalism. Which also helped the architect of the front in drawing together the erstwhile competing regional political party on to the same page.
What then,are the main take-aways of the “ turning point “ for Opposition politics - regional and national ?
Before coming to that, it may be useful to recall the nature of the crisis that the Indian polity has been in for the last three decades. The root cause lies in the adoption of neo- liberal ideology and practice. To this, no political party can really claim an exception. The contradictions between the people's concerns and interests and those of the ruling elites have come to the fore more pointedly in the last decade or so.
Half- hearted attempts made by the mainstream national or regional political tendencies, attempting to do ‘ more of the same’, with a little bit of “populist” content added, came unstuck, only further deepening the economic crisis.
The way out for the ruling elite was provided by a decisive shift to unashamed pursuit of the neo-liberal ideology under the cover of the “ incorruptible”, “nationalist”, “majoritarian” political dispensation which was favoured by large cohorts of economically and socially disparate voters. And with almost untrammeled political power concentrated in its hands, the ruling dispensation could be seen moving ahead in its chosen direction with little thought given to irreconcilable contradictions building up rapidly within the system.
The eruption of the pandemic thrust the ugly underbelly of the economy right under the nose of the ruling elite.No amount of denial or pep talks or promises would help relieve the misery and anguish of the suffering masses. And the victims could no longer be hypnotised. Peoples’ predicaments are stark and palpable:
- The bankruptcy of the public health infrastructure;
- the steady deterioration and finally, suspension of public educational facilities such as they were available for ordinary people;
- the decimation of MSMEs ;
- the dismantlement of informal employment opportunities;
- the burgeoning of undisguised unemployment; the absence of comprehensive social security; the crippling of the federal financial framework rendering the states woefully dependent on the central munificence;
- federal financial resources coming under policy-induced stress;
- inflationary pressures building up; and, above all, the deepening agrarian crisis.
Already the accumulated distress of peasantry at large has piled up challengingly at the doors of Delhi.The previous state election in Bihar had registered spontaneous discontent of millions of the unemployed youth. Likewise, the people at large everywhere are realising the disastrous mismanagement of the pandemic by the central government which seems to be abdicating its responsibility and scapegoating the states.
The national political situation is deteriorating fast and persistent endeavour of the ruling party to absolve itself from the blame through diversion and propaganda is reaching its limits.The Moment flagged by the spectacular victory of MB has nationwide implications for the entire political opposition.
The Turning Point constitutes a spectacular refutation of ”invincibility” of the powerful common adversary. It heightens the Opposition morale as no other election in the last decade could. Defeating the formidable,common adversary must now be the sole, overriding, strategic objective of the Opposition.
A single Opposition candidate may be the optimal strategy, not always feasible, but sometimes unavoidable in the larger public interest. In one word, whatever it takes to secure the strategic objective must be done. Consequences of failure would be far too serious: “Hang ye together; lest ye be hanged separately.”
The Opposition electoral strategy should draw lessons from the strategies adopted in the recent elections, starting with West Bengal which we have tried to understand in some detail.
Tamil Nadu and Kerala elections, which were held close to those in West Bengal, also underscore the regional - linguistic - cultural identity factor and its importance in withstanding the ultra nationalist, anti plural, anti federal political tendency. We have earlier noted how the same factor had contributed in a similar way in Maharashtra.
The Common Minimum Programme of the Opposition should emerge effortlessly in terms of the peoples’ predicaments specifically enumerated earlier. Most relate to peoples’ issues. Some relate to the union financial and economic policies. Each should suggest a concrete programmatic element. It should be easy to reach consensus on most such elements, if not all. And that too on pragmatic, political considerations, without insisting on wider, theoretical congruence.
Those elements which relate to Peoples’ issues could be further elaborated in detail in the respective state versions of CMP. More importantly, the elements must contain, to the extent feasible, special / specific provision for scheduled castes and scheduled tribes,minorities, disadvantaged groups and women.
These are unprecedented times. They call for unprecedented moves. The approach sketched here centres on pro- people, pluralist, federal, inclusive and concrete programmes. It calls for political practice with farsight to transcend narrow, shortterm interests. Such an approach should strike an enthusiastic popular response which could provide adequate political traction to counter and defeat the ultra nationalist, pro rich, regressive politics.
S.P.Shukla, former Finance Secretary, is retired from the Indian Administrative Service.