Poll results show the power of federalism
For the BJP, the lesson of the Bengal election — taken with the results from Kerala and Tamil Nadu — is that India, by its nature, is a federal nation. Its nationalism has to rejoice in its diversity rather than try to bind the nation together in an unnatural uniformity.
In my last column, I warned that the results of the West Bengal elections could further undermine India’s federalism and take the country one step closer to becoming a one-party democracy.
Mamata Banerjee’s sweeping victory has shown that even an election-winning machine as well-resourced and as successful nationally as the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) could not resist Bengali federalism. The results also show that federalism could be the way for the Opposition to challenge the BJP nationally.
The BJP charged into Bengal promising that it would guarantee the right to shout Jai Shri Ram, a right Bengalis already had and didn’t particularly want to exercise. Their deity is the goddess Durga. Their language, of which they are proud, is Bengali, yet the BJP built its campaign around Hindi-speaking outsiders. Bengalis were not swayed by the fact that the star speakers were the prime minister (PM), the home minister and the BJP president. Bengalis barely starred in the campaign. Aggressive Hindutva thwarted the BJP’s efforts to divide the Muslim vote. And women were shocked at the way even the PM derided Banerjee.
For the BJP, the lesson of the election — taken with the results from Kerala and Tamil Nadu — is that India, by its nature, is a federal nation. Its nationalism has to rejoice in its diversity rather than try to bind the nation together in an unnatural uniformity.
The Congress’s failure to recognise India’s federal nature is the main reason for its humiliating position. Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury, the party leader in the Lok Sabha, and the man who had the misfortune to head the Congress campaign in Bengal, has asked, “We have been decimated by Mamata Banerjee regionally and by Modiji nationally, so where do we go now?” If, as is all too likely, the party reacts to this disaster in the same manner as it has reacted to disasters since 2014, it will once again go nowhere.
For 50 years, the Congress has suffered from a top-down structure which denies its state leaders the freedom to put down their own roots and establish their independence. The structure has been made even more stifling by the absolutism of the Nehru-Gandhi family. The answer to Chowdhury’s question is that the Congress should go on to become a federal party with strong, independent-minded chief ministers. If that were to happen, then there might be a great homecoming of former Congressmen and women who left the party after falling out with the Gandhis. Is it beyond the bounds of possibility that this homecoming could include former Congress leader, Mamata Banerjee?
Her triumph has revived talk of a national opposition front. The Janata Party was a hurriedly cobbled together union of six parties which defeated Indira Gandhi. Although the party collapsed amid unseemly brawling over leadership, the Janata government had its achievements. The administration, derailed by the arbitrary interference of Sanjay Gandhi, was put back on the rails and legislation was passed to ensure that there could never be another Emergency of the same nature. The mistake the Janata leaders made was to merge six separate parties into one party. If they had formed a federation, it might well have been flexible enough to survive its full term.
If opposition parties now formed a federation, there would be rivalries over the leadership. But if there was agreement that the PM was only to be the first among equals, and would not have the exalted status of that office, it would be easier for leaders of different parties to work together. So where does Banerjee go now? She has said her top priority is the pandemic, and that is as it should be. If she does get involved in national politics, she should never neglect her roots, or forget that a large number of Bengalis did vote for the BJP.
The views expressed are personal