The BJP must be silently chafing at not having delivered the people of Bengal from, in the saffron party’s own words, the ‘’tolabaaz syndicate led by the Begum of Bengal’’.
The BJP repeatedly told us Bengal was fed up with the TMC for taking ‘’cut-money” from the most indigent and was resentful that its chief Mamata Banerjee churlishly refused to dignify the slogan Jai Shri Ram.
That there was some merit in the assessment was borne out by Mamata Banerjee’s chief poll strategist Prashant Kishor. In a leaked audio conversation he was heard conceding that Hindi-speaking Hindus and a section of electorally influential tribal communities had fallen under BJP chief campaigner Prime Minister Modi’s spell.
Both the BJP and Kishor weren’t wrong. The BJP’s seat share may not bear it out at first glance, but the saffron party’s ‘’subaltern Hindutva’’ has left a major impression on Hindus in Jangal Mahal and the Rajbanshis in North Bengal. Even in Greater Kolkata, the vote percentage for the BJP suggests that it is no longer an anathema to the ‘bhadralok’.
In the four other states the attempt at carving out a ‘’Hindu monolith’’ vote bank has not been an exercise in futility. Looking strictly at numbers the BJP has gone from holding 64 seats to 147 seats across the five states in five years. That’s a remarkable upward growth curve. One that the fast-fading Congress party’s scion Rahul Gandhi must deeply envy and bitterly resent.
It’s not as if the BJP’s exponential growth is down to some new dramatic strategy. Its turbo-charged electoral mobilisation is still largely powered by a three-decade old engine: ethno-religious appeals.
Historically, the ability of that engine to power the BJP into office has waxed and waned depending on the strength of the resolve shown by the saffron party’s rivals to uphold secular-liberal values by resisting the allure of minority appeasement.
In the eighties, for instance, the ambivalence of the Rajiv Gandhi government in upholding secular dharma gave the BJP its first opening. Similarly, the reluctance of Narasimha Rao’s government to either settle or restore the status quo ante at Ayodhya paved the way for the BJP to mobilise a substantial upper and mid-caste Hindu vote to make a play for power by the late 90s.
Had a combination of caste-based regional political parties, the Supreme Court and the Election Commission (especially under TN Seshan) not forced the BJP to moderate political Hindutva, it may have been as dominant by the late 90s as it is today.
By the 2000s the Congress was becoming an increasingly wobbly fulcrum for state parties to coalesce around to keep the BJP out. The UPA-era Congress was far too closely identified with a “counterfeit secularism” to outpace the BJP’s re-energized electoral engine. Fuelled by an additive (Moditva), combining economic liberalism with ethno-religious nationalism, it soon took pole position.
Whereas the BJP has swept all before it to rule unchallenged at the Centre, at the state level it has found the going difficult against opponents like the AAP, YSRCP, TRS and BJD. These players have learnt quickly from the Congress party’s mistakes and are wary of being seen to be ambivalent to Hindu welfare.
For a while it seemed that Mamata Banerjee was going the Congress way, borrowing heavily from the UPA textbook of appeasement, condescending welfarism, cronyism and corruption. But after the 2019 BJP blitz in Bengal the firebrand was forced to course correct.
And pivot she did. Growing proto-Hindutva wings and keeping an arm and a bandaged leg away from Sectarian parties and minority leaders. The thrust of the saffron party’s campaign on a syncretic ‘’Hinduness’’ meant the Mamata had to chant the Chandi Path and Durga Mantra as also hop from temple to temple.
Mamata isn’t of course the only one to have deferred to the imperative of saving ‘’secularism from the secularists’’. The phrase is meant to describe the hypocrisy of parties that under the cloak of secularism purse a naked minority appeasement vote bank politics.
Indeed, the ‘’agnostic’’ Left in Kerala has conveniently appropriated the issues that exercise the cultural right. Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan launched a campaign against the Congress party’s sectarian ally the IUML. By taking on a Muslim party the Left was of course hoping to cut into the Congress’s Christian and Hindu vote. It’s recalibration has clicked handsomely.
In the end analysis, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the ideological forebearer of the BJP, will not be too disappointed with the outcome. After all it has realised what it set out to do: shrink the ideological distance between avowed secular parties and the iconography of Hinduness.
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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