Column by Mahfuz Anam: We used to have such elections, once
About the just-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 every lover of democracy.
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 neighbour.
He depicted 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 leaders).
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?
Hidden within 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 elections back?
Mahfuz Anam is Editor and Publisher, The Daily Star.