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BJP’s Arrogance on Alert

Anand Teltumbde (tanandraj@gmail.com) is a writer and civil rights activist with the Committee for the Protection of Democratic Rights, Mumbai.

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Three political events that occurred in March 2018 left the country stunned: (i) the unceremonious end of the 25-year-long unbroken rule of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPI[M]) in Tripura, (ii) the subsequent toppling of Vladimir Lenin’s statues by Hindutva vandals in jubilation over the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) victory in the north-eastern state, and (iii) the surprise defeat of the BJP by the Samajwadi Party (SP)–Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) alliance in the bypolls of Uttar Pradesh (UP) and Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) in Bihar. The first event was met with disbelief, the second with aversion, and the third with a sense of relief, by a majority of Indians who are angry with the BJP’s arrogance and misrule. 

In the last four years, the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) has formed governments in six of the seven north-eastern states, waiting to dislodge the Congress in Mizoram in the forthcoming assembly elections later in 2018. The studied focus of the BJP on these states—in contrast to the listless Congress—had prepared people for its sweep of the North East. Yet, it was too much to expect the BJP to rout the CPI(M) in Tripura, almost the last bastion of the communists. 

The Modi–Shah Juggernaut

The BJP, backed by global capital and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), has ridden the juggernaut of the Narendra Modi–Amit Shah combine to win election after election, since 2014. Except for the three states of Bihar, Delhi and Punjab, it has won all the state assembly polls thus far. Where it failed to do so—as in Manipur and Goa—it has managed to outsmart the Congress and grab power nevertheless. Notwithstanding the RSS’s spread into the North East, the collapse of the Congress, and the BJP’s strategic focus on the region’s 25 Lok Sabha seats, it still looked difficult for the saffron party to gain a clean sweep of all seven sister states. 

This was particularly true for Tripura where the CPI(M)’s hugely popular ex-chief minister, Manik Sarkar, has been in the saddle for the last 25 years. That Sarkar—the prototype of a communist in people’s service—would meet with such a loss was also unthinkable. He donated his entire salary to the party, and lived on a paltry sum of ₹5,000 per month given by the party (Hindu 2013). He had no assets worth mentioning; no car, no property, not even an email account or mobile phone. He was the first to abolish the draconian Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act after 18 years of operation in the state (Hazarika 2018), unite the Bengalis and the tribals, stop the forces of separatism (now aligned with the BJP), clean up the system, raise literacy to above 90% (Lim nd), eliminate poverty and malnutrition in many areas, push for women’s empowerment on the ground, restore law and order, and restore the traditional rights of the tribals. Sarkar’s reign may have been bad for the capitalists but was surely good for the people.

Yet, eventually BJP’s well-trumpeted war cry chalo paltai (let’s bring change) stunned everyone, winning 35 of the 59 assembly seats from zero in the previous election. This raised BJP’s vote share from 1% to 43%, marginally above the CPI(M)’s 42.5%. Along with its local ally, the Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura (IPFT), the NDA’s tally reached 43 seats (Firaque and Verma 2018).

Apart from the peculiarity of the first-past-the-post electoral system that secured the BJP 218% more seats with almost the same percentage of votes, what might have caused the defeat of the CPI(M)? The media lazily attributed it to anti-incumbency. However, this would have also been a factor in the previous four elections, but Sarkar’s government tided over it.

Contrary to the naïve belief, it is now established that integrity, honesty, public service or performance is of no value in elections anymore; what matters is the propaganda appealing to the baser instincts of people backed by tonnes of money. 

Apart from Modi, its star campaigner, the BJP had deployed 52 union ministers in Tripura for canvassing. The deciding factor, however, was the bankruptcy of the Congress, whose seven legislators left to join the All India Trinamool Congress and therefrom to the BJP in August 2017. The party that won 10 assembly seats and garnered 36% of the vote share in the 2013 elections has been reduced to zero seats and less than 2% of the vote share in 2018 (Firaque and Verma 2018). Nearly 44 of BJP’s 60 candidates in Tripura were ex-Congressmen (Venu 2018). 

This opportunity was fully leveraged by the RSS that has been working in the North East for years. 

Power-drunk Vandals

The BJP’s victory kicked off a frenzied celebration by the saffron brigade, which degenerated into the ransacking and burning of CPI(M)’s offices and consequent clashes with CPI(M) supporters. On 5 March 2018, a crowd chanting BJP slogans razed a statue of Lenin at Belonia College Square in south Tripura to the ground. A video released by Asia News International (ANI) showed the vandals wearing saffron shirts and shouting Bharat mata ki jai (long live mother India), as the bulldozer upended the five-foot-tall fibre-glass statue, which had been recently inaugurated by CPI(M) leader Prakash Karat (Times of India 2018). The next day, another Lenin statue was brought down in Sabroom, 50 km from Belonia. 

The reactions of BJP functionaries condoning such acts of vandalism were all the more disturbing. Tripura’s new governor, Tathagata Roy’s tweet clearly hinted that the demolition of the statue was sponsored by the BJP:

What one democratically elected government can do another democratically elected government can undo. And vice versa. (Times of India 2018) 

It did not occur to this worthy watchdog of the Constitution that destroying public property is a punishable offence. Subramanian Swamy, infamous for his rabidity told ANI, 

Lenin is a foreigner and in a way, a terrorist, there shouldn’t be a statue of this sort of person in our country. They are welcome to put that statue inside the Communist Party headquarters and worship it if they so wish. (Times of India 2018)

Senior BJP leader Ram Madhav also tweeted his approval of this act of hooliganism. He later deleted it and characteristically denied the incident altogether. Victor Shome, the media officer for BJP in Tripura, went a step ahead saying that the communists themselves had destroyed the statue (Abi-Habib and Kumar 2018). 

As the news spread, protests sparked off. On 7 March 2018, a bust of the BJP founder, Syama Prasad Mookerjee, was found damaged and its face blackened in Kolkata. The next day, the glasses on the giant statue of M K Gandhi in Kerala were broken, apparently by BJP supporters. In Meerut, on 9 March, Dalits seethed with anger at the defacing of B R Ambedkar’s statue. In Tamil Nadu, BJP leader, H Raja, gave a call to his party supporters to destroy the statue of revered non-Brahmin leader Periyar Ramasamy (Abi-Habib and Kumar 2018). 

These acts have exposed the true enemies of Hindutva: the communists, Dalits, lower castes and of course, Muslims and Christians. The otherwise stoic Modi strongly condemned the vandalism, against Mookerjee’s bust. Ever obsessed by electoral considerations, he took care of the indeterminate consequences of these statue politics on the crucial 2019 elections. 

In the identity-based politics of India, statues of leaders serve as identity markers and are often more important than live people. While all ruling classes have exploited and promoted this baser instinct of the gullible masses, it has reached its acme under the BJP. While it has been slashing budget provisions for such essentials as education, healthcare, social security, etc, the BJP has been erecting the world’s tallest statues and memorials of select leaders, squandering public money. 

Signs of Awakening

While the BJP’s golden run appeared unstoppable with the North East poll verdicts, within a fortnight, the results of the by-elections in UP and Bihar created hope that there may be limits to its rampage. The SP and BSP set aside their 25-year-old feud and struck an agreement that the BSP would support the SP candidates in the immediate by-elections and the SP would, in turn, support the BSP candidate in the forthcoming Rajya Sabha election. This tactical alliance won the UP by-elections in Phulpur and Gorakhpur—both long-time BJP bastions—with a margin of 59,613 and 21,961 votes, respectively (Indian Express 2018). Even in Bihar, the RJD, notwithstanding its chief Lalu Prasad Yadav being ensconced in jail, retained the Araria Lok Sabha and Jehanabad assembly seats against the BJP–Janata Dal (United) alliance, yielding BJP only the Bhabhua assembly seat. In more ways than one, these results hold lessons for all non-BJP parties in strategising towards 2019. If sworn enemies like the SP and BSP can join hands and stop the BJP juggernaut on such formidable turfs, then opposition unity stands a definite chance. 

As such, since 2017, the BJP has been losing all Lok Sabha by-elections. In 2017, it lost Amritsar, Srinagar, Malappuram, and Gurdaspur, and in 2018, Ajmer, Alwar, Uluberia, Phulpur, Gorakhpur, Araria and counting. Earlier defeats for the BJP were popular reprisals against its politics but the latest defeats were on account of oppositional strategy, which has made it most nervous. 

The BJP is desperate to win 2019 but it cannot easily counter this strategy. A strategy to create a front against the BJP in each state with the major party as the convener requires a flexible distribution of seats among member parties so as to ensure only one candidate stands against the BJP. If this happens, the BJP may be reduced to its truer self of 1984 when it had just two seats. After all, Modi with all his backing and bravado, got only 31% votes in the 2014 elections; 69% voters being either opposed or indifferent to him. After succeeding in the states in this manner, they may democratically elect their Prime Minister. The BJP, stashed with cash, may try its tricks as it did in the Rajya Sabha election, attempting to reduce the latter’s strength. But the BJP knows, it will not be as easy either. 

References

Abi-Habib, Maria and Hari Kumar (2018): “As India’s Tensions Boil, Even a Statue of Gandhi Isn’t Safe,” New York Times, 10 March, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/10/world/asia/india-statues-vandalism-bj...

Firaque, Kabir and Lalmani Verma (2018): “Tripura Elections: How BJP Consumed Congress while Eating into Left,” Indian Express, 4 March, http://indianexpress.com/article/india/assembly-elections-2018-tripura-r...

Hazarika, Sanjoy (2018): “How Tripura Won the ‘War’ against AFSPA,” DailyO, 17 January, https://www.dailyo.in/arts/afspa-tripura-manik-sarkar-government-insurge...

Hindu (2013): “Manik Sarkar, The ‘Poorest CM’ Is Really Appreciative of Tag,” 18 December, http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/other-states/manik-sarkar-the-poor...

Indian Express (2018): “Samajwadi Party Delivers Crushing Blow to BJP in Phulpur, Gorakhpur,” 14 March, http://indianexpress.com/article/india/up-bye-election-results-live-upda....

Lim, Thomas (nd): “Yet Another Achievement for Tripura Government,” Meghalaya Times, http://meghalayatimes.info/index.php/editorial/26863-yet-another-achieve...

Times of India (2018): “Governor Tathagatha Roy, BJP’s Subramanian Swamy Condone Razing of Lenin’s Statue in Tripura,” 6 March, https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/agartala/how-the-left-was-demol...

Venu, M K (2018): “Congress Must Worry About Its Massive Vote Base Migrating to BJP in Tripura,” Wire, 5 March, https://thewire.in/politics/congress-vote-share-bjp-tripura.

Updated On : 10th Apr, 2018

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