Within weeks of the Trinamool Congress’s huge victory in the West Bengal Assembly election last month, several people who had swapped loyalties before the election started making noises about returning to it. A trickle is threatening to become a flood, sweeping along leaders of varying stature.
On 11 June, Bharatiya Janata Party national vice-president Mukul Roy and his ex-MLA son Subhrangshu formally rejoined the TMC. We will not linger too long on the ongoing churn in loyalties, since the situation could look substantially different in days, other than to note a couple of things that are important beyond Bengal.
First, the seeming electoral invulnerability of the BJP has been severely damaged and the lustre of the Modi brand has dimmed somewhat. Obviously, electoral and political dynamics are different in each state, still one must keep in mind that despite the high level of investment in Bengal and a real expectation of winning the election, the BJP was trounced. The lesson is that it can be done against the odds.
Second, people from many parties, mostly the TMC, pitched their tents outside the BJP party office when they expected it to win, though this is not true of Roy who joined in late 2017 when no immediate benefits were forthcoming. And they are now leaving because there is a sense of crisis in the party. The lesson, again, is that the BJP is not a perfect machine.
Let us shift to Uttar Pradesh. As everybody knows, the most populated state in India is crucial because it contributes 80 seats to the Lok Sabha—that is 67% more than Maharashtra, which contributes 48. But even more than numbers, Uttar Pradesh sets the stage, the agenda for Indian politics more than any other state.
In the 2019 Lok Sabha election, the BJP won 62 of 80 seats in Uttar Pradesh (down nine from its tally in 2014), while its National Democratic Alliance (NDA) partner Apna Dal got two seats. In the 2017 Assembly election, it won 312 seats in a House consisting of 403 seats, with allies picking up 13 seats. It was a monster majority with the BJP gaining a three-fourth majority on its own. The results in these two elections threw up the same kind of numbers.
In 2020, in a set of seven Assembly by-elections in Uttar Pradesh, the BJP won six seats, the Samajwadi Party winning the other one. All seats were retained by the incumbent party. You would think, in this context, that there would not be any great cause for alarm in the Hindutva camp, with elections slated for February 2022—the tenure of the current House lasts till 18 March.
But there is distinct unease within the Hindutva camp occasioned, first, by the central regime’s incompetence in handling the Covid-19 pandemic, which was compounded by the state government’s ineptitude combined with the egregiously heavy hand used by Chief Minister Adityanath to silence pleas for hospital beds, oxygen and essential medicines. It was not dissent that he was smacking down.
Second, the farmers’ strike continues as the regime run by Prime Minister Narendra Modi refuses to enter a dialogue over the three farm laws that a wide section of peasants across the country want to see the back of. More than six months have passed since farmers, mainly from Haryana, Punjab and western Uttar Pradesh, have been braving the elements to make their point. With every passing day, the resolve to see things out hardens. By now the prospect of the government resiling from its position has become unlikely. That can only mean a substantial alienation from the BJP in agrarian society, especially amongst the Jat peasantry in western Uttar Pradesh.
In the mix also, signs of discord within the BJP camp seem to be showing, though BJP leaders studiously deny any rift. But the rumours that Modi wants his man—AK Sharma—in the Uttar Pradesh ministry are not going away. Sharma is a former IAS officer who was sent by Modi to his Lok Sabha constituency Varanasi to take charge of pandemic control. It seems equally clear that Adityanath does not want him.
If some of the divisions in the BJP camp arise from a clash of personalities, much of it derives from questions over administrative competence and—no surprises here—caste equations. The personality clash is largely one between, it appears, Adityanath and Modi, rather than with Union Home Minister Amit Shah, who has of late stayed in the background and kept his own counsel.
Adityanath is more like Modi than any other BJP leader. He is raucously populist, his style is plebiscitary and he cares more about image than governance, which, like Modi, he is clueless about. But what marks him out is that his Hindutva pitch is shriller and more unabashed. There is a broad sense that whatever happens, Adityanath has to be the next chief ministerial candidate—on his terms. He cannot be swatted aside like many state leaders.
As for governance, or specifically, the handling of the pandemic, there seem to be ongoing attempts at making him the fall guy. It will not work because, first, as far as Uttar Pradesh is concerned, the culpability for the disasters wreaked by the second wave possibly rests more with the central regime, though Adityanath contributed his fair share. Second, given the BJP’s track record countrywide, it can hardly campaign on issues like governance and development.
Finally, it is well known by now that Adityanath has heavily favoured people from his caste—Thakurs. Modi’s efforts to get Sharma into play is primarily because he is the prime minister’s man, but it helps that he is a Bhumihar.
Jitin Prasada’s defection from the Congress to the BJP is also being seen as an attempt to bring Brahmins on board. If that is true, it does look like it is clutching at straws given Prasada’s marginal presence, despite him being a “dynast”. And, admitting people like Prasada and Jyotiraditya Scindia does not lend much credence to the BJP’s big shtick about the Gandhi dynasty.
Now, here is the connection between Bengal and Uttar Pradesh. The BJP was a challenger in the former state and gave the election an almighty whack in the belief it could win. The BJP continued to labour under the illusion that it had won until it was creamed. Under Mamata Banerjee, the TMC pulled off a sweeping win because it did not lose belief and did not take anything for granted.
In Uttar Pradesh, the BJP is on thin ice because it faces the double anti-incumbency of the Centre and the state government and, while the BJP’s spinning machine might be very adroit, it is difficult to spin deaths on a large scale and the sight of bodies drifting down the Ganga because crematoria are full up and the compulsion of doctoring numbers makes clandestine disposal an option.
If, like the TMC, the Opposition believes in itself, as it should after the results in the panchayat election rattled the BJP last month, it could pose a credible challenge. For that, not only will like-minded parties have to build a viable coalition, but they will have to make common cause with the social movements that are inimical to the Hindutva peddlers.
The writer is an independent journalist and researcher. The views are personal