It is election time in India. No, not the general elections that determine the national government but state elections that will decide who will lead the government in five key provinces for the next five years. But what is unique about this, one may ask?
After all, India has 28 states and 8 union territories — some of which also have legislatures — and therefore elections for the state legislatures would be a routine affair?
While nominally this is true, the current state elections scheduled to be held between end March and early May are unique for several reasons. In this column, let us look as the State of West Bengal. (I intend to return to other states in future columns).
The BJP is not just a serious contender but most likely going to be the winner in the state of West Bengal. If this were to happen, it would mark a tectonic shift in Indian politics.
Nursery for Leftist ideology
The BJP, in its earlier avatar as Bhartiya Jan Sangh, was founded by a nationalist, popular mass leader from Bengal — Syama Prasad Mookerjee. However, the local politics in the state took a turn towards the Left soon after independence and the state became a nursery for the Leftist ideology in the country.
The violent Naxal movement of the extremist Left, that challenged the democratic order in India through the bullet, rose in the state before being crushed in the 1970s.
The overground moderate Left, however came to power through the ballot in 1977 and remained in office till 2011. These years saw Bengal’s industry being demolished, entrepreneurial spirit being dampened, local job opportunities vaporising, education system grinding to stagnation and economic growth coming to a complete halt.
The government finally changed in 2011 with TMC coming to power. However, the governing ideology of socialism and leftist populism did not change.
This long history of the sway of Leftist ideology in the state made it a kind of lone standing exception — as one of the few large states which challenges the rise of the BJP and the ideology that it propagates.
In 2014 general elections, when then candidate for Prime Ministership, Narendra Modi was seeking the national mandate, BJP won just 2 out of the 42 Parliament seats in the state. In the state legislature elections just two years later in 2016, BJP managed to secure only a paltry 3 seats in an assembly of 294.
But something happened between 2016 and 2019 — when India held it next general elections — that fundamentally altered the politics of the state.
Politics of aspiration
In the 2019 Parliamentary elections the seats that BJP won rose from 2 to 18 (out of total 42). And now two years later, BJP is the favourite to win the state elections. Spectacular rise, is it not? So, what happened after 2016 that has affected this change? One phrase — Politics of Aspiration.
Politics of aspiration manifests itself in many forms. It seeks direct delivery of welfare schemes to the poor beneficiary without any middlemen in between.
Only Modi, through the revolutionary Direct Benefits Transfer (DBT) paradigm, has been able to build a scalable model for such delivery. PM-KISAN, a scheme which directly transfers Rs, 6,000 to every farmer is one such revolutionary DBT scheme championed by Modi. If it is possible in rest of the country, then why not in Bengal?
Politics of aspiration seeks opportunities for private enterprise without overbearing government regulations. The reforms undertaken by Modi have shown dramatic results with India jumping 79 positions — from 142 in 2014 to 63 in 2020 — in the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business Rankings. If private industry can flourish in rest of the country, then why not in Bengal?
Politics of aspiration seeks rapid industrial growth, especially in manufacturing, and thereby creation of new jobs. In 2014, when Modi came to office India had just 2 mobile manufacturing units. Now there are over 268.
India is now the second largest mobile manufacturer in the world with NOIDA emerging as the new hub. If it is possible in Uttar Pradesh and other places in the country, then why not in Bengal?
Politics of aspiration wants India to stand up to the world and punch equivalent to its weight. Since 2014, India has stood up to China — first in Doklam and more recently in Ladakh — and responded effectively to Pakistan. If rest of India is moving in unison with this new assertive India, then how can the politics of Bengal be any different?
Politics of aspiration manifests itself into being able to celebrate one’s cultural identity without fear or labelling. The politics of the Left has long relied on dismissing India’s civilizational heritage.
Rest of the country has dismissed that construct and no longer feels squeamish while celebrating its cultural and civilizational accomplishments. How can Bengal be behind?
Finally, politics of aspiration is about the future. Who is building a better future? One who instils fear by dividing people basis some caste or religious or regional identity and then seeks votes from the divided people in lieu of giving protection?
Or the one who is unifying the people into one common Indian identity and then seeks vote on a futuristic development agenda. The people of Bengal have already seen that the latter is possible in BJP ruled states and is not a mere dream.
In financial year (FY) 2016-17, Uttar Pradesh (once dismissed as a BIMARU — sick — state) was ranked fifth in the state wide GDP rankings. That is the year the state elected a BJP government with an overwhelming majority. Just four years later, for FY 2020-21, Uttar Pradesh has surged to the second spot, only behind Maharashtra.
In the process it has left behind such industrialised states as Tamil Nadu, Gujarat and Karnataka. If Uttar Pradesh can do, why can’t Bengal?
The 2021 assembly elections in West Bengal are going to be a fascinating watch. In the first week of May, when the results are announced, we would know whether the state that led India’s renaissance in the 19th and 20th century, has finally returned to the Right path or it continues to tread Left?