As 2020 comes to an end, West Bengal, even though assembly elections will only take place in April-May 2021, has emerged as the most keenly watched political theatre. Things were not very different 10 years ago. Back then, it was the 34-year-old Communist Party of India Marxist (CPI-M) led Left Front government whose future was at stake from an aggressive All India Trinamool Congress (AITC). Today, it is the AITC which faces the challenge of surviving the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) political challenge. Ironic as it may sound, the BJP’s rise in the state has been facilitated by a large-scale shift of CPI-M supporters to the former. The West Bengal story, in a way, is symptomatic of how politics took a decisive rightward shift in India in the past 10 years. Here are four charts which put this in perspective.
1. From existential crisis to the new hegemon: The BJP’s comeback decade
After a shock defeat in the 2004 elections, the BJP fought the 2009 elections with Lal Krishna Advani as its prime-minister candidate. The party managed to win only 116 Lok Sabha seats, its worst performance since the 1991 polls. The BJP did not win any major assembly election on its own in 2009, 2010 and 2011. Things started looking up after Anna Hazare’s anti-corruption movement of 2011 made a huge dent to Congress’s popularity. By the time Narendra Modi won his third term as the Gujarat chief minister in December 2012, the tables had turned. The BJP repeated its victories in major state polls in 2013 and became the first party since 1984 to get a majority of its own in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. The fact that it improved its 2014 performance in 2019 laid to rests any doubts about the fact that it had become the new hegemon in Indian politics. The Congress, on the other hand, has failed to get its act together at the national level, and in some ways is still haunted by the ghosts of the 2011 Anna movement.
2. Mirror image of the rise of the right: An emaciated left
In 2010, the Communist parties were running governments in three states: West Bengal, Kerala and Tripura. While the communists in Kerala can be relieved from the results of the recently concluded local body elections – they make the CPI (M )-led Left Democratic Front the favourite in the assembly polls next year – the left has suffered severe reverses in West Bengal and Tripura. In these states, it is the right which has eaten up the left, although in different ways. In Bengal, the left started losing its support-base to the BJP from 2014 onwards, a process that only gained further momentum in 2019. In Tripura, when the Left Front lost to the BJP in the 2018 assembly polls, the BJP and the CPI(M) were almost neck and neck in vote share. But, in the 2019 elections, the CPI(M) was relegated to a distant third with the Congress making a comeback as the BJP’s nearest rival. Thanks to a rout in West Bengal and Tripura and just one seat in Kerala, the Left recorded its worst ever performance in 2019.
3. Political othering of Muslims: New India’s Modus Vivendi
If there is one fact which defines the BJP’s rise as the dominant political force in the last 10 years, it is its politics of othering of Muslims, who make up more than 14% of India’s 1.3 billion people. The present regime has successfully spearheaded the three core issues of building a Ram temple in Ayodhya, the revocation of Article 370 that offered special status to Muslim-majority Jammu and Kashmir; and criminalisation of the Muslim practice of Triple Talaq. Hindutva has pushed the envelope further with issues like (politically) clubbing the National Register of Citizens with a Citizenship Amendment Act; which includes citizens of all major religions in India except Muslims or the recent laws against inter-community marriages in the name of preventing so-called love jihad. This rhetoric has been accompanied in praxis by the BJP fielding very few Muslim candidates in all elections and a sharp fall in the share of Muslim MPs in the Lok Sabha in 2014 and 2019. To be sure, the share of Muslim MPs in the Lok Sabha was the lowest in the 1962 elections, not in 2019.
4. Surviving in the age of Hindu consolidation: The biggest challenge for any third political alternative
The decade of 1990s and 2000s were the age of coalition politics in India. Even though the country had a Congress or BJP Prime Minister for most of this period, they were dependent on other parties for survival. If one looks at the Lok Sabha elections since 1984, when the BJP fought its first poll battle, the vote share of non-Congress, non-BJP parties reached an all-time high of 52.6% in 2009. This fell by almost ten percentage points by 2019. While part of the fall is explained by a shrinking of the left, the rise of political Hindutva had also contributed to this phenomenon. The biggest example of this was seen in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections when despite being in an alliance, the Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party could not prevent the BJP from sweeping Uttar Pradesh once again. In many other states, the BJP has been successful in usurping regional movements and parties by giving it a religious colour; the Assam Gana Parishad and All Assam Students’ Union in Assam are examples. Whether or not the AITC survives the BJP’s onslaught is the biggest question as we end 2020.
Source: TCPD, Election Commission of India
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