Will the Tamils accept BJP
A memorandum for modes
In the middle of the election campaign for four provincial elections (five if you include the mini-state of Pondichery), the second wave of Covid burst. It can be seen as proven that the polls acted like a fire accelerator on the pandemic.
Modi's claim to power
Any election in India is a noisy business. Any public gathering is quickly becoming a mass event in a country of 1,400 million people. These are ideal conditions for the microbial vesicles that settle in the respiratory organs and spread through inhalation and exhalation. The around eight hundred dead electoral officials after the first (!) Round of the (separate but simultaneous) municipal elections in the state of Uttar Pradesh are macabre proof of this.
But has the virus and how it is combated also influenced voting behavior? At first glance, this cannot be assumed. First, the election campaign was in full swing when the second wave shot up. Above all, however, the responsible governments were distributed among all the parties to the dispute. India is still a federal republic, with shared powers between the central state and regional authorities. The national BJP government was just as responsible for this as the BJP opponents who are at the helm in the provinces.
Then there is the dominant and polarizing figure of the prime minister. For Narendra Modi, every election is a referendum for or against himself. And his ideologically heightened claim to rule has had such a profound effect on the whole country and its institutions that even the opposition has no choice but to accept this plebiscite challenge.
The importance of Bengal
What do the results show? At first glance, both national and regional parties, both the nationalist right and the left, can see themselves as winners - and losers. The BJP secured the victory in Assam, and was able to score for the first time in the southern state of Tamil Nadu and Pondichery. But she lost the challenge in Kerala, where, contrary to predictions, she did not win a single seat.
The Congress Party had also won a few seats in Tamil Nadu, but missed an election victory in Kerala by miles. The Communist Party, on the other hand, achieved an electoral triumph there, but practically drowned in its old electoral bastion West Bengal (like the Gandhi party).
This formally balanced panorama hides the political implications of the election result in West Bengal. The populous state is not only demographically - and thus politically - of great importance. In a certain sense it is the heartland of Indian democracy and thus the focus of the question of whether India will become a Hindu state or whether it can remain a multi-religious society.
The first national freedom movements arose in Bengal, be it in the form of the reform of Hinduism or the uprising against the colonial rulers. The issue of secularism and the relationship between Hindus and Muslims is more acute than in any other state.
The region was divided along this religious line after independence - Hindus in West Bengal, Muslims in East Pakistan (and later Bangladesh). However, the common Bengali ethnicity has made this political-religious dividing line porous. It ensured that Muslims still make up just under a third of the population in the western part of the country.
Bengal was the birthplace of the Hindutva ideology in the 19th century. When India and Pakistan separated in 1947, there was real butchery between the communities in the streets of Calcutta. Nevertheless, West Bengal became India's most exemplary state in terms of peaceful coexistence. And the nationalist BJP never managed to gain a foothold there.
Instead of a Hindu feast for the eyes, Bengal was a thorn in the side of the nationalists. This had to come to an end, so they swore after establishing their supremacy under Modi. Modi's man for the rough, Interior Minister Amit Shah, began working on the rise to power in 2021 three years ago, supported by the Hindu cadre association RSS with its many thousands of Bengali supporters.
The ruling local party Trinamool Congress, and especially its charismatic leader Mamata Banerjee, seemed an ideal victim. Mamata can also appear demagogic, her dealings with party comrades are authoritarian, and as a former street fighter she tolerates rowdies in her ranks.
But she also sees herself as a daughter of Bengal, who is proud of its rich language and culture, in which coexistence with Muslims also plays a major role. Her petty-bourgeois origin from a poor quarter in Calcutta gives her the right "touch" to address the large number of workers and peasants in this richly blessed and yet poor country.
Mass events despite Corona
Amit Shah's long-term strategy naturally culminated in a final battle in which Modi's trump card would give the short “Didi” - the nickname of many voters for Banerjee, literally “older sister” - the coup de grace.
And Modi did it with gusto, never flagging commitment, and - Covid or not - the organization of mass events in which he ran into full form. He did not do it in a statesmanlike way, but attacked her head-on, for example denigrating her as the water bearer of a gradual Muslim majority. And he could aim below the belt too. "Di ... di" he intoned in the slippery singsong of street boys who haunt women from a distance as sexual prey.
Modes is accepted
The BJP was convinced that it would win an absolute majority. Not only did she have Modi as a draft horse; the Congress Party and the Communists, who had shamed West Bengal in thirty years, put up their own candidates - so they would split the anti-BJP front. And over a hundred former Trinamool politicians jumped over to the BJP, probably because they were fed up with Didi's gruff leadership style.
It didn't help. Congress and the CPI (M) missed out, and the BJP won fewer than a hundred seats, up from 214 for Mamata Banerjee. It was a personal triumph for her, combined with a downer: she lost against the top candidate of the BJP, her former protégé Adhikari. (It is not a catastrophe. One of her successful MPs will step down, she will win the by-election and enter Calcutta in triumph.)
What outweighs the victory of Banerjees Trinamool is the defeat of Modi. Once again, India's electorate has made it clear that it accepts Modi as a national leader, but wants to balance his power by leading opposition parties to victory in provincial parliaments. In the 2019 general election, the BJP had entrusted half of all Bengali seats in Delhi, with forty percent of all votes; this time it was only a fifth.
Failure of the leadership system
Will defeat accelerate the gradual erosion of Modi's invincibility myth? However, its strength is also based on the weakness of the opposition. Its main players are parties with a regional focus - a weak binder. In West Bengal, a coalition of thirteen such parties only managed to stand behind Banerjee - and against the Congress Party and Communists - at the last moment.
Modi will get over the defeat, despite the tarnished image. His long-term strategy, which was also evident in this election campaign, is to make neutral state institutions such as the judiciary and the media submissive.
The Electoral Commission, whose independence was legendary for many years, is another example. As in the last parliamentary election, she was blind to serious violations of the election rules by the BJP. Only days after the election, the top election commissioner resigned - and was rewarded with the honorary office of governor of Goa.
Covid was probably not responsible for the defeat of the BJP in Bengal. Still, the virus is political poison for the Prime Minister as well. In what is probably the most serious existential crisis in the country, his management system, in which everything is tailored to his person, has failed. He was overwhelmed by the events, and neither his yes-man ministers, nor the RSS cadres, nor his media spin doctors were able to save him and his omnipotent narrative.
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