Win for secularism but not human rights

Many liberals have cheered Mamata Banerjee’s election victory in West Bengal as the event of the year. Actually, it was utterly predictable.

The BJP invariably gets fewer votes in state elections than general elections, because Narendra Modi is far more popular than regional BJP satraps. The BJP soared in the 2019 general election in West Bengal, getting 40.7% of the vote and 18 of 42 parliamentary seats against the Trinamool Congress’ 43% of votes and 22 seats. But everybody knew the BJP would fare worse in the subsequent state election. Unsurprisingly, the BJP lost two percentage points in vote share, and got just 77 seats to the TMC’s 213, a royal thrashing.

An analysis of election results shows the TMC leading even in the first few rounds of voting, but it surged further and further ahead in later rounds as the skyrocketing Covid disaster blackened the BJP’s face daily. Conspiracy theorists believe the BJP persuaded the Election Commission to extend the election schedule over eight polling rounds to maximise the number of rallies Modi could address. If true, the BJP dug its own grave.

Given that the BJP was bound to perform worse than in 2019, why did the state election elicit so much excitement? Opinion polls and exit polls creating illusions of a mighty battle. Anybody familiar with politics knows these polls are not fit to wipe your bottom with. Yet these became the artificial foundation for a supposedly close-fought battle.

Critics say the BJP seeks to overwhelm India using communal hate. In fact, the BJP has fared poorly in the vast majority of state elections since 2018 despite rising communal rhetoric, which simply does not yield large electoral dividends. Some analysts say the Bengal election was the most hate-filled and polarising ever. Surely matters were worse in the Delhi state election last year, when the BJP denounced as anti-national and treasonous the agitation by students and Muslim women’s groups at Shaheen Bagh who were in fact swearing by the Constitution and its guarantees for equal treatment regardless of religion, gender or caste. Despite communalising the election, the BJP won just 8 seats to the AAP’s 62. Modi is personally popular, but his party is not. That is why the BJP swept all seven Delhi parliamentary seats in 2019 yet was thrashed a few months later in the state election. Events in West Bengal have followed a similar pattern.

Mamata has excellent credentials as a secularist, but not as a champion of other human rights or institutional freedoms. I was part of a group of journalists touring West Bengal in the 2016 state election. At a meeting we had with Kolkata’s top academics, the professors fulminated against Mamata, alleging that not only seats in good colleges but even top academic posts were being sold or handed over to her cronies. They complained that academic excellence had ceased to matter and closeness to the TMC was the only path to success.

Mamata is passionately secular but appears to have no qualms about eroding institutions or misusing laws to serve her ends. Arbitrary arrests of opponents are considered normal. Press Council Chairman Katju decried as semi-fascist her arrest of a person who complained at a public event about high fertiliser prices and was jailed on the trumped-up charge of being a Maoist. A Jadavpur University professor was arrested for chain-mailing a cartoon of Mamata and her colleague Mukul Roy. Opposition politicians of the Congress and Left Front have been arrested for criticising her.

So, let no one think Mamata’s victory in West Bengal ushers in a new era of democratic liberal values. Illiberalism is spreading, and the BJP is not the only culprit. Personality cults and dynastic political families are high fashion. The sins of Mamata and Stalin may not match the outrageous BJP arrest of a student’s mother and teacher for participating in a school skit that contained critical references to Modi. But critics of any political powers face dangers. The greatest violations of civil rights remain in Kashmir. The courts simply do not take up vital cases on the validity of government rules and stratagems. Habeas corpus pleas are postponed forever. Freedom House, the international organisation measuring freedom across the word, has cut India’s freedom score from 77 in 2017 to 67 in 2021. But in Kashmir its score has plummeted to 27. nMany liberals have cheered Mamata Banerjee’s election victory in West Bengal as the event of the year. Actually, it was utterly predictable.

The BJP invariably gets fewer votes in state elections than general elections, because Narendra Modi is far more popular than regional BJP satraps. The BJP soared in the 2019 general election in West Bengal, getting 40.7% of the vote and 18 of 42 parliamentary seats against the Trinamool Congress’ 43% of votes and 22 seats. But everybody knew the BJP would fare worse in the subsequent state election. Unsurprisingly, the BJP lost two percentage points in vote share, and got just 77 seats to the TMC’s 213, a royal thrashing.

An analysis of election results shows the TMC leading even in the first few rounds of voting, but it surged further and further ahead in later rounds as the skyrocketing Covid disaster blackened the BJP’s face daily. Conspiracy theorists believe the BJP persuaded the Election Commission to extend the election schedule over eight polling rounds to maximise the number of rallies Modi could address. If true, the BJP dug its own grave.

Given that the BJP was bound to perform worse than in 2019, why did the state election elicit so much excitement? Opinion polls and exit polls creating illusions of a mighty battle. Anybody familiar with politics knows these polls are not fit to wipe your bottom with. Yet these became the artificial foundation for a supposedly close-fought battle.

Critics say the BJP seeks to overwhelm India using communal hate. In fact, the BJP has fared poorly in the vast majority of state elections since 2018 despite rising communal rhetoric, which simply does not yield large electoral dividends. Some analysts say the Bengal election was the most hate-filled and polarising ever. Surely matters were worse in the Delhi state election last year, when the BJP denounced as anti-national and treasonous the agitation by students and Muslim women’s groups at Shaheen Bagh who were in fact swearing by the Constitution and its guarantees for equal treatment regardless of religion, gender or caste. Despite communalising the election, the BJP won just 8 seats to the AAP’s 62. Modi is personally popular, but his party is not. That is why the BJP swept all seven Delhi parliamentary seats in 2019 yet was thrashed a few months later in the state election. Events in West Bengal have followed a similar pattern.

Mamata has excellent credentials as a secularist, but not as a champion of other human rights or institutional freedoms. I was part of a group of journalists touring West Bengal in the 2016 state election. At a meeting we had with Kolkata’s top academics, the professors fulminated against Mamata, alleging that not only seats in good colleges but even top academic posts were being sold or handed over to her cronies. They complained that academic excellence had ceased to matter and closeness to the TMC was the only path to success.

In rural areas we repeatedly heard complaints about “syndicates,” local mafia-political groups that monopolised all small local government contracts. This was justified as a way of keeping money and jobs within a local area, but also meant giving all power to networks of politically supported goons, a practice that started during Left Front rule but was seamlessly adopted by Mamata on attaining office.

Mamata is passionately secular but appears to have no qualms about eroding institutions or misusing laws to serve her ends. Arbitrary arrests of opponents are considered normal. Press Council Chairman Katju decried as semi-fascist her arrest of a person who complained at a public event about high fertiliser prices and was jailed on the trumped-up charge of being a Maoist. A Jadavpur University professor was arrested for chain-mailing a cartoon of Mamata and her colleague Mukul Roy. Opposition politicians of the Congress and Left Front have been arrested for criticising her.

So, let no one think Mamata’s victory in West Bengal ushers in a new era of democratic liberal values. Illiberalism is spreading, and the BJP is not the only culprit. Personality cults and dynastic political families are high fashion. The sins of Mamata and Stalin may not match the outrageous BJP arrest of a student’s mother and teacher for participating in a school skit that contained critical references to Modi. But critics of any political powers face dangers.

The greatest violations of civil rights remain in Kashmir. The courts simply do not take up vital cases on the validity of government rules and stratagems. Habeas corpus pleas are postponed forever. Freedom House, the international organisation measuring freedom across the word, has cut India’s freedom score from 77 in 2017 to 67 in 2021. But in Kashmir its score has plummeted to 27.

This article was originally published in The Economic Times on May 9, 2021.

What do you think?