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  Opinion   Columnists  10 Apr 2021  Sanjeev Ahluwalia | Indian subnationalism past its expiry date?

Sanjeev Ahluwalia | Indian subnationalism past its expiry date?

The writer is adviser, Observer Research Foundation
Published : Apr 11, 2021, 12:00 am IST
Updated : Apr 11, 2021, 12:00 am IST

Kerala, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal, represent exemplar benchmarks for regionalism with deep political, social, linguistic and cultural roots


Bengal, Kerala and Tamil Nadu — all awaiting new governments in early May this year — are the last bastions of strong linguistic and cultural regionalism which have resisted the mainstreaming of politics under BJPs “one country one party” theology. Assam capitulated in 2016 and is expected to remain within the BJP’s fold in May this year.

It is not as if other Indian states have no binding cultural roots. Punjab, for instance, is actively demonstrating its independence of spirit and community strength via the ongoing anti-farm bill agitation.

Smaller states in the North-East have a similar ethos. Sikkim, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Tripura, Manipur and Nagaland — all have a strong preference for self-rule by locals per local culture and customs, although they are not averse to partaking of the bountiful central endowments, showered on them annually, in exchange for remaining politically aligned with the ruling party in Delhi — a domestic version of the subsidiarity which Imperial China demands from its subalterns in Southeast Asia.

Jammu and Kashmir – another border state previously (now a Union territory) with a strong cultural identity, including its delectable wazwan — erred in confusing notional constitutional autonomy with the freedom to act independently. The result was that the BJP — never one to shrink from radical political disruption — took the unprecedented step of reordering the constitutional relationship making its subsidiarity nature both de facto and de jure in 2019.

The BJP has a stunning record in mainstreaming border areas. Assam is the best example of deep mainstreaming per the prevailing political philosophy in the heart of India, spreading out in a 1,000-kilometre radius around Nagpur. A dispassionate observer could reasonably conclude that regionalism is past its expiry date in India.

Kerala, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal, represent exemplar benchmarks for regionalism with deep political, social, linguistic and cultural roots. Not surprisingly, all three are coastal states with thriving, historical, global commercial links. All three are unlikely to roll over and succumb to the centralisation of politics, which the BJP represents. But of the three, West Bengal appears the most vulnerable.

“Didi”, alias Mamata Banerjee, diehard, street fighter and firebrand politician, the presiding deity of the All-India Trinamul Congress (AITC), has ruled Kolkata now for a decade and the political stress shows. Not for nothing, has the redoubtable political spinner, Prashant Kishor, who now advises her, rebranded her moniker “Didi” — meaning sister, who, per mainstream Indian tradition, leaves the family to start another — into “Banglar meye” -daughter of Bengal — implying a familial obligation on all Bengalis to support her.  

The idea is to “other” the BJP as a modern-day East India Company. Any Bengali voting for becomes a default “Mir Jafar”, whose chicanery smoothed the way for the defeat of Siraj-ud Daulah, the then Nawab of Bengal, at Plassey and the subsequent ingress of the British into India in 1757.

This strategy is rich in irony. Didi projects herself as the great assimilator of a heterogenous, cultured, secular Bengal spanning all religions. She paid monthly stipends to mullahs from 2012 and to Hindu priests from this year — a caricature of even-handed “ersatz secularism” and a gesture which, perversely, benefits upper castes only because dalits and tribal folk do not perform such services. More gratingly, the liberalism does not include “foreigners” like “Gujaratis” — thereby labelling all Gujaratis as “Non-Resident Indians”.

Didi herself, was a political disrupter, a decade back, cutting through the three-and-a-half-decade old Communist gridlock on Bengal by consolidating the have-not votes. Over the past decade, she has systematically sandpapered the Red remnants into a bright Blue — the AITC colour code. Her strategic depth is substantial — gender is a trump card, “secularism” is another, her deliberate “ordinariness” is another, although the levers of power have unveiled authoritarian streaks in governance, to match those of the BJP.

The BJP increased its vote share from 4.1 per cent in 2011 to 10.2 per cent in the 2016 Assembly elections and an exaggerated 40.6 per cent in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections in West Bengal. All this despite its strategic disdain for seeking Muslim votes to win an election — its defiant signature tune. If votes were polled the way stocks are chosen — on trailing growth trends — the BJP should be able to encroach on the disempowered dalit and tribal vote banks, reducing the 2016 vote share of the AITC (44.9 per cent) CPI(M) (20 per cent) and the INC (12.3 per cent) to, at the very least, force Didi into uncomfortable coalitions with other parties for survival.

Should the AITC, Congress and the Communists have come together to fight these elections? Yes, of course. But the Indian political class favours the hubris of exclusive control over a party, even with just one bird in hand, rather than collaborating to go after the many other birds in the bush — a doomed strategy, as illustrated by the decline of the once storied Indian National Congress.

Meanwhile, in Kerala — the template of secular democracy — the Left Democratic Front is expected to retain power, not least because of its performance during the pandemic and despite the perceived personal pull of BJPs “metro-man” — E. Sreedharan. Looking ahead, Kerala could well become the crucible for a new version of the Left movement in India — less pedantically ideological, less anti-wealth and more pro-poor for delivering shared growth and equity.

Tamil Nadu remains the most insulated from the assault of the “Northern invaders” for the moment. Time will tell whether, despite the passing of stalwart leaders — Jayalalithaa and Karunanidhi — credible substitutes emerge which are able to keep their Northern gates firmly shut.

As things stand, ironically, by the first week of May 2021, the BJP’s political empire could replicate that of the last Great Mughal, Emperor Aurangzeb. Only Didi stands, like a diminutive David, between the Goliath BJP and the fulfillment of that aspiration.

Tags: indian sub-nationalism, elections in kerala, tamil nadu elections, west bengal elections, linguistic and cultural regionalism, bjp in elections, tmc, cpim, dmk, aiadmk