In weaponising food and language, the BJP has stirred up one kind of sentiment.
The political cost of putting up with nationalism, redefined in narrow Hindi-Hindutva chauvinistic terms by the BJP government in its role as benevolent patriarch, has boiled down to a straight confrontation with the other side — that is parochial and parapolitical loyalties. In this fight, states like West Bengal and Kerala have declared that trespassers will be prosecuted!
The categorisation of responsibilities for legislation in the Constitution puts wilful encroachments of the power of states by pushy centralising governments in New Delhi in the wrong. Therefore, bans like the cow slaughter notice by the Narendra Modi government (which has been stayed for four weeks by the Madras high court) is a breach and a violation. It is mystifying why the Modi government deliberately chose to tread on the powers of states. There are enough satellites on constitutional clauses circling around the BJP who could have warned it of the consequences of taking on the states in a legal-political fight. It was a gift on a plate to regional parties and a boost to the resurgence of parochialism in Indian politics.
As a countervailing measure, quoting the Constitution and warning off aggrandising Hindi-Hindutva chauvinism seems an obvious response in places where histories, cultures and therefore politics is different from that of the BJP’s beef-banning fortresses. Neither Kerala nor West Bengal can allow a ban that hurts sentiments, injures businesses and destabilises the substantial communities for whom cow slaughter and beef-eating are kosher. Even the BJP, working overtime in Meghalaya to craft an election win in 2018, can’t afford the luxury of pretending to be blind or submitting to the encroachments of the Centre on banning cows from slaughter, because it would alienate the majority of the population and therefore jeopardise its larger agenda of a footprint across all regions in India.
A Centre versus states battle is inevitable as the politics of cooperative federalism has morphed into a centralising-homogenising juggernaut with very old chestnuts being pulled out to bolster the BJP’s mission of unifying India in the image of its founders, however different that is from the idea of the nation as crafted by the founding fathers of Free India. The reintroduction of Hindi as the language of official communication was the first chestnut that entirely predictably provoked very negative responses from Tamil Nadu and pushed the Mamata Banerjee government to make Bengali a compulsory language in all schools in West Bengal. The BJP should have known better, as it fanned the embers of parochial and primordial attachments.
It is almost possible to see hubris in the ban on cow slaughter. As necessary as it was for the BJP to bind the Hindu vote to itself in the strategies it adopted to win the Uttar Pradesh elections by aggressively campaigning on its Hindutva agenda, and using the success to forcefully engage in states where it has no base, the party ought not to have miscalculated on how far it should go in unrolling its homogenised India blueprint.
Mistaking the defeat of regional parties and the BJP’s unprecedented advance in states like West Bengal, where it emerged as the second largest party in terms of votes after Trinamul Congress in the recent Contai byelections, or even the successful rallies it organised in Naxalbari and inside Ms Banerjee’s Bhowanipore constituency for comatose parochialism indicates that identity and sentiment as primordial attachments are loaded ideas that can be used as much by parties like Trinamul Congress as by the BJP in Meghalaya.
Between hardcore politics of the kind where national and regional parties collectively decide to work on finding a candidate for the forthcoming presidential election and parapolitics of language and food, a new political space may be opening up that will challenge the BJP’s skills on playing with sentiment and running a government in a plural and diverse democracy. The BJP’s strengths may have grown since 2014 at the expense of regional parties and the Congress and CPI(M) in West Bengal, but that doesn’t mean the aspirations that underlie their existence have lost their appeal and altogether disappeared.
It is therefore commonsense that Ms Banerjee met Prime Minister Modi to talk about development and the Ganga erosion problems after working to organise an Opposition meeting in New Delhi to find an alternative candidate for the presidential election, or rather an alternative to the idea of a Sangh loyalist taking up residence on Raisina Hill, then joining her sworn enemies in West Bengal and Tripura like the Congress and CPI(M) for lunch at Sonia Gandhi’s invitation. Nitish Kumar did much the same, though he stayed away from the lunch, but came to New Delhi to lobby with Mr Modi for money.
The flexibility required to handle the contradictions in contemporary Indian politics is summarised in West Bengal Congress leader Adhir Chowdhury’s comment: “The fight within Bengal’s political premises is a separate issue from the dialogues between two parties at the Centre.” By meeting Mr Modi, neither Ms Banerjee nor Mr Kumar has taken him and the party he leads off the list of key political rivals in their states. Instead, they have taken on Mr Modi in claiming ownership of the development agenda. The third anniversary spiel that the BJP means development and a rupture with the past failures to deliver development to the masses was contested by Ms Banerjee via the Ganga erosion issue and Mr Kumar by connecting to Bihar’s history of forced migration to Mauritius.
In weaponising food and language, the BJP has stirred up one kind of sentiment. The one nation-one thought strategy is difficult in a federal polity with as many differences as exist in India. West Bengal, Kerala, Puducherry, Tamil Nadu, Goa, Meghalaya, Nagaland, Mizoram and Jammu and Kashmir are some of the exceptions, as is Tamil Nadu on the language issue. Divisions can be made to work for electoral ends, as Ms Banerjee successfully demonstrated by her appeals to the Muslim community and the hill tribes of Darjeeling and the Dooars, or the BJP has done in Uttar Pradesh. Divisions can also be made to work where the Constitution has created separate spaces for states and the Centre. In a serious confrontation, the play of contending sentiments will be unpredictable and risky as it could turn into an engagement of old parochial and primordial loyalties against a newly-minted homogeneity.