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  Opinion   Columnists  25 Feb 2024  Shikha Mukerjee | Magic mirror in overtime amid governance failures

Shikha Mukerjee | Magic mirror in overtime amid governance failures

Shikha Mukerjee is a senior journalist based in Kolkata
Published : Feb 26, 2024, 12:05 am IST
Updated : Feb 26, 2024, 12:05 am IST

Politics in Sandeshkhali: A Microcosm of India's Electoral Realities

Women holding posters stage a protest demanding the arrest of local TMC leaders over Sandeshkhali incident allegations, in North 24 Parganas district, Sunday, Feb. 25, 2024. (PTI Photo)
 Women holding posters stage a protest demanding the arrest of local TMC leaders over Sandeshkhali incident allegations, in North 24 Parganas district, Sunday, Feb. 25, 2024. (PTI Photo)

The magic mirror is working overtime as deals are signed, seats are shared and campaigns get underway. Each party expects the exact same answer from the mirror, that it is the fairest of them all. Competitive politics of the electoral variety brings out, as nothing else does, the similarities of the political class, regardless of party or ideological differences.

In that sense, Sandeshkhali in North 24 Parganas, in West Bengal’s Sundarbans, is one example of the many that thrive because governance is flawed, politics is confrontational and the system is first past the post. The failures of governance and indeed of the State have nurtured local influencers, mostly musclemen, whose description as “Bahubali” has acquired an aura of glamour thanks to blockbuster films and endless iterations of their ceaseless routines of intimidation, violence and immunity that goes along with being indispensable for the power elite.

This is not to argue that the indispensable Bahubali is an admirable person; on the contrary, the persona of the muscleman is despicable, associated as it is with skimming funds, laundering money, intimidating locals, exploiting power and abuse of the vulnerable, including women, land grab and operating as enforcers, mediators, arbitrators and more. No political party admits to maintaining this class, but local people from West Bengal’s Sandeshkhali to Gujarat and across the country know exactly who is who and how the nexus operates.

Voters embedded in the networks of social, economic and political relationships make choices that seem at variance with the anger they express when an incident occurs that pushes the Bahubali into the limelight. The difference between individual opinion and voter behaviour may play out, again, in Sandeshkhali, as it did in the 2022 Uttar Pradesh Assembly election when the Jat farmers in the western part of the state, who were a solid mass of support to the successful farmers’ movement that compelled the Narendra Modi government to withdraw the three controversial farm laws, opted to divide their vote between the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Samajwadi Party.

In another sense, Sandeshkhali’s muscleman, Sheikh Shahjahan, is a stereotype or a dummy that has fortuitously dropped out of the blue as a gift to the BJP in West Bengal as it struggles to pull the party together to contest against the Trinamul Congress in the Lok Sabha election. He checks all the boxes that the BJP has in its playbook as a perfect foil for its version of communal and identity politics that has worked successfully across North India. With a name like Shahjahan, attaching the label of “jihadi” is easy; converting him into an icon of Trinamul Congress’ appeasement politics will be easier since he lives within 50 km of the international border with Bangladesh.

In West Bengal, as in other parts of North India, the spectre that the BJP is chasing is neither India’s abysmally low per capita income, regardless of its ranking as number four/five among the world’s largest economies nor the fact that its economy produces poor quality jobs nor the fact that its health services and education system are inadequate. The spook the BJP has conjured is a menacing Muslim community that can overwhelm the Hindu majority. The narrative explains why to make up for the deficiencies of the past, the launch of Ram Rajya for the next 1,000 years is imperative and it ends with a slogan – “Abki Baar 370 Paar” -- the target of the number of seats that even the Prime Minister mentioned in his last address to the recently concluded 17th Lok Sabha.

To reach the target set by Mr Modi, the BJP has to find spaces where it can grow. In North India, which is its base, there are not too many slots still available because the BJP is the overwhelmingly dominant party.

The Bharat Jodo Yatra 2.0, currently under way, dubbed by the BJP as “Muslim Jodo Yatra”, reveals it all; of the 350 or so Lok Sabha constituencies that the yatra will pass through, about 250 are with the BJP and a mere 14 are with the Congress; and the rest are occupied by regional and smaller parties.

A disintegrating Opposition alternative, which is what the Indian National Inclusive Developmental Alliance (INDIA) looked like in the third week of February, is now pulling itself together making it, at least on paper, a tougher challenger to the ambitions of the BJP to reach the magic number of 370 Lok Sabha seats. As seat-sharing deals are reached, as plans mature for joint public meetings of the INDIA bloc partners, the first of which will take place in Patna, the political terrain is looking hard baked than it was two weeks ago.

At the centre of the change is the role of the Congress, as perceived by different parties within the INDIA bloc. The revision in the calculations of the Aam Aadmi Party, the Samajwadi Party and potentially the Trinamul Congress indicate that working together seems a better option for the parties in Opposition to the BJP than working separately.

The numerically larger rural voter is always the determinant of election outcomes. Consolidating the anti-BJP sentiment among voters in the expectation that the mood will convert itself into a mandate seems to be part of the calculation. Consequently, the second phase of the farmers’ movement that began mid-February and the conversion of the borders of Delhi into a war zone by BJP-ruled states is a clear message that public anger on specific issues is running high. If voter behaviour reflects the disapproval visible in the farmers’ mobilisation, then the deals that the INDIA bloc has stitched together would pose a clear and present danger to the BJP’s ambitions and its carefully crafted intricate design of caste- based alliances to sweep the polls.

An election that seemed more or less over bar the official declaration of results is now looking livelier. The BJP, instead of coasting to a 370-seat victory, is looking at the prospect of having to defend its position. Instead of many competitors crowding the Opposition space, the BJP is now faced with fewer competitors. For a party that won by a margin of over 50 per cent votes in about 224 seats in 2019, the INDIA bloc seat-sharing deals are not a serious danger, unless there is fear that public sentiment may not be as enthusiastic about another five years of a BJP government as it was earlier. The magic mirror effect may be delusional for all parties -- both the BJP and its allies and the alternative INDIA bloc, fighting together or separately.

Tags: north 24 parganas district, india bloc, 2024 lok sabha elections