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Mainstream, VOL LIV No 24 New Delhi June 4, 2016

In Bengal the Election was Violent; in Kerala Modi made a Mistake—a Bad One

Monday 6 June 2016, by T J S George


A disturbingly turbulent election season has come to an end. It was characterised by campaigns that often broke the letter of the law, to say nothing of its spirit. Violence was its signature tune in West Bengal. Illegal flow of unaccounted money marked the campaigns in Tamil Nadu and Kerala. Overall, it was an election that again exposed the manner in which democracy was losing its soul in India.

The polling process itself went off well, showing that the Election Commission continues to be efficient, a model for the world. The way T.N. Seshan mobilised the Commission’s forgotten powers has proved lasting. But the political class has not shed its devious ways. It continues to employ every weapon in its arsenal—from murder and mayhem to bribing and deception. This means that, despite the correctness of the polling/counting exercises, the outcome of the elections will not in any way improve the quality of our politics.

That the Election Commission chose to conduct polls in West Bengal in six phases over a month-and-a-half was a pointer to the inflammable nature of Bengali politics. The Commission secured the presence of one lakh security forces to ensure peaceful polling. The actual polling was indeed peaceful by West Bengal’s standards. But before and after polling, violence prevailed.

Assaults were prompted by two factors—sheer anger against opponents and the desire to intimidate voters. Marauding goons kept warning villagers that if they did not vote for the ruling party, they would have hell to pay. The Commu-nists, veterans in the use of threat and intimi-dation, used the same tactics. This time the BJP fielded its gangs, too, trying to keep up with the others. Result: Continuous clashes across the State during the election weeks. Twelve killings were reported, which were twelve more than in the other States that went to polls. With that record, what does it matter who wins? For, whoever forms the government, the first priority will be settling of scores. Whichever party gains, Bengal will lose.

Tamil Nadu was perhaps the luckiest of the States because there the people were winning already irrespective of the fortunes of the parties. People were winning television sets, and jewellery, and cycles, and mixies, and scholarships and cash in a political race of competitive populism. Only Anpumani Ramdas decried the freebie culture, saying that it “made people beggars, alcoholics and lazy”. He had nothing to lose because he was going to be nowhere near his goal: Chief Ministership.

Kerala went into an unaccustomed spin this time because the set pattern of Congress-Communist monopoly was challenged by the BJP. This seemed a propitious moment for the “outsider”. Public disgust with the Congress-led coalition had reached unprecedented levels, largely because of the corruption scandals surrounding the Oommen Chandy Government. In the other camp, Pinarayi Vijayan’s dictatorial ways of enthroning himself as the Big Brother of the communist coalition alienated large numbers of people. The BJP was justified in thinking that it had the opportunity at last to “open its account” in the State Assembly. And it did!

But it suffered from a lack of credible local leaders. The available ones were constantly at war with one another, forcing Delhi to take decisions on its own. Delhi, true to form, was both unable and unwilling to understand local realities. So it made costly mistakes, like allying with the most discredited political pretender of the State, a toddy contractor-turned-leader of a section of the Ezhavas. But the biggest setback for the BJP came unexpectedly from its star campaigner, Narendra Modi.

He compared Kerala, of all places, with Somalia, of all places. BJP spokesmen later explained that the Prime Minister was only referring to the infant death rate among a section of Adivasis in Kerala. But even that offered no scope for comparison because Somalia was way down. The important thing is that people got the impression that Modi was comparing Kerala, India’s number one State in socio-cultural parameters, with a country that had collapsed into wretchedness on all counts.

The angry uproar that erupted would have prompted any electoral tactician to make amends quickly. Modi had a golden opportunity to do so when he addressed another rally a day later. But he said not a word about the Somalia faux pas. That added fuel to the anger of voters. The BJP did open its account this time in Kerala, but that was, in spite of Narendra Modi. What happened to the Modi who worked magic in the 2014 parliamentary election?