Has West Bengal become a regional trap for Narendra Modi’s government?
If politics, like long-term stories, are understood in broad patterns, then the most recent row between West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and Prime Minister Narendra Modi could be ominous. While there may be different accounts of who kept who and if the former chief secretary’s sudden recall to Delhi was just routine, what seems clear is the likely emergence, once moreover, a regional trap in the Indian political landscape. It is about the real possibility of a regional power destabilizing and destabilizing an imperial center.
The empires and kingdoms of the Indian subcontinent have always tended to view their territorial margins with suspicion. Keeping regional satraps and warlords under control – by force or using inducements – has invariably consumed emperors, maharajas, and sultans. These royal rulers knew only too well that trouble comes with distance. A still relatively recent lesson dates back to 1540, when the energetic Sher Shah, an Afghan of the humble Sur lineage, routed an ill-prepared Humayun of the house of Timur. After his resounding victory at Kanauj, Sher Shah – then a small warlord in Bihar – was catapulted, literally overnight, to become the sole ruler of Hindustan. The defeated Humayun, who barely escaped crossing the Ganges on an inflated animal skin float, had to wait 15 years before he could restore the Mughal fortunes.
But the most striking example of a regional power crushing the Center would undoubtedly be the incredible story of Chhatrapati Shivaji, who crowned himself monarch and established the first kingdom of Bhonsla (territorially the current state of Maharashtra) in 1674. The military cunning and administrative skill of Shivaji not only enabled him to outwit the mighty Aurangzeb, but also set the context to accelerate the decline of the House of Timur itself. Interestingly, historian JF Richards observes in his authoritative book The Mughal Empire that Shivaji’s rebellion and resistance were motivated in large part by the mixture of intolerance, religious bigotry, and Aurangzeb’s inability to accommodate the differences in the folds of the Mughal Empire. Richards goes on to point out that Shivaji even criticized Aurangzeb for not understanding that “the God of the Quran is called Lord of all men, not just Muslims and that Muslims and Hindus worship God in their own way.”
Tackling the Center, however, is not just a matter of regional brilliance. On the contrary, the challenge usually succeeds because the Center itself is in the grip of a deep crisis. The regional satrap, in effect, exploits an opportunity and does not necessarily create one. Commentators point out that Modi’s momentous electoral triumph in 2014 was achieved in a highly volatile political context in India. The Congress party imploded, while the government led by Manmohan Singh was mired in political paralysis. The time seemed ripe for the picking and as Chief Minister of Gujarat, Modi stepped in to grab the prize. His campaign tactics were twofold: on the one hand, the prime minister behaved like a prime minister on hold; on the other, the Bharatiya Janata party presented the so-called “Gujarat model” as an alternative imagination. In those dire election months of 2014, the smell of impending defeat of Congress hung more in the air than the smell of impending victory for the National Democratic Alliance.
A crisis, however, does not simply manifest itself. It is often the gift of a miscalculation. Richard Eaton, in his lucid writing India in Persian times, reminds us of how Muhammed Shah Tughlaq wiped out all the wealth and reputation of the Delhi Sultanate. During his 26 years of reign, Tughlaq built a new capital, Daulatabad, in the south, transferred his unfortunate subjects there and then changed his mind. Many of those who survived the long journey south died on the way back to Delhi. A similar lack of planning and fantasy manifested itself when inspired by the Chinese shift to paper money, Tughlaq ordered currencies to issue copper and copper coins which excluded silver from circulation. Over time, the degraded currency “has impoverished the state treasury, enriched the merchant and banking classes and exasperated the sultan”. As might be expected, wild arbitrary changes in politics and moods spawned the rebellion and soon enough the first province to secede was Bengal, ruled by Illyas Shah. And this is an open lesson for the Modi government: tipping points can become breaking points.
There is little disagreement with the fact that the COVID-19 pandemic has ravaged an already faltering Indian economy. Absolute poverty has submerged sections that had been untouched until then, the middle class is shrinking and unemployment is rising. Most other economic indicators suggest that a long period of recession challenges lie ahead. Instead of fighting the fires to get out of this combined medical and economic emergency, the Modi waiver preferred to engage in a high-stakes electoral battle in Bengal. And worse yet, it turned the whole campaign into a direct, one-on-one, Prime Minister versus Chief Minister. The subsequent electoral beating of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) unsurprisingly triggered a domino effect – all at once, diminishing the stature of the prime minister’s office, gutting “the Modi brand” and putting the wind in the sails of the country. opposition.
There can be little disagreement with the fact that Mamata Banerjee is the first politician in recent memory to completely defeat Modi’s very idea, especially by shaking up his almost magical ability to stir up a subordinate Hindutva. Despite the resounding victory of the Trinamool Congress, Banerjee has yet to come up with a meaningful all-India alternative. An electoral victory on the backs of several populist schemas and a regional identity will not be enough. And it is here that the Kerala model acquires crucial importance, proposing scalable policies to deepen administrative empathy, providing social support through institutional arrangements and, above all, placing responsibility. government on market speculation.
It is likely that post-COVID-19 India will be a drastically transformed economic and social landscape, with an entirely different electoral mindset, for the next general election in 2024. It is also likely that there may be demand for it to emerge. stronger for secure government jobs. and higher public investments in health and education, or calls for justice and meaningful redistributive policies that can revive the fortunes of India’s upper middle class, which have fallen into precarious conditions and unusable debt . The regional trap therefore becomes a new moment of political possibility, where the margin corrects the excesses of an imperious Center by overcoming the strong man with feminine strength and a nourishing democracy.
Rajesh Mahapatra is a freelance journalist and public policy analyst and Rohan D’Souza is a professor at the Graduate School of Asian and African Area Studies at Kyoto University.