AROUND THE REGION
From Bihar to Myanmar
If there’s one message coming out loud and clear from the polling fields of Bihar to Myanmar, it is that tickling religious passions won’t win anybody an election in the East.
‘Islam in danger’ did not help Khaleda Zia’s BNP-Jamaat alliance in Dec 2008 Bangladesh polls or in ousting Hasina Wajed from power later in Jan 2014. So she made a fuss over the caretaker issue and boycotted the polls-- a huge mistake that many of her party leaders are now blaming on her son Tarique.
The fierce Buddhist hardline campaign did not work either in Myanmar in stopping the Suu Kyi juggernaut in Nov 2015 polls. Neither did the Beef and anti-Pakistan tirade help the Modi-Amit Shah win Bihar.
Finance Minister Arun Jaitley’s admission that Hindutva motormouths did much damage to the party’s ‘core campaign focus’ of development was being wise after all was over. It however sums up a harsh reality . Hardline Hindutva may help the BJP consolidate its flock and reinforce its ‘core support base’ in organisational terms but it would end up isolating the party from the national mainstream.
That brings us to another reality. The national mainstream is uncomfortable with a dynasty-ruled and corruption-ridden Congress and many in the country voted for Modi’s BJP overwhelmingly in 2014 to pave the way for reforms to boost the economy and development. The 2014 Lok Sabha mandate was not for Hindutva , what with the Ram Temple promise carefully concealed in small letters towards the end of the BJP manifesto. The mandate was for clean focused governance , for economic growth, for development, for making India count in the comity of nations. And it was built on just a 30 percent voteshare.
The BJP paid dearly for allowing Hindutva fanatics to hijack the BJP agenda in the countdown to battle Bihar. Its president Amit Shah did no great service to the party’s cause with his ‘ crackers will burst in Pakistan’ remark. Muzzafarnagar may work in UP but not in Bihar, where sharp caste polarization undermines the very basis of Hindutva driven politics. The party’s urban appeal in the state is build round Modi’s development mantra, not on beef and cow. Because Bihar is the beginning of the Eastern Arc of this sub-continent, where social justice and inclusive development counts for more in popular imagination than religious passions or stock market performance.
If beef politics and Hindutva did not work in Bihar, Ma Ba Tha’s aggressive Buddhist nationalism and its unstinted support for the military-backed ruling USDP did not work in Myanmar. Its beef ban in central Burma bore such a close resemblance to the Indian cow-driven politics in the last few months.The Ma Ba Tha , whose chief icon Ashin Wirathu is derisively called the ‘Buddhist Bin Laden’ for his anti-Muslim tirades , openly supported the military backed ruling USDP party. In their rallies, their leaders made it clear that USDP was the only solution for ‘true nationalists’ in Myanmar, not Aung Sang Suu Kyi’s NLD. She was projected as a ‘western stooge’ but in the end it is her pro-democracy plank that triumphed hands down as in the 1990 polls. .
The NLD’s landslide win indicates that not only did the people reject the Ma Ba Tha’s appeal to vote USDP but also that other religion driven parties like the newly established National Development Party led by a former presidential advisor were rejected most unceremoniously. Ma Ba Tha’s “Buddhism in danger’ did not work in Myanmar much as Amit Shah’s “ crackers will burst in Pakistan if we lose” did not help the BJP in Bihar.
In neighbouring Bangladesh, opinion surveys by the US-based IRI and some domestic think tanbks shows that the Awami League has gained much ground since its re-election in Jan 2014 by steadily focussing on war crimes trials , hitting out at religious radicals and at Pakistan and by focussing strongly on development. Hasina's stock has risen sharply , according to the IRI, not the least because of her single minded focus on development. Atleast a dozen huge projects like the Padma bridge, LNG terminal at Maheshkhali, the deep sea port at Matarbarhi ( possible another in Sonadia), huge power projects like the 1320MW Ramphal plant have all set the pitch for development and even the World Bank has now revised Bangladesh's GDP growth projection at 6.7% . The BNP and Jamaat-e-Islami are not only on the run over war crimes trial but cornered because of close links to Pakistan, which is hated across Bangladesh for what its army did in 1971.
So what lessons does this hold for Modi and his party as two of the key state elections in 2016 are due in eastern states – Assam and West Bengal.
The BJP’s effort to play Assam’s anti-migrant issue on religious lines has triggered a backlash . Assamese regional groups like the All Assam Students Union (AASU) have reacted fiercely to the Modi government’s decision to legitimize the stay of post-1971 Hindu migrants from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan .
The AASU has said this decision will only legitimize ‘infiltration’ and that would go against Assamese interests. The Modi government’s decision has given parties like the Asom Gana Parishad a fresh lease of life and some space for authentic Assamese regional politics. The AGP’s traditional line veers round a non-religious view of illegal migration – “ an infiltrator is an infiltrator , Hindu or Muslim, and they are unwelcome in Assam’ has been the traditional pitch of the party that ruled Assam twice ( 1985-90 and 1996-2001).
The BJP takes the line that a ‘Muslim migrant is an infiltrator and the Hindu migrant is a bonafide refugee fleeing religious persecution’ from former East Pakistan now Bangladesh. That political line is premised on building an ethnic coalition of Assamese, Bengali and tribal Hindus to offset the heavy impact of the Muslim vote in Assam . More than one-third of Assam’s population is Muslim, mostly of East Bengali origin. But for the AGP and the AASU , an Assamese Muslim is a brother , not an enemy.
That the AGP and BJP worked out an alliance in 2001 and fought several elections together and failed to win any of them has convinced Prafulla Kumar Mahanta and his folk that anti-infiltration rhetoric will work in Assam, but not if it is played on religious lines.
In West Bengal, BJP’s Hindutva agenda will not work as well. Many in the state desperately want a change and some look to the BJP not because they want a Ram temple built in Nadia but because they are upset with huge governance failures of the Left and the Trinamul government that succeeded it. Young Bengalis look up to Modi when he promises development which would mean they can work in an IT unit in Salt Lake (Calcutta) at the same salary as they do in Bangalore or Hyderabad. They don’t care for Hindutva as the ‘huge beef party’ on the city streets recently proved. As a student in late 1970- Calcutta , I found Nizam restaurent’s beef rolls a real cheap favourite with students.
For the history-driven Hindutva brigade, here’s small reminder from the pages of the past.
India’s biggest pre-Muslim trans-regional empires were built from Magadha ( in modern Bihar) by heroes from the lower caste. Mahapadma Nanda was said to be a barber, Chandragupta Maurya a “Mayura Poshaka” or a ‘peacock tamer’. The Nandas and the Mauryas of Magadh , whose armies frightened the Greeks including Alexander’s, were the ones who translated into reality the Puranic vision of a ‘ land of Bharat’ as one stretching from the ‘snow clad mountains to the ocean ‘.
The Vishnu Purana says : .”Uttaram yat samudrasya, Himadreschaiva dakshinam |Varsham tad Bharatam nama Bharati yatra santatih || (Bharat is the name of country situated to the north of the ocean and south of the snow-clad Himalayas and its progeny is known as Bharati."
Buddhism not Brahmanism became the religious leitmotif of the Magadha empire . That swiftly transformed a campaign of military expansion into one of expanding cultural influence, a process that lasts much after the empires have faded into history. Buddhism appeal, like Islam’s later, in the East was built on a negation of upper caste domination and a liberating space it provided for the lower castes through its egalitarian appeal. This understanding of Indian history is necessary for the BJP as it drives East. Because history has a strange habit of often repeating itself.
It is not only that the Hindutva message will not work in the east. Modi and Amit Shah have a problem with who to project as a local leader because one lesson of Bihar is that failure to project a Sushil Modi rather than a Narendra Modi has cost them dear against a well grounded Nitish-Lalu campaign of Bihari versus Bahari. But in West Bengal, they lack a face to project as most Delhi BJP heavyweights feel state president Rahul Sinha is not someone who can match up to Mamata Banerji . The party’s search for a face in Bengal – it evidently touched base with many including 'Cricket & Screen Dada' Sourav Ganguly – has yielded little so far. The party would not have enough time for projection if one acceptable face falls from the heavens now. In Bihar , BJP had a tested Sushil Modi who they did not name a chief minister candidate for whatever tactical reason. In Bengal, they have no Sushil Modi.
In Assam, the BJP has in union sports minister Sarbananda Sonowal a real big Assamese hero . The former AASU president is credited with leading the legal battle that led to the nullification of the IMDT act that was seen as protecting illegal migrants in Assam. But the induction of a big time Congress defector, Himanta Biswa Sarma, into the BJP has complicated matters. Instead of an obvious local face, they now have two.
The former minister in the Congress chief minister Tarun Gogoi’s cabinet but he is no foreigner to corruption allegations and controversies, which he has refuted. Now that he has moved his flock of nine Congress legislators into the BJP, there is obviously a feud in the making between BJP old timers and these somewhat unwelcome newcomers. Sarma is a shrewd election strategist and a poll manager but his mentor in the party, then state BJP chief Siddhartha Bhattacharjee, who brought him into the party, is a liberal and his equations with the RSS is not terrific. Speculation has been rife that Bhattacharjee has been removed as state party president. Sarma has thus lost his biggest support in the state BJP. Since Sarma is getting to feel now that he has lost the race to the top with the BJP declaring Sarbananda Sonowal as its Chief Minister candidate he can be as much of a problem for the BJP as he has been for Tarun Gogoi . After all, Sarma did not join BJP to be number two - he had that position in the Congress. It does not really look hunky-dory for the BJP with Bihar lost and no clear light at the end of the tunnel in West Bengal and Assam. They may still barely win Assam since the Congress and the AIAUDF have failed to come to an understanding , but in Bengal they are all set to finish number four after the heady 17 percent vote share in 2014 Lok Sabha polls.
(Subir Bhaumik is a former BBC Correspondent and now works as Senior Editor of Dhaka-based bdnews24.com. His books on Northeast " Insurgent Crossfire" and " Troubled Periphery" are well acclaimed. His latest book ' Agartala Doctrine: Proactive Northeast in Indian foreign policy" has now been published by the Oxford University Press.)