Why the BJP Should Be Wary of the Consequences Of Its Sustained Campaign Against the AAP

15 June, 2015

The years when central governments would blithely topple democratically elected state governments ruled by their political adversaries are mercifully behind us. The imposition of President’s Rule—a codeword for political arrogance—has lost its currency in the corridors of power. Yet the politics of vendetta that engendered such undemocratic actions continues to thrive. Bearing testimony to this is the current conflict between the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) government in Delhi and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) dispensation at the centre.

This bitter face-off between the two political adversaries brings to mind an older history of fraught centre-state relations. The site of that protracted battle was Bengal. The victim, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPI [M]), and the aggressor, the central government, then led by the Congress prime minister, Indira Gandhi. The similarities between the two sets of political confrontations, despite being situated in different geographical locations and in different times, are pronounced enough to bear commenting upon.

There is a striking analogy between how the BJP now and the Congress then used Constitutional heads to harass their rivals. If, at present, the BJP is leveraging Najeeb Jung, the lieutenant governor of Delhi NCR (National Capital Region) as an instrument to settle scores with the AAP government, the Congress central government in 1968 appointed Dharam Vira as Bengal’s governor to go after the Communists, who were a part of the state’s ruling United Front government. Following the collapse of the eight-month-old United Front alliance in February 1968, Dharam Vira, in consultation with Indira Gandhi, dismissed the elected government without convening a democratic floor test.

Between 1970 and 1971, Indira Gandhi appointed Siddharth Shankar Ray, the education minister in the central cabinet, as the West Bengal Affairs Minister. Ray’s mandate essentially included the elimination of Naxals and the targeting of the CPI(M). He supervised the mass rigging of the infamous 1972 polls, the only election—the first and the last—that Jyoti Basu, who served as the chief minister of Bengal from 1977 to 2000, lost in his five-decade-long political career. In his autobiography Jotodur Mone pore (As far as my memory takes me), Basu described the scene he witnessed on arriving in his Baranagar constituency at 10:30 am on the day of the elections: “I found that in most places voting was over. Of the 135 polling booths, the Congress had thrown out our agents in as many as 100 booths. They snatched away the ballot boxes, stamped ballot papers … and stuffed them into the boxes.” Following this election, the CPI(M) boycotted the state assembly for five years.

In 1977, the CPI(M)-led Left Front government roundly defeated the Congress—a humiliation from which the party has not yet recovered in the state. With this electoral turnabout, the CPI(M) entered a new stage in its war against the party. It was a battle in which Bengal’s economic lifeline was choked as collateral damage. The central government stalled the new Left Front government’s economic projects for years.

In 1980, Indira Gandhi denied permission to the state government to build an electronics complex in Salt Lake City, Kolkata. Similarly, it took 11 years for the central government to hand over a letter of intent for the Haldia Petrochemicals Limited—the second largest petrochemical company in India that was formed out of a joint venture between the government of West Bengal, the Chatterjee group, the TATA group and the Indian Oil Company. The project finally got off the ground in 2000.

Before the Indian economy was liberalised, state governments were dependent on the centre for the implementation of projects in their own states. In the cases of both Haldia Petrochemicals and the Bakreshwar power project, the state government of Bengal had to get the sanction as well as the funds from the Congress government at the centre. The Left Front government accorded top priority to Haldia petrochemicals. After being denied both by the central government, Jyoti Basu decided to rope in private capital for the Haldia project.

The Congress government’s refusal to sanction and release funds for Haldia Petrochemicals and the Bakreshwar thermal power project catalysed a blood donation campaign across the state. The Bakreshwar thermal power project was supposed to be set up with central funding. However, despite the CPI(M)’s repeated efforts, the Congress government refused to sanction funds. The state government finally built it alone. The slogan of “Rokto dao, Haldia goro” (Donate blood and build Haldia) galvanised the state, turning its people against the Congress government. Tapas Basu, the former CPI(M) state committee member told me, “The West Bengal government’s main political campaign in the 1980s was predicated on seeking greater autonomy for states. At Jyoti Basu’s initiative, an all India chief ministers’ conclave was organised in Bengal. We, in the SFI [Students’ Federation of India] organised a national level seminar.”

The centre’s deliberate economic deprivation of Bengal fed and fanned the Left Front’s political campaign against its main opponent. Effectively using centre-state relations as the platform, the party ratcheted up massive campaigns through the decade to keep the electorate on its side. At every street corner meeting and public rally, the CPI(M) accused the Congress of plotting to keep West Bengal impoverished as political revenge following its electoral wash out in 1977. “Even as you have chosen us,” the CPI(M) told the people, “the centre is not allowing us to function.” Today, Arvind Kejriwal, the AAP supremo and the chief minister of Delhi, is campaigning against the BJP along very similar lines.

Ranged against a powerful and bullying Congress party, the CPI(M) deftly played up a politics of victimhood for more than two decades. The party’s sustained and innovative campaign against the centre’s discriminatory policies successfully occupied the mind space of the people of Bengal. Bereft of the Congress’s financial resources and its national clout, the CPI(M) back then was the “outsider” in conventional politics, just as the AAP is today. With its radical rhetoric and promise of alternative politics, the AAP—the “outsider” party—has tapped into the imagination of the underclasses in Delhi. In more ways than one, it has stepped into the space vacated by mainstream Left parties, without espousing the Communist ideology and dogma.

The historical analogies run even deeper. For instance, the current row around the AAP’s former law minister, Jitender Singh Tomar, has some resonance with events that previously surrounded Bengal’s current chief minister, Mamata Banerjee. In the 1984 assembly elections, the Congress pitted Mamata, then 29-years-old, against CPI(M) veteran Somnath Chatterjee in Bengal’s high-profile Jadavpur constituency. As acrimonious events unfolded, the CPI(M) drummed up a shrill campaign about Mamata’s “non-existent” PhD from the US-based East Georgia University. The CPI(M) maintained that the university did not even exist. Among political circles in Bengal, the belief was that the university did exist but was not empowered to grant PhDs at that time. A former senior Congress leader and now a minister in the Trinamool Congress government told me, “If Chatterjee is alleging a vilification campaign, I would say Mamata Banerjee too was a victim of vilification.” The leader told me that years later, when Mamata had become a leader in her own right, she said the campaign against her made her feel like an unlettered woman, notwithstanding her degrees in education and law.

Like the CPI(M), which fought the Congress on multiple levels in the past, the AAP is currently hemmed in by a powerful BJP. The politics of vendetta that strengthened the CPI(M) and also took a heavy toll on its cadres is similar to the problems haunting the AAP today. Little wonder, then, that the CPI(M) has publicly come out in support of the AAP government. “Clearly, this Modi government is moving towards a unitary form of government that is completely violative of the federal structure in our constitutional scheme of things,” the party announced in an official statement on 17 May 2015.

Barring the blind and the faithful, few would believe the BJP top leaders’ repeatedly intoned alibi that their party has nothing to do with the deepening and sustained conflict between the AAP and Delhi’s lieutenant governor. Neither is the statement of the union home minister, Rajnath Singh, that he knew nothing of Tomar’s bizarre and hasty arrest, convincing. In such a situation the historical parallels from Bengal are not mere anecdotes, but should alert the BJP to the possible pitfalls of playing the kind of politics they seem intent on playing.

Monobina Gupta is a senior journalist and author based in New Delhi.