Ideology is individual identity immersed in ingenuity. Hence, the present poll pandemonium is a feisty free-for-all between indomitable identities - not ideologies. Political parties, and their national and regional leaders, abjure addressing marginalised Indians, speaking little about progressive public proposals to ameliorate anguish.
No promises of equitable distribution of wealth in a prosperous India are forthcoming. Instead, they plunder national diversity to define their ideological constituencies.
The resurgent BJP, led by the powerfully popular Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has decided that heterogeneous India will grow faster only in the shade of a uniform cultural and political parasol. Its slogan of electing a double engine sarkar in every state celebrates the architecture of political centralism versus cooperative federalism.
It is convinced that the party in power at the Centre must rule the states, too, so that all public policies are implemented without reservations. However, the BJP's idea of a uniform India is being challenged ferociously by not just regional satraps but also by national parties like the Congress and the Left which are pleading with voters to protect their unique cultural, religious and social distinction.
The Saffron squad, which has almost 400 members in both Houses of Parliament and rules over half a dozen states directly or with allies, has set the tone for the elections in West Bengal, Assam, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Pudducherry.
It is in power in Assam and aspires to consolidate its political empire over East India by capturing the Writer's Building in Kolkata. Calcutta was the imperial capital of India until the British moved it to Delhi and still claims to be the country’s intellectual capital led by the bhadralok.
Amit Shah and his cohort want the saffron wave to sweep Mamata Banerjee and her Trinamool Congress into the Black Hole of Calcutta. It has ambitiously set a target of double-digit victories in Tamil Nadu, Puducherry and Kerala.
Of India’s total 4,121 Assembly seats, 624 will vote to choose new governments in five culturally and politically diverse states. The BJP has just 65 seats in all these states put together while Congress has 115. Mamata has 211 MLAs.
In the South, the AIADMK and DMK hold more than three fourths of the seats. In Kerala, the CPM-led LDF and Congress-captained UDF control almost 100 per cent seats with BJP sitting not pretty with a single member. Modi’s BJP fuelled by Amit Shah’s strategic genius have been running target-led campaigns.
They set the number first and then fit the slogans, machinery, manpower and strategy accordingly. They have decided to cross 200 in West Bengal as against just the three it won in 2016. Shah has directed his party to score a century in Assam - 40 seats more than in 2016.
But the template for triumph in all the states is the same. It begins with Jai Shri Ram and ends with Vikas. In between, all campaigners have been told to stress that growth in these states have been hobbled in the past 70 years by corruption, appeasement politics and dynastic domination.
It is in West Bengal where the real battle between nationalism and regionalism is being fought. At stake is also the prestige of both the Prime Minister and the Chief Minister. Mamata is asserting her regional identity with a vengeance while the BJP is leaving nothing to chance to bring Bengal under the saffron umbrella.
Taking advantage of a ten year-old incumbency fatigue and minority appeasement, the BJP has been working to consolidate Hindu votes during the past two years. Never before has it deployed so much energy and financial resources anywhere else.
Though it touts Poriborton hobe (change) for Sonar Bangla, its strategy is to polarise the electorate along communal lines and exploit its golden goose - Modi’s flawless image. It has accused the TMC of encouraging illegal migration from Bangladesh.
On the other hand, the TMC has converted the election into a pun fight between outsiders and insiders. Since the BJP has failed to name its chief ministerial candidate, the TMC is accusing it of conspiring against the only woman chief minister and fiddling with Bengal’s cultural unity. Its latest war cry is Bangla nijer meyekei chay (Bengal wants its own daughter to be elected as the chief minister).
The identity dilemma has exposed the political opportunism of almost all the parties in almost every state. The BJP, which invariably blames the entire Opposition for a soft corner for the minorities and illegal immigrants, has diluted its own stand in Assam.
In West Bengal, it promises to enforce CAA, while keeping a cryptic silence in Assam to avoid a backlash from local Hindus and Muslims. In the South, the regional parties are unwilling to abandon their federal USP in favour of national uniformity.
For example, the ruling AIADMK which voted in favour of CAA in Parliament is now seeking the law’s withdrawal to retain its Dravidian label which abhors religious affiliations. It promotes the Tamil nationalism espoused by the late Annadurai. It has granted only 20 seats to its electoral ally BJP.
Both the Congress and the BJP are marginal players in Tamil Nadu since the two regional parties - AIADMK and DMK - control over 70 per cent of votes.
The Prime Minister has realised the significance of connecting with Tamil culture. In his latest Man Ki Baat episode he said, "I feel it is a regret of sorts that I could not learn the world’s oldest language Tamil. Tamil literature is beautiful. Many people have told me of the quality and depth of Tamil literature."
While electioneering in Assam the Prime Minister accused the Congress of supporting those who wanted to destroy Assam tea. The clothes he wore for his COVID shot is seen by poll pundits as regional reach out - he wore a Assamese gamcha and the nurses were from Kerala and Puducherry; both poll-bound states. This level of detailing has never been seen before in Modi’s attire and attitude.
Kerala’s LDF has taken a complete U-turn on the entry of women into Sabarimala temple. A Supreme Court verdict two years ago allowed women of all ages to enter the temple. This had paved the way for widespread unrest in the state.
Now the issue has grabbed centre stage again. LDF’s Devaswom Minister Kadakampally Surendran expressed regret over implementation of the court order - a reaction to the BJP’s overtly aggressive pro-Hindu campaign.
The BJP is contesting the largest number of seats, more than both the Congress and the CPM, and suggestively promoting 89-year old Metro Man E Sreedharan as its CM whistle stopper— so determined is it to find a credible winning face that it has made an exception that proves its rule of not fielding candidates aged over 75.
While the BJP may not make the desired impact in the South, its performance in Assam and West Bengal will determine the future conformation of regional statecraft. There is not even the remote possibility of a credible alternative to Modi in the near future.
The BJP has become the world’s largest party but has failed to create state-level leaders in many states who can ensure its victory without Modi. From 2014 onwards, the BJP wrested smaller states but lost the big daddies such as Bihar, MP, Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Punjab and Chhatitsgarsh. In some others, it rules with a razor-thin majority.
Yet in 2019, Modi won a record 300-plus Lok Sabha seats. Indians rally solidly behind him as a national leader, but they are 'Vocal for Local' in state polls. The BJP must invent its own regional ideological patois for India to speak one political language. For saffron to become a national noun in the Indian political dictionary, the regional verb is the best answer.
(The writer can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter: @PrabhuChawla)