The Bengal Tiger Roars: How A Cross-Ideological Coalition Delivered A Stunning Rebuke to Hindu Supremacists in India

Voting ends

Joe Biden in the United States. Emmanuel Macron in France. Angela Merkel in Germany.

The democratic world has proven again and again that traditional liberals willing to build coalitions across the political spectrum, not ideological dogmatists and left-authoritarians, are the only political force capable of defeating the tide of neo-fascism sprouting up across a world that is rapidly interconnected.

This weekend, it was India’s turn.

People in four Indian states and one union (federal) territory had gone to the polls to elect representatives to their respective legislative assemblies. Narendra Modi’s party, the BJP, created high expectations among its supporters and deep fears among its opponents that it was poised to capture additional state legislatures by storm.

The BJP, which has come to and maintained power at the central government in Delhi for two consecutive terms primarily on the strength of Hindu supremacy and nationalistic ferver, had fully expected to flex its muscles in the states. Modi - a despot in the league of of Donald Trump and Marie LePen - sought to use a call to the religious base instincts for political advantage.

There was only one state, however, where Modi’s party wasn’t already in power and still had a real shot in winning control: the state of West Bengal.

The state where I was born and partially raised had been governed by a regional party that in 2011 swept into power by defeating the previous Communist Party rule that had lasted for 34 years on the promise of a politician who, to this day, dresses simply and barnstoms the state in a pair of flip flops. Mamata Banerjee of Trinamool Congress (TMC), who became Chief Minister of West Bengal after her party’s ascent to power in 2011, is not without her flaws, but she connected with the hopes and aspirations of ordinary Bengalis at a level politicians envy.

Still, polling was not kind to Banerjee’s party this cycle. Some polls had shown that her party would retain power, others had shown that the BJP was poised to end her reign, with overall exit poll data giving the BJP a slight edge. In any event, polling aggregates gave the TMC next to no chance of maintaining the legislative strength that came with 211 seats that it presently controls in the 294-seat West Bengal Legislative Assembly, even if her party were to retain a simple majority and therefore stay in power.

With West Bengal not just the only state where the BJP wasn’t already in power but had a chance but also the most populous of the contests with 90 million people, Modi and his allies spared no expense. In an election conducted in phases due to the pandemic, the Indian Prime Minister himself camped out in West Bengal with multiple campaign rallies (damn the surging pandemic his government was botching at that very moment), sent his top lieutenants and cabinet ministers to crisscross the state, and even poached some turncoat legislators from the TMC who had read the political winds and believed that Modi’s party would take over Bengal after the election.

Modi and his party knew as well as anyone that if West Bengal fell to the BJP, it would break the back of the opposition to a Hindu ethno-religious state that Modi envisions, both morally and practically. West Bengal, a state known for its progressive tendencies and eschewing religious fundamentalism as well as a state with a relatively high Muslim population (roughly 30% of West Bengal’s population is Muslim, while just 13% of all Indians are), represented the “last frontier” for the Hindu Supremacists' dream of conquering secular India.

The eyes of the entire Indian nation, and the hopes of the worldwide non-fundamentalist Indian diaspora were locked on West Bengal like never before. The salivating hyenas of the nationalist movement had their eyes and hopes locked on their final mark, too.

This weekend, they counted the votes.

Modi’s party was routed. Of 292 seats at stake (2 seats remain vacant due to deaths of candidates), the BJP won just 77 seats. Banerjee’s party increased their strength in the Assembly by 2 seats, to 213, in repudiation of what pundits had indicated would be a strong anti-incumbent election.

The victory - coming largely on the backs of women voters - was so sweeping that it left both political prognosticators and BJP’s mouthpieces struggling to explain it. Spokespeople for Modi’s party, which would not shut up about how it was going to win 200 seats in the run up to the count, suddenly went from victorious to see-you-after-the-postmortem mode.

Their devastating loss came as a surprise not only because they underperformed the opinion polls by so much. In the 2019 national parliament elections, the BJP had seen a surge of support in West Bengal, and had won enough seats and areas that, if translated to state legislative districts, put them ahead in 121 seats as a baseline. The fact that they came in at less than two-thirds of that number means that the BJP hadn’t simply failed to gain ground in the state since 2019. They hemorrhaged support.

In the aftermath of the 2019 elections, people began to mobilize and organize all over Bengal, knowing that Modi was coming for the fort in Kolkata next. The ‘No vote on BJP’ organizations grew into a movement, with both political parties and average people strategizing on how to come together to defeat the Modi threat.

India, like most parliamentary systems of government, is a multiparty democracy. But the BJP and its allied regional parties had consolidated the right with such precision that a normal election in which multiple parties have some levels of strength was only going to help Modi. In some seats, the other parties could split the anti-BJP vote and allow the BJP to win the seat with minority support.

The people of West Bengal decided that the threat from Modi was too great for that to be allowed. And so, although the far left (the communist bloc) and the center right (Congress Party) also fielded candidates in many seats, the parties that had ruled the state since Indian independence until 2011 barely registered support at the ballot box this election. They won no seats in the Assembly.

As the BJP talks postmortem, there’s already talk about the 2024 parliamentary elections in India. West Bengal 2021 was seen as a laboratory, if not a bellwether, about whether the fundamentalist neofascists governing in Delhi could be halted or whether the march towards sectarianism, fundamentalism, and nationalism was an unstoppable force in the world’s most populous democracy.

The secular forces in India - wide-ranging in their political philosophies - are rejoicing in West Bengal’s results and in Mamata Banerjee’s victory. The roadmap Bengal charted - that diverse ideologies must come together first and foremost to defeat the forces of ethno-religious supremacy - is now seen as the playbook for creating a unified opposition to BJP in 2024’s national elections. And for the time being, Banerjee is the face of that resistance.

In many respects, Bengal’s fight against Modi wasn’t unlike other fights that have played out against right wing, nativist, etho-religious despots across the democratic world. Nor were the characters it put to use to defeat the far right: compromise and coalition-building, connecting with the lives of everyday citizens, and the unification of a broad spectrum of political and economic ideologies to fight a common, existential threat.

It’s the way people in France came together to reject Marine Le Pen. It’s the way that people in Germany held off a new right wing party. And it’s the way that Joe Biden was able to defeat Donald Trump in the first loss of an American incumbent president in almost 30 years.

The most glaring example of the consequences of failing to do so was the parliamentary elections in Great Britain in 2019, when the Labour Party latched far left under Jeremy Corbyn. Labour lost to the Trump of the UK, Boris Johnson, despite Johnson's Conservative Party weakened by backlash against and infighting about Brexit.

Win or lose, the fundamentalist right wing movements are not going away. Even with Trump’s removal from power and Modi’s shellacking this past weekend, the far right is committed to its mission of creating ethno-religious states without minority rights.

We must be equally committed to the existential unity that is required to defeat them again, and again, and again.

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