They should be cautious, lest they unleash forces which they themselves cannot control later.
Watching the scenes that have been played out on most TV channels over the past few days, one would be tempted to believe that the horrific events that took place in Haryana is the only instance of mass rioting that India has seen in the recent past. In truth, such a conclusion would be incorrect.
Away from the eyes – and scrutiny – of the secularists is Mamata Banerjee’s Bengal. The past few years have seen an alarming uptick in instances of communal flare-ups and rioting in Bengal. The latest of these were the Basirhat riots which went on for about three days until the quickly deteriorating law and order, along with the news of the violence spreading to neighbouring localities, forced the administration’s hand and the situation was brought under control.
It is worth remembering that one of the measures the local authorities had to undertake in order to ensure a return to normalcy was to withdraw the resident Trinamool MLA from the administrative forefront. The fact that four companies of central paramilitary forces had to be rushed to Basirhat and that her local leader had to be removed from the scene would have no doubt been a source of great embarrassment to the Bengal Chief Minister, although whether or not these rising communal flare-ups would affect her ‘secular’ tag amongst the political chatteratti is more debatable.
The high-handed way in which Banerjee administration kept the media out of sensitive areas, and the deafening silence with which our usual secular warriors played along, have still not prevented the news of these events from spreading across the country. Politically speaking, the Bengal Chief Minister will find that these events will work against her in both the short and long term – short in the sense that it destroys her credibility as a pan-India leader with 2019 approaching and long in the sense that she will find her communal politics leading to a ground-level realignment in voting patterns which could, at some point, spell the end of her rule.
In truth, this is a situation of her own making. There is very little doubt that today, she and her administration are hostages of her minority vote bank. Post her dethroning of the Communists, Banerjee spared no effort in weaning minorities away from both the Left and the Congress in order to create a voting bloc which she sees to be impregnable. She has achieved great success in this endeavour although, along the way, she has allowed both her government and her party to turn a blind eye towards the sectarian tendencies of certain sections of minorities – from enforcing cruel restrictions on the religious practices of Hindus to giving safe heavens to radical Islamist groups from Bangladesh.
The question can be asked as to whether or not she could have foreseen the grave implications of her crude tactics but the fact will remain that in her effort to secure short term political invincibility she sacrificed the larger national interest and set in motion events which could be beyond her control now.
However, Banerjee is not alone in exploring such cynical strategies for short term electoral gain. There are similar undertakings being orchestrated south of the Vindyas as well.
In Karnataka, the incumbent Chief Minister Siddaramaiah leads a thoroughly inefficient and corrupt government which has very little chance of retaining power in next year’s state elections. So, he has turned to spinning a narrative around sub-regionalism with a vengeance. First, it was the contrived and illogical protest against Hindi in the Bengaluru metros, then the goading of the Lingayat community to demand to be recognised as a separate religion and lastly, the completely unnecessary exercise of a committee being set up to examine the case for a state flag for Karnataka.
Further south, in Tamil Nadu, the sudden demise of J Jayalalithaa has left the state’s politics in a state of flux. There is a game of political chess being played out between Chief Minister Edappadi Palanisamy-O Panneerselvam and Sasikala factions with the central Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) being seen as the driving force behind the former group. The scene has been further complicated by the impending entry of actor Rajnikant into the political arena – another event which is seen to have the blessing of the Prime Minister and his party.
These developments have left the traditional opposition party, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, in a precarious position – confronting difficult electoral arithmetic if the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam-Rajni-BJP combines come together and a dramatically shrunken opposition space if they don’t. Their response has been a shift back to the anti-Hindi and anti-north India rhetoric of the past – an agenda which seemed to be dead and buried until recently.
The politics in Kerala too has been going a similar route for some time now as well. The Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) may still be the principle opposition party in Kerala – and by some distance – but the Pinarayi Vijayan-led LDF has been conducting politics as though it is the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh which occupies that space.
While we have seen brutal political murders of Sangh workers on one side, on the other there has been a spurt of vile rhetoric emanating from both Congress and Left leaders aimed at Hindus and their religious beliefs – with the centre’s new rules on cattle trade causing so much outrage among ‘secular’ political activists in Kerala that one of them saw it fit to slaughter a cow in full public view and lead a march with its severed head in his hand.
It is not difficult to see the common thread which runs across the politics of these three southern states. The political contours of all three regions – which have been more or less constant for the past many decades – are in a state of drastic realignment today which has left its traditional players enfeebled and fearful that, in their moment of weakness, the BJP juggernaut will engulf their space either directly or indirectly.
The responses to the threat of a rising BJP from these traditional players have been all too similar as well – to play up regional sentiments, use language as instrument to divide the state from the larger nation and even more dangerously, enable the ground level alliances between the Dravidian, Islamist and Leftist extremists – a national security tinderbox of a combination.
At the moment, these tactics have found little traction on the ground and there is a fair chance that the larger nationalistic sentiment, which exists across the country today will eventually overcome such dubious plans.
However, it would also be wise for the primary players in these campaigns to glance eastwards towards Bengal and attempt to exercise a certain degree of caution in their endeavours. If they do not, there is a high likelihood of Banerjee’s predicament being replicated in the south as well. In their desperation to inflict maximum wounds on the BJP, they should not end up wounding the nation’s integrity as well.
Praful Shankar is a political enthusiast and tweets at @shankarpraful.
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