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The theory of numbers | A decade of rightward shift in Indian politics


As 2020 draws to a close, West Bengal, despite the fact that assembly elections will only take place in April-May 2021, has become the most watched political theater. Things weren’t much different 10 years ago. Back then, it was the Left Front government led by the 34-year-old Communist Party of India Marxist (CPI-M), whose future was at stake with an aggressive All India Trinamool Congress (AITC). Today, it is the AITC that faces the challenge of surviving the political challenge of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Ironically enough, the rise of the BJP in the state has been facilitated by a large-scale shift from CPI-M supporters to the former. The West Bengal story, in a way, is symptomatic of how politics took a decisive turn to the right in India in the last 10 years. Here are four charts that put this in perspective.

1. From the existential crisis to the new hegemony: the decade of the return of the BJP

After a shocking defeat in the 2004 elections, the BJP fought in the 2009 elections with Lal Krishna Advani as their prime ministerial candidate. The party managed to win just 116 seats in Lok Sabha, its worst performance since the 1991 elections. The BJP did not win any major elections in the assembly on its own in 2009, 2010 and 2011. Things started to improve after the movement Anna Hazare’s anti-corruption in 2011 took a toll on the popularity of Congress. By the time Narendra Modi won his third term as prime minister of Gujarat in December 2012, the tables had turned. The BJP repeated its victories in major state polls in 2013 and became the first party since 1984 to gain a majority of its own in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. The fact that it improved its 2014 performance in 2019 put an end to any he doubts the fact that he had become the new hegemon in Indian politics. Congress, on the other hand, has failed to act together at the national level, and is somehow still haunted by the ghosts of the 2011 Anna movement.

The theory of numbers | A decade of rightward shift in Indian politics

2. Mirror image of the rise of the right: an emaciated left

In 2010, communist parties ran governments in three states: West Bengal, Kerala, and Tripura. While Kerala’s communists may be relieved by the results of the recently concluded local body elections (making the CPI-led Democratic Left Front (M) the frontrunner in assembly polls next year), the left it has suffered serious setbacks in West Bengal and Tripura. In these states, it is the right that has eaten the left, although in different ways. In Bengal, the left began to lose its base of support to the BJP starting in 2014, a process that only gained further momentum in 2019. In Tripura, when the Left Front lost to the BJP in the 2018 assembly elections, the BJP and the CPI (M) were almost side by side in the vote quota. But, in the 2019 elections, the CPI (M) was relegated to a distant third place with Congress returning as the BJP’s closest rival. Thanks to a defeat in West Bengal and Tripura and a single seat in Kerala, the left posted its worst performance in 2019.

The theory of numbers | A decade of rightward shift in Indian politics

3. The political alterity of Muslims: the Modus Vivendi of the new India

If there is one fact that defines the rise of the BJP as the dominant political force in the last 10 years, it is its policy of differentiating itself from Muslims, who make up more than 14% of India’s 1.3 billion people. The current regime has successfully spearheaded the three central issues of the construction of a Ram temple in Ayodhya, the repeal of article 370 which offered special status to Muslim-majority Jammu and Kashmir; and criminalization of the Muslim practice of Triple Talaq. Hindutva has gone further with issues such as hitting (politically) the National Registry of Citizens with a Citizenship Amendment Act; which includes citizens of all major religions of India except Muslims or recent laws against intercommunal marriages in the name of preventing so-called love jihad. This rhetoric has been accompanied in practice by the BJP running very few Muslim candidates in all elections and a sharp drop in the proportion of Muslim MPs in the Lok Sabha in 2014 and 2019. Without a doubt, the proportion of Muslim MPs in the Lok Sabha was the lowest in the 1962 elections, not in 2019.

The theory of numbers | A decade of rightward shift in Indian politics

4. Surviving in the era of Hindu consolidation: the greatest challenge for any third political alternative

The 1990s and 2000s were the era of coalition politics in India. Although the country had a BJP Congress or Prime Minister for most of this period, they depended on other parties for survival. If you look at the Lok Sabha elections since 1984, when the BJP fought its first electoral battle, the share of votes from non-Congress and non-BJP parties reached an all-time high of 52.6% in 2009. This dropped by almost ten percent. points for 2019. While part of the decline is explained by a contraction of the left, the rise of political Hindutva had also contributed to this phenomenon. The greatest example of this was seen in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections when, despite being in an alliance, the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party were unable to prevent the BJP from sweeping Uttar Pradesh once again. In many other states, the BJP has succeeded in usurping regional movements and parties by giving it a religious color; Assam Gana Parishad and All Assam Students’ Union in Assam are examples. Whether or not the AITC survives the BJP attack is the biggest question as we wind up 2020.

The theory of numbers | A decade of rightward shift in Indian politics

Source: TCPD, Election Commission of India

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