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Mamata Banerjee, KCR's Third Front idea for 2019 Lok Sabha elections is federalists' dream and BJP's nightmare

The distance between West Bengal and the Dravidian states is more psychological than geographical. In the Dravidian narrative, the “north” is larger than north itself. The east too becomes “north” in a narrative where north and south make up the whole domain. But no narrative fully covers reality. The east exists, often in a similar ideological stance against the north. The south doesn’t exist in that narrative. But if one looks at the map of non-BJP states in the Indian Union, it is the south and the east that form a continuous belt that prevents the spilling over of the toxic Hindi-Hindu-Hindustan ideology into the holy waters of the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean.

File image of West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee. PTI

File image of West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee. PTI

This continuity is not incidental. This is the zone of the politics of federalism. This is the zone whose absence would have created a Hindu rashtra called Hindustan with Hindi as its national language in 1947. This is the zone whose presence created the flawed but still nominally federal democratic entity called the Indian Union as it exists. It is in this context that the proposed Federal Front discussions in Kolkata on 19 March between Trinamool supremo and West Bengal chief Mamata Banerjee and Telangana chief minister and TRS supremo K Chandrashekhar Rao assumes immense significance. A leader from the south is talking to a leader from the east without any Delhi party’s mediation on forming a political front based on the principles of federalism: a federal front. Whatever be the future of this proposal, this already is a sign of changing times.

For the longest time, pro-federalism parties have either struggled alone or have been part of either Congress-led or BJP-led formations. The only time this was not true were the brief periods of National Front and United Front. In the first case, the Congress was the common enemy. In the second instance, it was Congress at the start of a long decline and a resurgent BJP at the start of its take-off.

Only in Tamil Nadu, Jammu and Kashmir, Nagaland, Manipur, Punjab, and Mizoram have Centre-state relationship and power-sharing issues become sustained mass political questions. That is now changing. In fact, it has been changing for a few years, unbeknownst to Delhi chatterati. What they are waking up to is something that has been in the discourse of non-Hindi states for quite some time.

The idea of a federal front is not new. This was also mooted before the 2014 Union parliamentary elections. West Bengal finance minister and TMC leader Amit Mitra, talking to Bloomberg TV in  the run-up to the 2014 Union parliamentary elections, said, “There is a shift from dominance of two political parties, like a flip-card, one and the other, to a new matrix of politics that will only be clear when the chips fall into their places.”

He continued: “This third vital energy (the federal process) is coming into India. Crossroads of history. Let that play itself out in its finality. So my submission is, that what we are saying is we want a united India, we want a stable India. Let that finality arrive.  And then, of course, people can step back and say:  okay, keeping India united and stable, these are possible options that will face you.”

That idea didn’t quite take political shape in 2014. Though the grounds for the third space was borne out even in the 2014 elections. BJP and Congress received 50.8 percent of the votes between them. The rest (49.2 percent votes) went to non-Congress and non-BJP parties.

When the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance rode to power in 2014, with BJP gaining a majority on its own based largely on its sweep of Hindi states, an idea of India that had long been nursed in Hindi-Hindu-Hindustan ideological and popular circles began to assert itself in earnest. It is important to note that unlike the elite Nehruvian alliance that Congress represented, BJP in the Hindi-belt is a much more democratic party and hence it also represents the Hindi supremacist assertions of the base as well as RSS’ unitary vision of the Indian Union, where states are temporary irritant evils at best that need to be disempowered and done away with, slowly but surely.

This part of the ideology is also tacit in Nehruvian ideology but much more forcefully present in the thoughts of RSS ideologues like Deendayal Upadhyay. So, a BJP majority government has evoked precisely what it is supposed to do: a resistance from non-Hindi states.

If one looks at the political outcomes of 2014, it can be seen where BJP won and where BJP lost. BJP excelled primarily in two scenarios: one, if it was a Hindi state. Two, if the Opposition was Congress. In comparison, its influence and performance in non-Hindi, non-Congress states were dismal. It is that political space, which is not a negligible political space at all, that is showing early signs of coalescing.

Whether it actually can do so is another matter. From the above pattern, one can infer where BJP’s weak underbelly lies. If non-Hindi, non-Congress federalist parties come together and maintain their present level of electoral performance in the next Union parliamentary elections, one is talking about a huge bloc. The blockbuster performance that BJP had in 2014 in the Hindi belt cannot be repeated. If that cannot be repeated, then to maintain numbers anywhere near the present level, BJP has to make it up elsewhere.

Where is this elsewhere? Clearly, this elsewhere is where BJP did not do well last time. That is the space where some headroom to gain exists. But that is only in theory. In practice, in most non-Hindi, non-BJP states, the Union government under BJP has evoked strong linguistic nationality-based state identity feelings where BJP is being branded as ‘outsiders’ or representing agendas and ideologies where the non-Hindi are not at the high table. The state-based federalist parties are using this rhetoric in various ways.

However, for the politics of federalism and state rights to succeed at the Union level, unity is crucial. It is crucial because this unity cannot be a mere alliance of anti-BJP interests like the anti-Congress alliances of yore. Such alliances have been often portrayed in Delhi media as having no agenda for transformation but being ways of unseating someone else.  That this is not true should be apparent from the words of Amit Mitra quoted above. And the substance is being made explicit as we speak.

Last year, Mamata declared the Centre should not have more than four departments: external defence, external affairs, currency, and railways. In March, KCR made the same point when he talked about large-scale transfer of subjects from Centre to States. He said, “The central government should focus on diplomacy, defence, national security and national highways among other national and international issues.”

File image of K Chandrasekhar Rao. AFP

File image of K Chandrasekhar Rao. AFP

In both cases, this means that functions that are in practice wholly within a state such as education, health, urban development, agriculture and a host of matters that in the Union and the concurrent list should rightfully belong to the state list. Thus, the Union of States will eke out the space for the Centre, which will have vital but limited powers. Of course, for doing this, constitutional amendments are necessary and that is precisely what KCR had in mind when he was declaring this Centre to state power transfer.

At the same event, he declared, “Amend the Indian Constitution, bring in change”. He called for abolishing the concurrent list altogether and proposed that there should only be two lists: The federal and the state. Thus, it is not surprising that these are the two leaders who held the initial parleys for the proposed federal front. In fact, what both of them said after the meeting said is extremely significant in their philosophical and political import.

KCR talked about the need for a “qualitative” change in the political structure of the Indian Union, while Mamata Banerjee said that a single party should not rule the country. All this points to the idea of the Indian Union they stated quite explicitly: Of a truly federal polity, with most powers lying with the states while the Centre is given only those functions that have cross-state implications like currency, communication, railways or have to do with external situations like external defence and foreign affairs.

Add to this scenario the raising from the ashes the banner of Dravida Nadu by MK Stalin of DMK. Dravida Nadu, at its core, is the call for an autonomous union of Dravidian states and minimally calls for state autonomy for Tamil Nadu. For the longest time, Tamil Nadu was the only “mainstream” (read not army ruled) outlier on autonomy issues.

Now, with Telangana and West Bengal premiers pitching for greater state autonomy and even TDP making similar noises, it is hardly an outlier notion or a Tamil-only notion. The greatest principled votary of federalism in recent times, however, is not one of these pro-federalism parties. That votary is the Karnataka branch of Congress under the Karnataka premier and Kannadiga statesman Siddaramaiah who is riding high on a wave of Kannada nationalism. That the Congress chief minister of the largest Congress-ruled state would be unveiling a state flag, speak up against Hindi imposition and propose the conversion of the Union of States into a Federation of States, would have been unthinkable even till 2014.

It is the Karnataka example that shows why federalism is the best bet when it comes to taking on BJP. For an incumbent government like that of Siddaramaiah, the BJP onslaught during a period of Congress’ historical weakness opened up opportunities that were always there but could not be utilised. Thus, by taking a pro-federalism and pro-Kannada stance, Siddaramaiah achieved some success in painting BJP as an anti-Kannada, pro-Hindi party that is an outsider. The Congress high command is looking away as Siddaramaiah runs the Karnataka branch as if it were a Karnataka-centric federalist party. Similarly, the only major recent Congress victory was when Punjab chief minister Captain Amarinder Singh essentially ran his own campaign, keeping the Delhi-based Congress high command out of decision-making.

It is still unclear whether any such fight on a federalist plank will have the Congress inside or outside. That is a tricky question. It is almost a forgone conclusion that Congress will better its tally in the next Union parliamentary elections and most of these gains will come from the Hindi-belt states where it is in direct contest with BJP who is very unlikely to repeat its 2014 clean sweep performance. But if Congress does go up, how much will it go up, is the question.

If a Congress-led pre-poll coalition is built, it will expose quite a few contradictions. For example, in states such as Telangana and Odisha, Congress is an important player with which the ruling state parties cannot align. Additionally, Rahul Gandhi’s leadership, notwithstanding the enthusiasm in the out-of-power Delhi elite circuit, is a liability in a one-on-one fight against Modi.

And here is where Derek O’Brien’s words point towards the kind of battlefront the federalists have in mind. They want to avoid a Modi versus Gandhi match-up, where Modi is not only at an advantage, but the narrative again veers back to the big two of Delhi. In this scenario, the federalist agenda will take a backseat. Thus, what O’Brien has called for is not one battle against the BJP but 29 battles, each fought in each state, each one with its own unique dynamic.

The BJP also wants Congress as its punching bag because it knows that its best case scenario lies in converting the federal parliamentary election into a presidential personality type referendum on Modi. BJP’s attempts to hold state Assembly and Union parliamentary elections simultaneously stem from that tactical pre-emption. The 29 battles scenario is the federalists' dream and BJP’s nightmare.

Federal front or no federal front, it is clear that BJP will have to contend with these federalist forces in many states and this current is only getting stronger. Non-Hindi state after non-Hindi state is making its own language compulsory in all schools, a kind of signaling of state linguistic identity that represents a very alien pitch for the BJP to play on.

The huge dissatisfaction in Dravidian states about the change in reference population from 1971 to 2011 has created strong anti-Centre currents in most Dravidian states and are being voiced by the main leaders. In fact, MK Stalin has expanded the ambit by writing to 10 non-Hindi state chief ministers. Never before in Indian Union politics have chief ministers been brought together without a Hindi-belt component.

But just the non-Hindi belt cannot win by itself. This is where the assisting role of Congress becomes crucial. Alliance or not, in case a strong group of victorious pro-federalism parties group together to make a bid for power at Delhi after the elections, the Congress will have very few options apart from joining the grouping as a large partner, but not as the leader. Or the Congress can support them from outside, in which case it is unlikely that they will withdraw support as they had did in the case of the United Front. In that case, the Congress calculated that they could win power on their own. In the present century, the Congress has no such ability.

A question that posed as a non-starter for a federal alliance is that of leadership. However, when one is talking about a new deal on federalism, one must be imaginative. Yes, there are multiple leaders in such a front, each one well suited for prime ministership. If consensus is difficult, out of the box solutions like holding the prime minister’s tenure in rotation among the top contenders can be explored.

That the ground on Centre-state relationship is shifting and that the federal current is gaining strength is obvious when even Delhi chatterati and Delhi media cannot avoid the issue. It is in their apprehensive tone where the greatest vindication of this current lies. The opportunity was always there but fruits can only be plucked at the right moment of ripening.

Mitra, in the same interview, expressed his thoughts on Mamata’s federalist plank in the run-up to the 2014 Union parliamentary elections, when the time clearly wasn’t right. He said, “Like the constitutions of the West, particularly the United States or Canada, we are a very federal entity. But the states have never been given the kind of priority federalism reserves. That’s why Mamata Banerjee, the Chief Minister of West Bengal, is calling for a Federal Front. What does she mean by that? What she means is, a federal entity is to be given priority while you eke out what the Centre’s going to do. Obviously, foreign policy, defence, and so on, belong to the nation as a whole, but empowering the states, so that the best of the grassroots can come up and excel. That opportunity is there.”

2019 might just be that opportunity. A federalist storm is approaching and is gathering strength. The force is strong. Will it fizzle out or will it make landfall in Delhi?  The results of the 2019 elections are crucial in various ways. Who is in power in Delhi during Union Parliamentary seat-redistribution between states according to population criteria will decide the future contours of the Indian Union in extremely fundamental ways.

If BJP decides to push for an increase of seats in the Hindi-belt and the concomitant decrease of seats in the non-Hindi states, it will put an unprecedented strain on the Union. The fight for 2019 is between this Hindi-dominant idea of India and the federal vision of a plural and diverse Union of India.

In multiple linguistic states, BJP is now being portrayed as the fifth column or the enemy within. On federalism and state rights issues, by dint of its incumbency in the Union government and also because of its ideology, BJP is on a much tougher wicket. Federalism in the form of diverse linguistic nationalism provides a match for the religion-centric nativism of BJP via its Savarkarite ideology that sees Muslims as the outsider other. Language-centric nativism and the political currents arising out of it represent a nativism much deeper than the Savarkarite one. And it doesn’t help that BJP states, that is primarily Hindi states, are subsidised mostly by non-BJP non-Hindi states. In short, the non-Hindi Opposition pays for Yogi and Raje and Sushil Modi and such.

BJP has been extremely successful in conquering the Hindi-belt that lacks a linguistic nationalism of its own and uses Indian statism as its proxy for nationalism. This is reflected even at the linguistic level. In Hindi, the word for nationalism is rashtravaad which is same as statism unlike non-Hindi languages like Bangla where statism (rashtrobaad) and nationalism (jatiotabaad) are very different concepts.

This represents a very fundamental rupture that the Nehruvian consensus kept its lid on and one fault-line that the BJP had pried open since 2014. A corporate money lubricated, steroid-injected mixture of religion and “development” broke down the dykes of caste and class. This was Modi’s major achievement in the Hindi belt in 2014.

Since then, the non-BJP political forces in the non-Hindi states have realised to various degrees the utility of state identity in fighting this onslaught, which is a proxy for linguistic nationalism that is barely recognisable in case of Mamata to full-blown in case of Siddaramaiah. Language-centric federalism is the last dyke but probably an invincible dyke against a religion-powered juggernaut. This has been shown time and again around the world and also in this subcontinent.

Islamic Unity based idea of Pakistan: folks found that out in East Bengal in 1971. The issues were Urdu imposition, West Pakistan getting the revenue generated by East Bengal, and Urdu aligned people being in top jobs everywhere, Urdu aligned corporates getting the benefits of big tenders, East Bengal’s internal affairs being dictated from West Pakistan, Urdu and Islam being touted as unifying factors of Pakistan, etc. Sounds familiar?


Updated Date: Mar 25, 2018 09:57 AM

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