If politics, like long-term histories, is understood in broad patterns, then the most recent row between West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee and Prime Minister Narendra Modi could be ominous. While there may be differing accounts over who kept whom waiting and whether the sudden recall of the former state chief secretary to Delhi was merely routine, what seems clear is the likely emergence, once again, of a regional trap on the Indian political landscape. This refers to the real possibility of a regional power unsettling and unhinging an imperial Centre.
Empires and kingdoms in the Indian sub-continent have always tended to view their territorial margins with suspicion. Keeping regional satraps and warlords in check – by force or using incentives – invariably consumed emperors, maharajas and sultans. These regal rulers knew only too well that trouble brews with distance. One lesson that is still relatively fresh can be traced to 1540, when the energetic Sher Shah, an Afghan from the lowly Sur lineage, routed an ill-prepared Humayun of the house of Timur. Following his resounding victory at Kanauj, Sher Shah – then a petty warlord in Bihar – was catapulted, literally overnight, to becoming the sole sovereign of Hindustan. The defeated Humayun, who barely saved himself by crossing the Ganga on an inflated animal skin float, had to wait a full 15 years before he could restore the Mughals’ fortunes.
But the most striking instance of a regional power overwhelming the Centre would undoubtedly be the incredible story of Chhatrapati Shivaji, who crowned himself monarch and established the first Bhonsla kingdom (territorially today’s state of Maharashtra) in 1674. Shivaji’s military guile and administrative competence not only enabled him to out-manoeuvre the mighty Aurangzeb, but also set the context for hastening the decline of the house of Timur itself. Interestingly, historian J.F. Richards observes in his authoritative book The Mughal Empire that Shivaji’s rebellion and resistance was driven in great measure by Aurangzeb’s mix of intolerance, religious bigotry and inability to incorporate differences within the folds of the Mughal Empire. Richards goes on to point out that Shivaji even chided Aurangzeb for failing to grasp that the “Koran God is styled Lord of all men, not simply of Muslims and that both Muslim and Hindus worshipped God in their own way”.
Taking on the Centre, however, is not wholly about regional brilliance. Rather, the challenge usually succeeds because the Centre itself is in the throes of a deep crisis. The regional satrap, in effect, is harnessing an opportunity and not necessarily creating one. Commentators point out that Modi’s momentous electoral triumph in 2014 was achieved amidst very unsettled political circumstances in India. The Congress party was imploding, while the Manmohan Singh-led government was mired in policy paralysis. The moment seemed ripe for the picking and as then chief minister of Gujarat, Modi moved in to seize the prize. His campaign tactics were two pronged: on the one hand, the chief minister behaved like a prime minister in waiting; on the other, the Bharatiya Janata Party talked up the putative ‘Gujarat Model’ as an alternative imagination. In those portentous election months of 2014, the smell of Congress’s imminent defeat hung much thicker in the air than the scent of the National Democratic Alliance’s impending victory.
A crisis, however, does not simply manifest. It is often the return gift of a miscalculation. Richard Eaton, in his lucidly written India in the Persianate Age, reminds us how Muhammed Shah Tughlaq ran the entire wealth and standing of the Delhi Sultanate into the ground. During his 26-year reign, Tughlaq built a new capital, Daulatabad, in the south, transferred his unhappy subjects there and then changed his mind. Many of those who survived the long journey to the South, died on the return trek back to Delhi. A similar lack of planning and whimsicalness showed when inspired by the Chinese turn to paper money, Tughlaq ordered the mints to issue brass and copper coins that drove silver out of circulation. In time, the debased currency “impoverished the state treasury, enriched the merchant and banking classes and infuriated the Sultan”. Not unexpectedly, the wild arbitrary swings in policy and moods bred rebellion and soon enough the first province to secede was Bengal, led by Illyas Shah. And herein lies an open lesson for the Modi government: tipping points can become breaking points.
There is little to disagree with the fact that the COVID-19 pandemic has ravaged an already teetering Indian economy. Absolute poverty has overwhelmed previously untouched sections, the middle class is shrinking and unemployment is growing. Most other economic indicators suggest that a long period of recessionary challenges lie ahead. Instead of fire-fighting its way out of this combined medical and economic emergency, the Modi dispensation preferred instead to leap into a high-stakes election battle in Bengal. And worse, it turned the entire campaign into a straightforward, one against one, prime minister versus chief minister battle. The subsequent electoral drubbing of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has, unsurprisingly, set off a domino effect – in a single go, diminishing the stature of the office of the prime minister, gutting ‘brand Modi’ and putting wind in the opposition’s sails.
There can be little disagreement with the fact that Mamata Banerjee is the first politician in recent memory to have comprehensively defeated the very idea of Modi, especially by upending his almost magical ability to stir a subaltern Hindutva. Despite the Trinamool Congress’s stunning victory, Banerjee is yet to put forward a meaningful alternative at the all-India level. An electoral victory riding on the back of several populist schemes and a regional identity will not be enough. And here is where the Kerala model acquires critical significance, by offering scalable policies for deepening administrative empathy, providing welfare support through institutional arrangements and, above all else, by putting government responsibility over market speculation.
It is likely that post-COVID-19 India will be a radically transformed economic and social landscape, with an entirely different electoral mindset, for the coming general elections of 2024. It is equally probable that there may emerge a stronger demand for secure government jobs and higher public investments in health and education, or urgings for meaningful redistributive justice and policies that can revive the fortunes of the great Indian middle class, who have fallen steeply into conditions of precarity and unserviceable debt. The regional trap, therefore, becomes a fresh moment of political possibility, where the margin corrects the excesses of an imperious Centre by overcoming the strongman with feminine strength and a nurturing democracy.
Rajesh Mahapatra is an independent journalist and a public policy analyst and Rohan D’Souza is professor at the Graduate School of Asian and African Area Studies, Kyoto University.