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From Communism to Hindu Nationalism: The 2019 Election in West Bengal & Kerala

Sat, August 31, 8:00 to 9:30am, Hilton, Gunston East


Mass support for ethno-nationalist right-wing parties is an emergent global phenomenon. Narendra Modi's recent reelection as Prime Minister for a second term has clearly put India at the forefront of this global trend. Indeed, in contrast to advanced industrialized democracies, where centrist parties still command substantial support, India is said to be heading towards a new era of single party dominance under the Hindu Nationalist BJP (Palshikar, 2017). This paper seeks to contribute to a growing body of research on the emergence of this new dominant party system (Chatterji, Hansen, & Jaffrelot, 2019; Gudavarthy, 2019; Neyazi, Kumar, & Semetko, 2016; Palshikar, 2017; Thachil, 2014). This research has traced the BJP’s dominance to the growing social articulation and acceptance of majoritarianism (Chatterji et al., 2019), the rise of the cultural subaltern (Gudavarthy, 2019), the mediatization of politics (Neyazi et al., 2016), the hegemonic sway exercised by the Hindutva-development-nationalism triad in the realm of ideas (Palshikar, 2017), and social service provision by Sangh Parivar affiliates (Thachil, 2014). Without detracting from these arguments, we note that this research adequately explains the rise of the BJP only in the states where the BJP’s historic opposition was the Congress party. What it explains less well is the party’s growing footprint in states with a history of communist party rule. For example, Thachil’s argument about the BJP growing politically via its affiliated social service organizations is not very relevant in the case of Kerala, where the CPI(M) has used its periodic access to power in a two party system to institutionalize welfare programs (Heller, 2012). Yet, the BJP is currently an ascendant political force in Kerala. In West Bengal, another state with a history of communist party rule, the party was able to wrest an unprecedented 18 seats in the recently concluded Lok Sabha Election, and a staggering 40% of votes cast (the incumbent TMC won 22 seats and 43% of the votes cast).

To assess why the BJP is emerging as a viable opposition in states where leftism is politically institutionalized, this paper exploits original survey data collected before the recent Lok Sabha election in West Bengal and Kerala. The West Bengal pre-election survey covered the three southwestern districts of the state, Purulia, Bankura, and Paschim Medinipur – collectively known as Junglemahal – whereas the pre-election survey in Kerala covered the district of Thiruvanthapuram. In each case, the choice of the surveyed district/districts was driven by the level of expressed and latent support for the BJP in recent years. As has been well-documented, the BJP made significant inroads in Junglemahal during the 2018 gram panchayat election when it was able to win 33% of the panchayat seats in Purulia and nearly 40% of the seats in the Jhargram sub-division of Paschim Medinipur, both bastions of the CPI(M), and subsequently, the TMC (Das, 2018). These trends continued into the Lok Sabha election with the BJP winning in each of the parliamentary constituencies in the region. Indeed, a post-election study observed that the BJP’s surge in vote share in the Lok Sabha election relative to the 2016 State Assembly election was highest in Junglemahal (Basu & Das, 2019). In the same vein, Thiruvanthapuram in Kerala has seen sharp gains in electoral support for the BJP in recent years. Although the BJP could not make the same dramatic inroads into Kerala as in West Bengal in terms of seat wins in the Lok Sabha election, latent support for the party remains high in some parts of the state.

Our research implements a variation of the most dissimilar comparative method. Junglemahal and Tiruvanthapuram are dissimilar to each other across a range of factors that may be correlated with party choice, such as per-capita income, geographic terrain, caste composition etc. Nonetheless, both have a legacy of left-wing rule, and in both, latent and expressed support for the BJP is on the ascendance. The main dependent variable of the study is propensity to vote for the BJP prior to the Lok Sabha election, measured on a 1-10 scale. We regress this measure on a range of variables measuring perceptions of economic well-being, perceptions of party campaigns, perceptions of party leaders, salience of particular issues, propensity of digital media usage etc. Our study is exploratory in nature. We aim to use factor analysis to identify clusters of factors that are consistently related to propensity to vote for the BJP in both contexts. Moving forward, we hope to build on this exercise and develop a robust theoretical model explaining voter realignments from communism to religious nationalism in the specific context of India, and beyond.