Bengal, Kerala Polls: Can TMC & Left Stop BJP’s ‘Double Engine’?
In these post-COVID state polls, it is federal issues versus the BJP’s ‘double engine’ narrative. Who’ll win?
Setting the stage for the election campaign, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in one of his first public meetings in West Bengal on 7 February, criticised the Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee-led Trinamool Congress (TMC) government for not implementing several central schemes. A day later, Banerjee denied the charges and instead, attacked the Centre for not giving enough financial assistance to deal with Cyclone Amphan.
What Bengal’s TMC & Kerala’s LDF Are Fighting BJP On
From implementation of central schemes, tussle over issues of GST compensation, demanding financial assistance to deal with COVID-19’s fallout, farm laws — and more recently, opposing the farm cess — the incumbent political parties in two poll-bound states — TMC in Bengal and the Left parties in Kerala have taken on the Centre over a series of federal issues.
As these states go to polls, this positioning by state incumbents is being politically countered by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) through its pitch of a ‘double engine’ growth.
While senior leaders from TMC and the Left Democratic Front (LDF) say that the BJP-led union government does not promote a strong federal spirit, BJP leaders from these states are of the view that the ‘double engine’ narrative does not impinge on the tenets of federalism, and instead, ensures that the Centre and state governments work in sync to benefit citizens.
How Rights of States Are Being ‘Trampled Upon’ By Centre
At the peak of the pandemic and the nationwide lockdown last summer, top functionaries including the Congress, from Opposition-ruled states, had shot off letters to Modi and Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, demanding that they needed more funds to tide over the challenge. The 68-day lockdown spread over three months had led to a sharp fall in state tax collections on the back of non-essential activity being paused. Senior leaders from Opposition-ruled states in Kerala and West Bengal said that issues like these are significant in ongoing elections.
“One of the key election campaign issues is how the rights of the states are being trampled upon. How Kerala’s fiscal space is being reduced. So, that is going to be one of the key issues that we are going to raise… The fight for greater fiscal space is an ever more important issue.”Kerala Finance Minister Thomas Issac to The Quint
Isaac spoke to this correspondent about how political continuity in the state was essential to ensuring that some of the policy schemes started by the LDF continue. “We have been telling the people that the BJP is against the financial initiatives that we are taking. This is a major campaign issue. We are telling the people that if you want these policies that we started to continue, then the Left has to come back to power,” Issac said, adding that stringent fiscal policies across the globe had been relaxed in view of the COVID-19 pandemic.
BJP’s Counter Allegations Against Opposition-Ruled States: Lack of ‘Cooperation’
2020 also witnessed the Centre and Opposition-ruled states at loggerheads over delays in GST compensation.
Yashwant Sinha, Vice President, TMC, and former union finance minister said that GST is a ‘shining example’ of federal principle in the country which requires cooperation from both Centre and states. He added that the TMC has consistently raised these issues.
One of BJP’s counter charges on federal issues has been that Opposition-ruled states, particularly West Bengal, are not keen on implementing central schemes like PM-Kisan Samman Nidhi and Ayushman Bharat.
Dinesh Trivedi, former union minister and senior BJP leader from West Bengal told The Quint:
“West Bengal, for the last five decades, has been using only a victim card and has always been, in many ways, anti-people. The reason I say anti-people is because more federal schemes are for the whole country irrespective of the political party in power in any state.”Dinesh Trivedi, Former TMC Leader to The Quint
“For example, Ayushman Bharat — there are lot of states which are not BJP ruled and have adopted it. Ultimately, all the schemes are pro-people. If one does not adopt federal schemes, ultimately it is the people who get deprived of the benefits. Instead of fighting poverty, they are fighting the Centre, and that is the reason why Bengal has not grown,” Trivedi, formerly with TMC, added.
BJP’s ‘Double Engine’ Narrative & Pushback
In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the Prime Minister Narendra Modi-led BJP returned to power with a historic mandate. The party has been reiterating the ‘double engine’ narrative not just in the 2020 Bihar elections, but also in all the key ongoing state elections including Assam, where it is in power.
BJP’s push for the narrative can be gauged from the fact that just last week, Modi talked about the need for ‘double engine’ growth at an election rally in Bihpuria in Assam, while Union Home Minister Amit Shah pitched for it during an election rally in Purba Medinipur in West Bengal. Its push for the narrative of ‘double engine’ growth is the sharpest in West Bengal, which has never seen a BJP chief minister before.
“Double engine growth is the most anti-federal slogan that one has heard in a very long time. What do they mean by ‘double engine’? The concept does not take into account the wide diversity of this country. It has been my experience in the finance ministry that states go generally by what is in their best interest and do not toe a political line irrespective of affiliations with the centre.”Yashwant Sinha, Former BJP Leader to The Quint
BJP’s national spokesperson and senior leader from Kerala, Tom Vadakkan, said that the ‘double engine growth’ narrative simply means facilitating services for people and as it helps in better implementation of schemes.
“Double engine growth is essentially symptomatic of the present political scenario. It enables quicker decision making and lesser red-tapism. The manifestos and vision of both the governments are essentially fine-tuned, which helps. Anything that helps people or enables people to get their bona fide rights from the government is good. So, in that scenario, the ‘double engine’ model works.”Tom Vadakkan to The Quint
Manisha Priyam, a New Delhi-based political analyst, said that, in her opinion, the “pitch of double engine growth in itself does not attack federal polity”. She added that other issues like GST, farm laws and fiscal federalism have a key impact which the governments of both Kerala and West Bengal have been vocal about.
Economic Issues & Electoral Spotlight
Despite being a key point of tussle between the Centre and states, senior leaders and experts are divided on whether federal issues and economic concerns get their due electoral spotlight as compared to other matters. Most however, think that the issues do not have an immediate connection with people on the ground.
“Economic issues in general have taken a back seat in all elections. It does not get the traction on the ground among the people, and we should not be surprised if the same is the case in this election. Except for price rise, that too in a stark fashion, then it becomes an issue, but growth rate will not be an (election) issue,” Sinha said.
Trivedi however said that almost most key issues being raised in the ongoing elections have an overlap with the economy, including implementation of schemes related to agriculture and health.
“Today's election in Bengal is purely on economic grounds and its cause and effect. For both the BJP and the people of the state, it is all about Sonar Bangla, which stresses on economic prosperity,” Trivedi added.
(Anuja is an independent journalist based in New Delhi who reports at the intersection of policy and politics. She can be reached at @just_anuja.This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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