The Indian Express | 2 weeks ago | 18-05-2023 | 11:45 am
In Karnataka last week, the Congress party’s victory was unambiguous. In a house of 224 legislators, the Congress gained 55 seats and the BJP lost 38. Even massive campaigning by Prime Minister Narendra Modi could not reverse the twist of electoral fortunes.A vote-seat divergence inevitably marks the first-past-the-post system, which India and many democracies have. In Karnataka’s vote, Congress had a 7 per cent lead over the BJP, which yielded a mammoth 31 per cent seat difference. Of late, the vote-seat relationship has often worked in favour of the BJP. In the 2019 parliamentary elections, the BJP had 38 per cent of national vote and 56 per cent of Lok Sabha seats. In Karnataka state elections, a 43 per cent vote share for the Congress produced 61 per cent of assembly seats.What accounts for the enormous national attention the Karnataka elections have received? Do they have any larger significance for 2024?The first question is easier to answer. It has primarily to do with the metamorphosis of Bangalore, the state’s capital. Bangalore was known as a city of pensioners and a city of science. Post-retirement lives were spent in Bangalore’s easy-paced elegance. And after 1947, according to the historians of Indian science, Delhi promoted Bangalore as the nation’s science capital, making heavy public investments.By the late 1990s, however, the city of science had turned into the city of entrepreneurship, becoming India’s Silicon Valley and leading a world-class software industry. By now, Bangalore is one of India’s richest cities. Its frightfully clogged roads show how the growth in private incomes, and hence the ubiquitous acquisition of automobiles, have outpaced the construction of roads and bridges. The city’s new wealth has attracted the attention of political parties. It is a fact of India’s political life that without being in government, political parties generally cannot raise enough funds. Those who control Karnataka’s government will also largely control Bangalore.Moreover, after the break-up of some of India’s bigger states — Bihar, Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh — Karnataka has become the seventh largest state of India. The relative size, added to Bangalore’s economic significance, allows the state to punch above its weight. Historically speaking, the story is not fundamentally different from how, by 1900, the city of Bombay and the Bombay province of British India had begun to eclipse the city of Calcutta and the vastly bigger Bengal province. Bangalore is a Bombay in the making.Given this larger background, what can we say about these assembly elections in particular? First of all, we should abandon the idea that India is an “electoral autocracy”, as V-Dem reports put it. India remains an “electoral democracy,” where power can change hands. Elections may not be as free and vigorous as they can potentially be, but they remain sufficiently competitive. Thirteen out of 28 states in India now have non-BJP governments. Democratic backsliding has primarily — and deplorably — attacked freedom of expression, civil society and minority rights. The injury to the electoral process is smaller in magnitude.Karnataka elections have basically unclogged the democratic process. The BJP clearly seeks hegemony in India, flooding all political as well as non-governmental spaces with its presence. But it is unable to establish all-pervasive control. India’s south and eastern coast have slipped out of its hold.The unclogging of the political process, however, should be distinguished from the claim that the BJP is now set to lose the 2024 national elections. The unclogging means only two things. First, the cadres of the Congress party will feel re-invigorated. A defeat in Karnataka would have massively dented the party’s organisational morale, energy and spirit, making the fight for 2024 infinitely difficult. In democratic politics, we often need organisational vigour to mobilise voters before we can get their votes. Campaigns require organisations.A second meaning of the unclogging should also be clear. Having nearly a fifth of the national vote, the Congress is the second largest party of India. No other party gets even 5 per cent of the all-India vote. Many non-Congress, non-BJP parties are running state governments. They are regionally robust but nationally thin. The BJP cannot be defeated without an alliance of non-BJP parties, and no such alliance can be successful without the Congress. After Karnataka’s elections, the non-BJP parties can no longer ignore this logic of alliance formation. The Congress is now in control of four state governments. No other Opposition party controls more than two.Some more points are noteworthy. Rahul Gandhi’s Bharat Jodo Yatra (BJY) has turned out to be electorally consequential. The BJY went through 21 constituencies in Karnataka, only five of which the Congress had won in 2018. This time around, the Congress won 16 of those 21 constituencies. Moreover, as Feyaad Allie and Resuf Ahmed show, compared to the neighbouring constituencies, the Congress vote share of BJY constituencies was higher. The BJY in all likelihood made a crucial difference to Karnataka elections.Connected to the electoral outcome is also a key ideological question. Should we infer that Hindu nationalism has lost its appeal? After all, important ideological tropes — hijab, Bajrang Bali, suspension of Muslim reservation quota, and the bizarre argument that the “royal family” of the Congress was trying to separate Karnataka from India — prominently figured in the BJP’s campaign. But even in its defeat, the BJP maintained its 36 per cent vote share. What the results show is that with proper organisational planning and astutely picked campaign issues, even such substantial vote shares can be turned into disproportionately low seats.In short, we don’t have evidence that Hindu nationalism has lost its salience. But we do have a blueprint for how such salience can be electorally countered. And once Hindu nationalism is electorally neutralised, one can think of how state power can be used to weaken its larger ideological sway.The last point often gets eclipsed by the assumption that the character of the state will inescapably reflect the Hindu nationalist mass sentiment. It is often forgotten that in 2014, the BJP did not come to power on the basis of a Hindu nationalist campaign. It sought a vote against the corruption of the Congress and its dynasty. But once it started ruling, it used state power to enhance itself ideologically, both at the level of institutions and mass consciousness.Analogously, capturing state power will be critical for attacking Hindu nationalism as an ideology. Winning elections is central to this project.The writer is Sol Goldman Professor of International Studies and the Social Sciences at Brown University, where he also directs the Saxena Center for Contemporary South Asia at the Watson Institute
Congress leader Rahul Gandhi took a jibe at Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Sunday night (GMT) and alleged that the BJP and RSS are “incapable of looking at the future” and can only talk about the past.Addressing a gathering of the Indian diaspora in the Javits Centre in New York, Gandhi said, “He (Prime Minister Narendra Modi) is trying to drive the car…the Indian car and he looks in the rear-view mirror. Then he does not understand why this car is crashing, not moving forward. And it’s the same idea with the BJP, with the RSS. All of them. You listen to the ministers, you listen to the Prime Minister. You will never find them talking about the future. They only talk about the past”.Gandhi asserted that the BJP and RSS speak only about the past and always “blame somebody else for the past”. In India, there is a fight going on back between two ideologies — one represented by the Congress and the other by the BJP and the RSS, the former MP said.“The simplest way to describe this fight is that on one side you have Mahatma Gandhi and on the other side, Nathuram Godse,” he said.On the Odisha train accident, which claimed 275 lives and left over 1,000 injured, Gandhi said that during the Congress tenure, if train mishaps happened, ministers used to take responsibilities for their actions and “we accepted our mistakes”.“I remember a train accident when the Congress was in power. The Congress did not get up and say ‘now it is the fault of the British that the train has crashed’. The Congress minister said ‘it’s my responsibility and I’m resigning’. So this is the problem we have back home, we make excuses and we are not accepting the reality we are faced with,” Gandhi said.A one-minute silence was also observed to pay respect to the people who died in the accident.During his 40-minute long speech, Gandhi also praised the Indian-American community for the way they have lived in the US. “All the giants that have emerged from India, you can see that there were certain qualities that all of them possessed. Firstly, they searched for, represented and fought for the truth. Secondly, all these people were humble, and there was no arrogance in them. That is how Indians have worked in the US, and that’s why Indians are successful here. I respect and honour you for that.”Gandhi is on a six-day, three-city tour to the United States. He has visited California, the Bay area, Washington and New York to interact with the Indian communities, think tanks and the press.Earlier last week, Gandhi also said the RSS and the BJP are controlling all the instruments of politics in India. Taking a dig at Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Rahul said, “I think if you sat Modi ji down next to god, Modi ji would start explaining to god how the universe works. And god would get confused that what have I created.”— With PTI inputs
DAYS AFTER they threatened to throw their medals into the Ganga, and the night before their five-day deadline for action against Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) chief and BJP MP Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh expired, a delegation of the protesting wrestlers met Union Home Minister Amit Shah at his official residence in the Capital late Saturday.The meeting, which is learnt to have lasted for over two hours and ended after midnight, was attended by Olympic medalists Bajrang Punia and Sakshi Malik along with several coaches. “We had a meeting with the Home Minister. I can’t comment further,” Bajrang told The Indian Express.Bajrang and Sakshi, along with World Championship medalist Vinesh Phogat, have been at the forefront of the protests against Singh, who has been accused of sexual harassment by seven female wrestlers, including a minor.The Delhi Police registered two FIRs against Singh on April 28 that, as reported by The Indian Express Friday, have at least two instances of demanding “sexual favours” in lieu of professional assistance; close to 15 incidents of sexual harassment that include 10 episodes of inappropriate touching, molestation that includes running hands over breasts, touching the navel; several instances of intimidation including stalking.The Indian Express also reported that one Olympian, a Commonwealth gold medallist, an international referee and a state-level coach are learnt to have corroborated the allegations of at least three female wrestlers, and are among the 125 potential witnesses across four states whose statements have been recorded by Delhi Police.The status of the investigation into these allegations against Singh was the key issue raised by the wrestlers at their meeting with Shah, The Indian Express has learnt. The wrestlers underlined their demand for a strong chargesheet to be filed quickly. The Home Minister is learnt to have said that the due process needs to be followed.Earlier, Sports Minister Anurag Thakur too had urged the wrestlers to “fully cooperate with a fair investigation” and let “the law take its own course”.The last high-level meeting between the protesting wrestlers and government representatives was held on May 27, on the eve of the new Parliament’s inauguration. As the talks were inconclusive, the wrestlers, along with their supporters, went ahead with their plans to march to the new Parliament. They were stopped on the way, manhandled and detained by the Delhi Police. The police also filed an FIR against them under multiple sections, including rioting.In response to the treatment meted out to them, which was condemned by international sports bodies and athletes in India, the wrestlers decided to “immerse” their medals in the Ganga last Tuesday. They went to Haridwar but did a rethink at the last minute, after a phone call from a BJP leader who asked for some time, and pressure from their families.Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU) president Naresh Tikait, who also reached Haridwar, asked the wrestlers to defer their decision by five days. On June 2, after Singh was forced to postpone his rally in Ayodhya, Tikait said at a khap panchayat that the government should be given “7 to 10 days” to take action against Singh.
Arun Janardhanan: There was a story that when you decided to resign as an IPS officer, the original plan was to join Rajinikanth’s party, which was to launch in 2019-20. Because Rajnikanth cancelled the plan, you joined the BJP. Is that true?I did not resign to join any political party. I was very allergic to politicians. Being a cop for nine-and-a-half years, I was at the other end of the political spectrum. Joining politics immediately after quitting is something I was not very comfortable with, but I wanted to go back to my grassroots. In the spirit of service, I started a foundation called We The Leaders Foundation. The idea of joining the BJP came after I met some leaders and they convinced me that the foundation can have a life of its own, but through politics I can achieve certain goals and objectives very fast, especially for Tamil Nadu.I have met Rajinikanth sir a couple of times and he’s a great person but I never met him to join his party. Our conversation was about issues of common interest and even now we maintain a good friendship.Arun Janardhanan: When you look at yourself as an ex-IPS officer, how does your past influence your present?After losing my first assembly election in Aravakurichi, I spoke to a lot of people and asked them what I did wrong? Many felt that my journey as a police officer, who directly entered politics, was an impediment. People don’t want the same force of a policeman in politics because you’re always ramrod straight. Politics is much deeper. They also want to test whether you will stay in politics for five-10-15 years, or is it a passing thought for you. Even now, if anybody wants to criticise me, they say, ‘Oh, he’s behaving like a policeman… for Annamalai there’s always black and white’. On the positive side, being in the police for about nine-and-a-half years has given me a good insight into human behaviour.I would like to be in Tamil Nadu. I don’t personally want to contest the Lok Sabha elections because I don’t want to be a leader in Tamil Nadu who will go to Delhi and then come backArun Janardhanan: When we look at Tamil Nadu, the BJP is seen as a North Indian party, an upper caste party. In Tamil Nadu, there is Dravidianism, Tamil nationalism, too. How do you plan to make the BJP popular in Tamil Nadu?In Tamil Nadu, the national party always had a role to play. When Modiji was coming to power for the first time as the PM in 2014, we got 19 per cent votes. DMK was as low as 23 per cent. In Tamil Nadu, a national party should have a face, as people here look for a face. It’s a very peculiar political model because people want to travel with the leader for a long time. We have to create leaders in Tamil Nadu who stick with people for 20-30 years. After some time, if the party gives me some other assignment, I would like to be in Tamil Nadu. I personally don’t want to contest the Lok Sabha elections because I don’t want to be a leader in Tamil Nadu who will go to Delhi and then come back.Liz Mathew: The BJP’s disappointing Karnataka election results were attributed to excessive Delhi influence in campaigning. What was the reason for the debacle? Was it the local or national leadership that worked on the party’s election strategies?Karnataka’s political landscape is intricate. In 2013, BJP faced challenges due to Yediyurappa’s separate party, KJP (Karnataka Janata Paksha), and vote cutters like JD(S), resulting in Congress taking power. In 2018, despite Congress leading by 2.5 per cent in vote share, BJP outperformed in 24 seats, marking a shift.Each of the six regions of Karnataka has a distinct voting pattern. In south Karnataka, with 64 seats from Mysore to Ramanagara, JD(S) is a key player. BJP’s influence is growing in north Karnataka, and they dominated central Karnataka in 2018. Bellary, a strong area for BJP in the past two elections, saw a downturn this time. Coastal Karnataka usually favours the BJP, but the recent election was tougher.Any government that releases the caste census will be in trouble. In a democracy like ours, with so many caste and social groups, nobody is going to agree with the numbersA surprise was JD(S)’s unexpected five per cent vote share drop, despite an aggressive campaign. BJP’s vote share in south Karnataka increased from 16 per cent in 2018 to 23 per cent, but Congress came out victorious, gaining 18-20 seats in the region. Despite the increase in ST reservation from three per cent to seven per cent, BJP underperformed in Bellary, calling for introspection. In Bangalore, BJP saw an improvement, winning 17 seats compared to 11 in 2018.Overall, the BJP remains unperturbed after the Karnataka elections, as its vote share held steady. While Congress retained its candidates, BJP took risks, including a generational shift with Yediyurappa not contesting. The continuous change of three chief ministers in five years — HD Kumaraswamy, BS Yediyurappa, Basavaraj Bommai — also unsettled the administration. Furthermore, ex-Congress members contested under BJP, adding to the dynamism. Yet, the BJP is optimistic about sweeping the 2024 Parliament election.I can tell you, 100 per cent, that the Delhi leadership never drove this election. The election was completely driven by the local leadership. Modiji attended more rallies because the local leadership wanted him to attend more rallies. The programme was made by them — the election co-convener Shobha Karandlaje, state President Nalin Kumar Kateel, the former CM Yediyurappa, the then CM Basavaraj Bommai. The “Ee baari nirdhara, bahumatada BJP” (This time, BJP majority government) slogan was made by the local leadership. People want Amit Shah and Yogi Adityanath to come for campaigning. We acted as a facilitator: Dharmendra Pradhan as election in-charge, Mansukh Mandaviya and myself.Liz Mathew: Were the leaders united? Was the decision on a generational shift taken on time? How will you address these issues?There were issues but whenever you make a shift, it is always an issue. You have seen Jagadish Shettar. The party has collective wisdom. The senior five-six leaders of Karnataka felt a generational change was needed. The way the BJP works for me, as a karyakarta, is that after a certain point of time they believe that you are not fighting elections but you’re important to the party — we will take care of you. The party will not reject any single person. I can give severalexamples from Tamil Nadu of people sitting in different positions, and for many of them it was a surprise. I have taken the resignation letters of two BJP karyakartas from Tamil Nadu who have become governors. In case of Jagadish Shettar also, the party didn’t sideline him. Seniors have to make way, but in some places they have to still be there. For instance, in Chitradurga we have a 74-year-old fighting the election on a BJP ticket because the next level of leadership is developing. Each seat will go through a different module. No two individuals can be equated. In the case of Laxman Savadiji, he was given a seat to contest but not the seat he wanted. He was also assured of something else once the government comes to power. These are all micro issues.Liz Mathew: Given BJP’s limited success in Tamil Nadu, have you felt frustrated or considered quitting due to its slow progress?I have no intention of quitting; I never publicly declared such a thing. A party’s growth depends on its members’ election competency. I was pleased when, in the recent urban local body elections, around 5,900 BJP candidates stood independently across all bodies. Many were successful, others weren’t, but now they are effectively working on the ground. Constant alliances can weaken a party’s ability to contest elections independently and fearlessly.Each state’s political environment varies, and what transpires in Tamil Nadu affects Delhi, considering its 39 Lok Sabha MPs. While BJP’s independent fight might be beneficial for us, it may not be advantageous for the overall Delhi numbers due to vote division.To establish roots in Tamil Nadu, BJP needs the ethos of a regional party. Consider DMK or AIADMK; they always prioritise Tamil Nadu. Since the inception of BJP state leadership, we resolved to champion Tamil Nadu’s cause, even if it occasionally inconveniences the party. For instance, when Karnataka, governed by the BJP, planned to build the Mekedatu dam, Tamil Nadu BJP observed a one-day fast in Thanjavur to express local sentiments. National leadership can then address these concerns.Modiji gave Tamilians a great honour by placing our Sengol sceptre, symbolising Chola power transfer, in the new Parliament, continually reminding the Speaker of its significance.P Vaidyanathan Iyer: What were the BJP’s apprehensions about the recent labour law amendments in Tamil Nadu, given that similar changes were made nationally?BJP is in support of bringing in a new labour code that is realistic and (in line) with the market sentiment, new era of technology. We had a problem with the way it was communicated by the Tamil Nadu government. It seemed they were trying to squeeze the workers’ rights by trying to put them in a room. Second, we asked for certain safety mechanisms, a welfare board to take care of it. Even if there was a labour union, we wanted them to go one level up in terms of setting a proper communication channel which was not addressed in the Tamil Nadu order. We are there for increased working hours, flexible working hours, but with certain conditions that make sure that everybody is heard. We are not blanketly opposing anything, like other parties. In the new era, a lot of changes have to come, but I feel the central government order was more practical and communicative.P Vaidyanathan Iyer: What is the local BJP’s position on Tamil Nadu’s decision to stick with the New Pension System?The local BJP strongly supports the New Pension System over reverting to the old model, citing concerns over escalating government expenses. I was one of the earliest people who entered the New Pension Scheme and the model is fairly good. I found it beneficial, offering flexibility in investment choices. It’s crucial to communicate to Civil servants that they can influence where their pension contributions are invested.P Vaidyanathan Iyer: Regarding the temple management dispute in Tamil Nadu between BJP-RSS, spiritual leaders and the government, what’s your stance?The Tamil Nadu Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Act (TN HR&CE) faced initial opposition in the 1950s,assuaged by promises of undisturbed temple rituals, operations and properties. However, the Act’s execution is criticised today. Many temples lack Arukala puja and are deteriorating due to discord among stakeholders. Also, administrative costs exceed the stipulated 12 per cent of hundi collections, misappropriating funds meant for temple activities.The opposition to the current management is both ideological and administrative, with poor coordination adversely impacting temple operations.The BJP believes the TN HR&CE has outlived its usefulness and supports a new management method.For example, in the Kalikambal temple, trustees are publicly elected by the community. We propose a model where the temple community elects a board supervised by a reputable private individual. An overarching government authority should intervene only when norms are violated. This approach ensures community involvement while maintaining regulatory oversight.SHYAMLAL YADAV: Tamil Nadu has played a key role in the social justice movement and some parties in the state are demanding a nationwide caste census. In Karnataka, one reason for the BJP’s defeat is that the Congress very aggressively demanded a caste census. Shouldn’t there be a caste census?When there was the Congress government in Karnataka and Siddaramaiahji was the Chief Minister, from 2013-18, they conducted a caste census. That report never saw the light of the day. In several judgments, especially when the issues of caste and reservation came up, the Supreme Court has demanded for an empirical proof for giving data. The Karnataka Congress demanding for a caste census is like a kettle calling the pot black. They themselves are not releasing what they did. Any government that releases the caste census will be in trouble. In a democracy like ours, with so many caste and social groups, nobody is going to agree with the numbers. Let all the political parties fall in line. I’m not saying it won’t happen, it has to happen. But how it has to happen, what methodology, let us defer it to the wisdom of the senior political leadership.AMRITH LAL: How does BJP’s one India, one language and, to some extent, one faith agenda, work with the very strong regional linguistic nationalism of Tamil Nadu? Also, as early as 1982-1983 Hindu Munnani won a seat on its own in Padmanabhapuram, an assembly constituency. What is it that prevented the BJP from growing into a party that can win at least one seat in Tamil Nadu on its own?Our PM and the senior leadership, none of them believes in one country, one language. The new National Education Policy very clearly laid down the mandate saying it is not going to work.Let us have three languages. One is your mother tongue, one is English, one could be a regional language of your choice.You are right about the seat in Padmanabhapuram, Kanyakumari. Tomorrow if the BJP is standing alone, if it is a three-way division in Tamil Nadu, BJP will start with 40 seats. It is my strong answer to you as BJP State President. In 2016 we stood alone, but unfortunately there were some issues like lack of leadership, somebody went out, somebody came in, but post the assembly elections we are in a very good position in Kanyakumari, which you will also see in Lok Sabha.
The first joint meeting of the Opposition parties scheduled for June 12 in Patna has been postponed after the Congress signalled its inability to send its top leaders to the conclave because of their prior commitments.The Congress wanted the meeting to take place after June 20 so that both party president Mallikarjun Kharge and senior leader Rahul Gandhi, who is currently on a tour of the United States, could attend it, but the Janata Dal (United) went ahead and announced the June 12 rally after holding consultations with some Opposition parties for whom this date was said to be “convenient”.Sources said the June 12 schedule was also not convenient for the DMK as well as the CPI(M). With the JD(U) unilaterally announcing the date, the Congress had indicated that Kharge may not attend the meeting and could send instead one of the party’s Chief Ministers to the Patna meet.Rahul, sources said, will return to India on June 18. A meeting of the anti-BJP parties to chalk out the strategy for the 2024 Lok Sabha elections without the top Congress leadership in attendance would have been bad optics.Sources said the JD(U) has now conveyed to the Opposition leaders that the conclave can now be held after June 20, preferably on June 23.Earlier, the Congress made it clear that the party will participate in the June 12 meeting but was yet to decide the level of its representation.Although the Congress still believes that it should be “rightfully” at the centre of the Opposition unity project given its status as the largest among the non-BJP parties, the party had let Bihar CM and JD(U) supremo Nitish Kumar do the groundwork for the meeting given that some of the Opposition parties are not keen to accept the primacy of the grand old party.Many of the Opposition parties are keen that they come together and field one joint candidate against the BJP in majority of the Lok Sabha seats in the 2024 polls. But the exercise is fraught with challenges.In fact, Rahul recently admitted that the discussions regarding Opposition unity would be a “complicated” affair. “The discussions are complicated because there are spaces where we are also competing with the Opposition. So a little bit of give and take is required, but I am confident that it will happen,” he said during one of his events in the US.
Standing in front of her mud house in Khemasuli village in West Bengal’s Paschim Medinipur district, 26-year-old Madhuri Mahato points to a scrawl on its outer wall alongside a picture of a girl with a bow and arrow, which read: “Party r Prachar Likhte Dibak Nai (We will not allow graffiti by any party).” A similar line is written across the mud wall of her neighbour’s home: “Hamder Kath Hamder Thak, Voter Prachar Bandho Thak (Let our wall be ours, let the campaign for votes stop).”In several villages in Paschim Medinipur and neighbouring Jhargram district, such messages have recently come up on the houses of Kudmis (Mahatos), forbidding political parties from using their walls for their campaigns. Not only this, several Kudmi leaders and workers of both the ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC) and Opposition parties such as the BJP, CPI(M) and Congress, including panchayat members, have started quitting their parties or posts to join the community’s agitation demanding the Scheduled Tribe (ST) status and inclusion of their Kudmali language in the Eighth Schedule of the Constitution.This strategy of the Kudmi community is designed to put pressure on the political parties ahead of the panchayat elections, which are expected to be held in the coming months, and the Lok Sabha polls slated for next year.The Kudmi community, which is currently listed in the Other Backward Classes (OBC) category, plays a significant role in every election in the tribal-dominated Junglemahal districts of Paschim Medinipur, Jhargram, Bankura and Purulia. In the 2018 panchayat elections, the BJP had captured power in 100 panchayats and in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections won five out of the six parliamentary seats in the region dominated by Kudmis and tribals. But the BJP suffered a setback in the 2021 Assembly polls with the party winning only 16 of the 40 seats with the TMC establishing its upper hand in the region.The current escalation in Kudmis’ movement comes after months of their protests failed to yield any concession from either the BJP-led Centre or the Mamata Banerjee-led state government.In September last year, Kudmis staged a railway blockade at the Kustaur and Khemasuli stations in Purulia and Paschim Medinipur districts over their demand but lifted it after five days.They were back to squatting on the rail tracks at Kustaur and Khemsauli in April this year, even as they also partially blocked the national highway connecting Kolkata and Mumbai. Their protest lasted five days, ending again without any concrete government assurance about their demand.This time, however, the TMC government took note of the eruption of the Kudmi stir and on May 17 three representatives of the community met Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee at the state secretariat Nabanna in Howrah. At the meeting, the CM told the Kudmi leaders that her government would draft a proposal to grant ST status to the community and send it to the Centre. According to a senior official present at the meeting, it was also decided that a Kudmi Development Board would be set up for the welfare of the community.Nine days later, the apparent progress made at the meeting evaporated as the convoy of TMC MP Abhishek Banerjee, the CM’s nephew, was pelted with stones after it left Jhargram town following a roadshow. State minister Birbaha Hansda was injured in the attack. Since then, 10 Kudmi protesters have been arrested, including their leader Rajesh Mahato.The Kudmi community has alleged that it is a conspiracy to derail their movement and have demanded a CBI inquiry into the incident. But they are refusing to back down. “Most of the houses in my village have such writings on their walls. We will not allow any political activity in our village. Our walls cannot be used for political graffiti or campaigns, whichever party it may be,” says Madhuri.Not far from Madhuri’s home lives Sandip Mahato, the 33-year-old resident of Kantasol village, who was once a TMC booth president. “I was with TMC for many years, even during the Left rule. But I left the party on April 11. My samaj comes first. I am part of the agitation now. Neither the TMC nor any other party did anything for my samaj. This is our fight for Jati Satta (community identity),” says Sandip.Standing beside him at a sweet shop is Badal Chandra Mahato, 35, who was earlier the panchayat pradhan and the BJP’s area chairman. “I too left the BJP on April 11,” he says. Like them, Khodumeer village resident Pabitra Kumar Mahato, 47, who was earlier with the CPI(M), and former Congress worker Santanu Mahato, 47, have also given up their party affiliations to join the community’s agitation.“Samaj andolan (community movement) is going on. How can I turn my back on it? ST reservation is our right,” says Pabitra. Santanu says he was part of the rail blockade in Khemsauli. “When my children grow up they will ask me what I did for them. What will I say? Therefore, I am part of the movement,” he says.Kudmis’ mega Jhargram rallyWith no intention of backing down, Kudmis are now preparing to hold a mega rally in Jhargram on June 6 and are mobilising their community members in villages for their campaign. “It will not be easy for the state government, TMC or any other party to ignore us. On June 6, our leaders will show us the roadmap for attaining ST status,” says Adivasi Kudmi Samaj’s Paschim Medinipur district president Kamalesh Mahato.As he speaks with The Indian Express, standing by the road near Saotaldihi village in Jhargram’s Lodhasuli area, hundreds of Kudmis carrying the community’s traditional yellow flags and wearing yellow scarves are engaged in their outreach to villagers, with more than 100 motorbikes and two cars with loudspeakers being deployed for their campaign.Paschim Banga Kudmi Samaj leader Sandip Mahato, 47, says the community has adopted a “Ghagor Ghera (encircle from all sides)” strategy of confronting senior political leaders visiting the Junglemahal belts.Kudmis claim that during the British colonial rule they were considered a primitive tribe like Mundas, Oraons, and Santhals. But when the ST list was prepared after 1950, they lost out on the ST status and put in the OBC category.But the Kudmi agitation and the attack on Abhishek’s convoy have not gone down well with tribal groups and seem to have resulted in social fissures in the region. The United Adivasi Forum, a platform of 18 tribal organisations, has called a bandh on June 8. The tribal group Bharat Jakat Majhi Pargana Mahal’s leader Dilip Mandi says, “We are against ST status for Kudmis since they have been an empowered community from before Independence. They have land, education and money. They have always been associated with upper-caste people. Meanwhile, Santhali and Adivasi communities are extremely backward. If Kudmis get ST status, they will grab all the reservation benefits and the Adivasi communities will be further deprived.”Kamalesh Mahato denies Kudmis’ involvement in the attack on Abhishek’s convoy, pointing out that they have called for a CBI probe into the incident. Asked about the tribals’ opposition to his community’s demand, he says, “We have lived side by side for hundreds of years. It is also a part of a conspiracy to provoke them against us. Some of their leaders who live in cities are provoking the tribals and trying to create division and tension between us.”