The bizarre spectacle of the arrest of Zee News journalist Rohit Ranjan and the laughable competitive flexing by the UP Police and the Chhattisgarh Police is the latest incident to demonstrate that India is today in a ‘blue state-red state’ mindset.
The American phrase ‘red states, blue states’ was popularised during the 2000 presidential election to denote Republican and Democrat-voting states, dividing the nation between two parties and their clearly distinct ideologies. The blue state-red state politics can determine where you can access abortion, cannabis, display guns, discuss critical race theory in classrooms and even make a choice about wearing Covid masks.
In India, this divide now amounts to whether you can freely sell meat on particular days of the week or in festival season, it can determine where you can tell a joke. It can also determine where you can conduct shrill, shouting matches on primetime TV without fear, wear religiously ordained clothing to school, where you can spread out for public prayers or use loudspeakers in your place of worship. The colour of the state also tells you where you can collect and hide defecting MLAs of an opponent party.
Indian colour coding not the same as US
That there is a sort of colour coding of Indian states slowly taking shape is evident. But our red-blue line is not a neat conservative-liberal arithmetic, like it is in the US. It is a loose-fit import of an American political lexicon.
Here, Indian politicians are split along an anti-BJP axis, and the emerging divide is between states controlled by the BJP and other parties. So, red states are BJP-ruled states and blue states are opposition-ruled ones. And the non-BJP parties have little in common except their anti-BJPism.
In the US, there is consistency in the way ideology is deployed to govern the red and blue states. In India, mere opposition to the BJP does not automatically make you a true liberal. There is no clear ideological split here.
Take, for instance, Maharashtra. Under the Uddhav Thackeray government, it was one state that the out-of-prison comic Munawar Faruqui could perform in without fear, but at the same time, actor Kiran Chitale could not escape the punishment for her Facebook post against Sharad Pawar. The same is true for Mamata Banerjee’s West Bengal and the treatment she doles out to her critics.
And yet, on the social level, I meet many progressive, liberal, diversity-cherishing people who say states like Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Rajasthan or West Bengal appear to be politically calmer places to live in today. One friend says ‘let’s repopulate the south’ in order to spread the blueness; another says Tamil Nadu feels safe because it is not conducting heated religious arguments on a daily basis.
For BJP’s critics and supporters, the notion of safe and unsafe spaces is forming. Just look at how hyperactive the state police have become outside its borders. Rohit Ranjan isn’t an exception.
A Punjab Police delegation can land in Delhi to arrest BJP spokesperson Tajinder Pal Singh Bagga, Delhi Police detains Punjab policemen, but ultimately it’s the Haryana Police that manages to rescue him. A West Bengal Police team can land in Goa and arrest filmmaker and poet Roddur Roy for his critical Facebook post. UP Police arrested two men from Tamil Nadu in the past two years – one who had criticised Modi, another who had threatened to blow up RSS offices.
This constant red-blue tussle manifests itself in other unseemly ways too. Law and order, a state domain, has become a flashpoint between the Centre and the states. In recent years, several states including Maharashtra, West Bengal, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh among others have defied the BJP government at the Centre by saying no to CBI probes. And the Centre is pushing back by deploying NIA instead, for which it doesn’t need state permission.
What gives a state its colour
Back in the day, Indian states had other kinds of divisions — North vs South, rich vs laggard, high tax paying states vs tax consuming states, the BIMARU states vs performing states. But now, the scorched earth politics enacted daily by contemporary India has changed the nature of the divide.
This is not to say that all the voters living in a state vote similarly. It’s actually the mix of cultural and political attitudes congealed over time that determines the redness or blueness of the state.
Karnataka, of late, is getting a makeover — as the Uttar Pradesh of the South. No, not in terms of its socio-economic indicators, but for the consolidation of conservative Hindutva attitudes for some years now. It’s on display every time the name of Tipu Sultan is invoked; when Hindu groups urge people to boycott halal meat shops during festivals, and when hijab-wearing teenagers are barred from school and heckled.
So why is it that you don’t find a Texas Vs California style predictability of ideological politics in India yet? That’s because political attitudes and voting behaviour are still volatile and not set in stone — they constantly form and un-form. Look at BJP’s inroads into Telangana.
One nation, divided states
After the recent Roe v Wade reversal by the US Supreme Court, the country’s red-blue politics is deepening further.
“The increasing divergence—and antagonism—between the red nation and the blue nation is a defining characteristic of 21st-century America. That’s a reversal from the middle decades of the 20th century, when the basic trend was toward greater convergence,” The Atlantic wrote last month.
At least the two trends in the US are half a century apart.
Ironically, the blue states-red states standoff in India is coinciding with a huge nationalistic surge in public mood. And at a time when the BJP is pushing for one nation one tax, one nation one election, one nation one identity card, and one language.
So, unlike the US, convergence and divergence appear to be occurring simultaneously and quite chaotically in India. That’s more than just being broken. It is also a loss of direction for the country. Perhaps, over time, this messy divide will become clearer and maybe along predictable ideological lines — then, we can have minimum government, and the conduct of politics will be smoother.
Rama Lakshmi is the Opinion and Features Editor at ThePrint. She tweets @RamaNewDelhi. Views are personal.