It’s hard to call the West Bengal election beyond saying that the BJP has room to expand while the reverse is true for the ruling TMC regime led by Mamata Banerjee that is seeking a third term. Traditional wisdom in Kolkata has it that the TMC structures are too strong in the countryside to be uprooted by the BJP.
But in a year when so many legislators of the state party have been purchased wholesale, anything can happen. Certainly, the idea of Bengal being immune to the BJP has been busted. Even if Mamata Banerjee returns to power — and she remains personally popular —the BJP could be in position to set several bushfires under her.
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There are many reasons why the BJP has grown so fast in West Bengal where it has not been a traditional player. The first and primary reason is anti-incumbency and the vacant Opposition space. After being re-elected for a second term in 2016, the TMC set out to crush whatever remained of the Opposition, presuming it was finishing off the Left forces that Mamata Banerjee or Didi had fought all her life.
In a state known for political violence, another chapter was, therefore, added and the 2018 panchayat elections in the state became a symbol of repression. Candidates and their supporters were viciously attacked, culminating in nearly a third of the seats having no Opposition candidates. Sure, the Left and Congress were devastated, but the unintended consequence for the TMC was that in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, the BJP suddenly arrived and stunned it by getting 40 per cent of the vote share.
Still, with several TMC members having defected to the BJP in the run-up to the 2021 state polls, in some places, people grin and ask of they wouldn’t be voting for the same lot. Because of the culture of political violence, some people are reluctant to talk of their preference, but many do say they would like to try a change.
The BJP, meanwhile, having got a foot into the Bengal door, has put many familiar political templates into play. Most significantly, the outreach to non-dominant social groups, effectively used in Uttar Pradesh and Haryana, has been pursued with a social engineering map in hand and will possibly pay dividends in Bengal.
Here, it’s important to note that Bengal has not had subaltern caste assertion on the scale that Dravidian politics brought about in Tamil Nadu decades ago and the Mandal movement achieved in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar in the 1990s. The Left that dominated the state till 2011 was packed with upper caste males and they basically denied caste as a valid lived reality. Mamata Banerjee herself is a Brahmin and recently said so in order to assert her “Hindu” credentials.
The middle-class Bengali self-image can also be critiqued for existing in a culturally enlightened bubble that may be in denial about some realities of exclusion. The BJP may be aesthetically repugnant to large sections of the traditional ‘bhadralok’ (gentile folk), but it could be empowering for some sections of society in an age of party dominance.
The outsider tag applied to Prime Minister Narendra Modi clicks only with a certain strata of society and for those who are choosing to throw in their lot with the BJP, he appears to be an emblematic figure that is making promises of improving their material life.
The war cry of ‘Jai Shri Ram’ in Bengal is not necessarily understood only as a majoritarian slogan but also as one symbolising political change and protest. And while there is communal Hindu-Muslim mobilisation in some seats such as Nandigram, it is muted in areas such as South 24 Parganas, a TMC stronghold that is now facing a fair amount of anti-incumbency.
That’s because the greatest misfortune for the TMC would be the Amphan cyclone that struck parts of the state on May 20 last year. The cyclone route cut a devastating path in TMC bastions and people complained about not getting the relief money that they believe was siphoned off by middlemen. Indeed, it’s quite likely that the TMC will lose some seats in these parts, although the party is reportedly poised to recover some Assembly segments in north Bengal where the BJP did well in the Lok Sabha polls.
In South 24 Parganas, the state’s largest district that has five Lok Sabha seats (all won decisively by the TMC), even the minority community vote is splitting, with many gravitating towards the CPI(M)-Congress-Islamic Secular Front (ISF) alliance called the Mahajot.
On the ground, the recently created party of cleric Abbas Siddiqui, just 34, from a locally significant shrine called Furfura Sharif, seems to have the greatest capacity to split the TMC votes in some seats (the communists appear to be his appendages). If the visible mobilisation translates into votes in these parts, then it’s worth remembering that split minority votes benefits the BJP.
Hindutva mobilisation in Bengal is, however, nuanced differently from that in Uttar Pradesh. It varies from seat to seat and between candidates. In rural South 24 Parganas, for instance, local BJP candidates have also roped in some Muslim workers and they are not as strident about excluding Muslims as Suvendu Adhikari has been in his fight against Didi in Nandigram, east Medinipur. At the same time, in urban clusters, there is a lot of chatter and commentary about Muslims being the privileged community for the TMC and this image appears to have stuck.
Hindutva is an element but not the main ingredient in the BJP pot. Deep financial reserves, specific social media cells for each seat, a long-drawn campaign schedule, transfer of officials close to Didi and continuing threat of ED and income tax cases, continue to be the other elements in this ruthless battle being waged in Bengal. Capitalism and communalism have seamlessly combined here.
The great tragedy is that people here are overwhelmingly poor and live frequently at the subsistence level. Even the so-called ‘pampered’ Muslims of Bengal have some of the worst socio-economic indicators in the country.
If the BJP is getting traction, it’s also because many people want to believe their lives could improve if they got a direct line to the Centre. The party has, however, not been able to repeat its 2019 Lok Sabha performance in subsequent state elections such as those in Jharkhand and Maharashtra — the states where it was in power.
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