Until the 1980s, the Bharatiya Janata Party in West Bengal used to get around 2 per cent of popular votes in both Lok Sabha and assembly elections. From 2 per cent in 1989 to 40 per cent in 2019 is a huge leap. With 18 seats in Lok Sabha from the state in its kitty, the BJP has emerged as a serious threat to the Trinamool Congress in West Bengal, so much so that it is now eyeing to unseat the ruling party in the next electoral battle, which is due in April-May.
One cannot but ask: How did a party with its avowed stance on religion and Right-wing ideologies not only earn the trust of so many voters in a state where people have been flaunting their secular, Left and liberal credentials as the core of their identity, but is also poised to grab more support now?
The reasons are plenty. The post-Partition history of West Bengal is replete with severe communal conflicts between Hindus and Muslims. While the first major communal riot took place in January 1950, riots in January 1964 and in the aftermath of Babri Masjid demolition in 1992 are other significant moments. But there were several communal riots that went unreported in mainstream media, due to a tacit understanding between media owners and the government of the day, especially when the Left Front was in power for 34 years.
The bhadralok’s turn from Left to Right
In a society sharply divided between rich and poor, the elite — or the Bengali ‘Bhadraloks’ — were never committed votaries of the Communists to begin with. Elite Hindus, ever since the state’s partition, considered themselves socially, politically and economically marginalised, and blamed the Congress for Bengal’s partition. Their support to the Left came riding on this anti-Congress mindset. But their honeymoon with Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s TMC was also brief, because her rustic behaviour made them uncomfortable. Mamata’s public utterances and rhetoric often brought her ridicule by the elite ‘bhadraloks’. For example, her electoral pledge to turn Kolkata into London and Darjeeling into Switzerland invited sharp criticism and sarcasm from the gentry. While the Mamata government took a number of pro-poor measures such as free ration, free health care, monetary incentives to girl students (Kanyashree project), the middle-class Bengali community continued to feel deprived because the lack of investment in industry did not generate job opportunities in the state.
Moreover, her overwhelming presence in the cultural sphere, and her attempt to monopolise the entire cultural space, irritated the elite class even more. For example, in 2019, during the Kolkata Film Festival, noted director Aneek Dutta openly criticised the presence of big cut-outs of the chief minister at the venue, which led to his subsequent alienation in the industry. But that did not deter Rudranil Ghosh and a number of Tollywood actors to leave the TMC and join the BJP. While they did not have much to say in favour of the BJP, all of them vocally condemned the TMC.
Mamata’s public postures on the issue of religion also did not go well with a section of the middle class. In her battle with the BJP for Hindu votes, Mamata started claiming she had been a devout Hindu and began to recite ‘shlokas’ from Hindu scriptures in public rallies. The Bengali middle-class saw in her a person who was desperate to appease the hardcore elements of both Hindu and Muslim. Also, installation of miniature replicas of Pyramid, Taj Mahal, Christ the Redeemer and many others in the Eco Park in the satellite town of Kolkata, and a miniature of Big Ben in the Lake Town area made her government a subject of much ridicule.
While the gentry were not directly affected by the rampant corruption charges raised against TMC leaders and workers, the ‘cut money’ culture was not liked by the middle class and they could see that Mamata was not in a position to rein in the looters of public funds. Thus, a serious question mark was put to Mamata’s much cultivated image of an honest broker. The ground was ready when the BJP joined the fray two years ago with full force and offered the Hindu middle class a plank to stand upon. The exodus of leaders and workers from the TMC indicates that the Hindu middle class support has been won.
The only snag is that some of the heavyweight leaders who left the TMC and joined the BJP — such as Mukul Roy, Shubhendu Adhikari and Shovan Chatterjee — are tainted with allegations of their involvement in chit funds and other scams. And the speculation about Sourav Ganguly and Mithun Chakraborty joining politics indicates that even if the elite ‘bhadraloks’ are disillusioned with Mamata, the BJP has yet to win their complete support.
The working class and the BJP
It isn’t just the bhadralok. There is something in West Bengal’s history and its partition legacy that has made the poor and the working class veer towards the BJP as well.
The post-Independence electoral history of Bengal saw the refugees aligning themselves with the Left, from the 1950s to the 1980s. But as the precarity in their life continued with no sign of radical improvement, they began to nurse a grudge against ‘Muslims’ for their loss of lives and livelihood, which grew over time. The animosity against the ‘other’ remained dormant in their mind and was passed on to successive generations. As such, whenever there was some occasion to respond and ‘settle the score’, they joined heartily. Thus, we experienced a series of big and small communal riots.
In the 1991 Lok Sabha election, the BJP for the first time got more than 11 per cent votes in the state, and, as was expected, its vote share went up dramatically in all those 11 districts bordering Bangladesh. Thereafter, keeping in tune with the party’s growing popularity in the rest of India, the refugee settlers in West Bengal started siding with the party, whose policy is perceived with anti-Muslim with a declared stance to ‘push back illegal Muslim immigrants to Bangladesh’.
In their effort to catch-up with the changes sweeping across the rest of India after 1991, the Left Front under Buddhadeb pursued the path of economic development. The Left’s rigidity until then meant that it was unable to pass on the benefits to the common people, whose aspirations had grown.
But Buddhadeb faced the biggest human barricade when a section of bhadralok marched against these economic changes in Nandigram and Singur, leaving the Left considerably weakened in the process and giving birth to a new chief minister.
During the 2014 Lok Sabha election, youth in Singur, whose families’ land had gone into Tata’s Nano plant, which was later abandoned, were unequivocal in claiming that they would cast their votes for ‘Lotus’ — the election symbol of the BJP. Their explanation was simple: In a state much deprived of fresh big-ticket investment in industry, Narendra Modi’s slogan for ‘vikas‘ (economic development) struck a chord with the younger generation, including in semi-urban and rural areas.
The RSS-BJP’s Bengal interest
The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) — the ideological mentor to the BJP — and other frontal organisations of the Sangh Parivar had realised the potential in West Bengal long ago. As the situation turned ripe to cultivate and sow the ideological seeds of Hindu Right in Bengal, the RSS started taking serious interest in the state. According to RSS sources, in 2001, it had less than 1,000 shakhas (local-level organisational units) in West Bengal. By 2020, that number had gone up to 3,300. The RSS is planning to have at least one shakha in each of the 38,000 gram panchayats in the state. Moreover, Saraswati Shishu Mandir and Ekal Vidyalaya, two wings of the RSS dedicated to imparting its ideology from primary level of education, have also started functioning. Also, Vanavasi Kalyan Ashram, especially dedicated to mobilise the tribal people, has been working in Jhargram, Purulia, Birbhum, Malda, North Dinajpur, Jalpaiguri, Coochbehar and Alipurduar districts.
In a state historicalIy divided between Hindus and Muslims, the RSS and the BJP have been patiently stoking the fire of communal polarisation, and tasting some success in it. In January 2020, when the country was beset with a movement against the National Register of Citizens (NRC) and the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), most of the agitations, sit-in protest and marches in Bengal were evidently led by Muslims, both in urban and rural areas. The liberal Hindus occasionally paid visit to the protest sites to express solidarity, but largely stayed away from openly joining them. The Mamata Banerjee government’s pro-Muslim gesture (in the form of sanctioning monthly allowance to Imams and Muezzins and other such initiatives) further made the BJP’s task easier in mobilising Hindus in its favour.
Yet, like any Right wing political force, the BJP had to channel its energy towards the issue of ’patriotism’, labelling every opposition as ‘un-patriotic’ or ‘anti-national’. To make its claim to patriotism acceptable to the common people, the party needed to co-opt popular icons from India’s history. What started with Vallabhai Patel in Gujarat was extended in Bengal to co-opt Rabindranath Tagore, Swami Vivekananda, and ‘Netaji’ Subhas Chandra Bose.
While it is true that Bengal is portrayed as a state where stalwarts such as Ram Mohan Roy, Chittaranjan Das, Tagore, Vivekananda, Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, and Bose enjoy iconic status, the bitter truth is that this celebration is primarily confined to the elite class. The poor people, in both rural and urban spaces, have little understanding of their contribution to our society; consequently, they have little or no interest in them. For them, Mithun Chakraborty or Prasenjit Chatterjee are much dear to their hearts. The recent breakfast meeting of Mithun with RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat at the latter’s Mumbai residence should be seen through that optics. Mithun still enjoys some popularity among the people of Bengal. While these fans are hardly known to be familiar with the literary and political works of the more celebrated icons, they are likely to have seen MLA Fatakeshto — a blockbuster in which Mithun plays a goon who transforms into a pro-poor leader after becoming a politician.
The author is a journalist and political analyst. Views are personal.