For the first time in West Bengal’s 67 years of electoral history, the BJP and the Hindu Right political forces have occupied the central space in the Lok Sabha elections. Until now, the political and electoral battle used to be occupied by two major pluralist forces: the Congress and the CPM. As the two parties waned, the TMC filled the space and dominated politics for a few years, but now for the first time, the previously marginal BJP, is threatening to mount a serious challenge to the TMC’s hegemonic rule in the state. And a desperate Mamata is doing a political volte face to help breathe life into the opposition that she had so summarily paralysed.
TMC’s reality check
Even if the BJP numbers sound highly optimistic, the TMC insiders concede that they might lose 7-8 seats to the BJP. In the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP had won two seats in Bengal: Asansol and Darjeeling. Several pre-poll surveys have already pegged the BJP’s tally in Bengal to be somewhere between 7 and 11 seats.
Even according to the TMC insiders, constituencies like Asansol, Purulia, Birbhum, Jhargram, Bankura, Darjeeling, Coochbehar, Alipurduar, Dumdum, Barrackpore, Kolkata North and Krishnanagar are most vulnerable in this year’s vote. In all these and many other seats, the battle is believed to be between the ruling TMC and upstart BJP. While the Congress might do well in their traditional strongholds in Murshidabad and Malda districts, the Left have been pushed to the margin. In 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP’s vote-share was 17 per cent. Now, it is expected to grow; some even put it at 30 per cent.
People in Mamata Banerjee’s inner circle hint at the growing nervousness within the TMC camp. “If the BJP gets 5-6 seats in Bengal and around 30 per cent votes, that would be a big blow to the ruling party. They can create mayhem in the state by resorting to street agitations, turning the state government into a lame duck for the next two years prior to the assembly elections in 2021.’’
Mamata Banerjee, in her election campaign meetings, now publicly accuses the Left for this sudden surge in the BJP’s popular support. She says that the lack of political activities by the Left is resulting in its workers and supporters moving over to the BJP.
But this is only half the truth.
TMC and Congress supporters are also joining the BJP, as have several CPM leaders. Former CPM MLA Mahfuza Khatun is now contesting as BJP candidate in Jangipur, where Muslim voters account for 67 per cent of the electorate. Khagen Murmu, a sitting CPM MLA and a peasant leader, has left his party and is contesting from Malda (North) as the BJP’s candidate. TMC’s sitting MLA from North 24 Parganas, Arjun Singh, recently joined the BJP and is the party’s candidate from Barrackpore.
But the TMC also faced setback when two of its MPs, Soumitra Khan and Anupam Hazra, moved over to the BJP and are now candidates from Bishnupur and Jadavpur, respectively. Mukul Roy, a Rajya Sabha member and once the number two in TMC’s rank, was the first to jump ship and defect to the BJP two years ago. Others followed him in recent months.
Mamata’s Left turn
These developments have made Mamata Banerjee nervous and it shows. She wants the Left and the Congress to become more active so that they can at least retain their vote share, and not let the BJP occupy the entire opposition space. In a scenario where a major share of the opposition vote goes to the BJP, the election will turn from a four-corner contest into a straight fight between the TMC and the BJP. And this would only allow the BJP to settle in West Bengal and build a base to gain a bigger foothold in future elections.
In order to enable the Left and the Congress retain their vote share, it is alleged that Mamata Banerjee’s TMC is now even helping the CPM open their party offices in the districts after eight years. Nandigram and Khejuri in East Medinipur; Garbeta, Dashpur and Keshpur in West Medinipur; Goghat in Hoogly; and Shashon in North 24 Parganas are some of the places where the CPM leaders were allowed to open their party offices. Ironically, these party offices were forcibly shut down by the TMC people themselves when they had come to power.
After systematically squeezing out the opposition space in the state legislative assembly with its brute force, Mamata Banerjee’s panic-stricken moves now to revive them is tragi-comic.
In the first five years of the TMC’s rule, the opposition leader in the state assembly, CPM’s Surjya Kanta Mishra, was not allowed to meet media persons there. He had to go out of the assembly complex to meet the press. In her second term, repeated attempts were made to bring no trust motion by the opposition. The motion was accepted for debate, yet no debate was allowed in the House and no reason would be listed either.
For the last eight years, the TMC leaders, with the help of police and administration, have been pro-active in capturing various elected bodies in panchayat and municipalities. For that, they resorted to coercion and incentives.
BJP as the new option
Their tactics were so effective that of the 238 municipalities in the state, the opposition now hold only two: Siliguri and Jaynagar. There were other municipalities that were won by the opposition but eventually fell into the TMC’s hands after they were ‘encouraged’ to cross over to the ruling party’s side. Similarly, various panchayat bodies were captured by the ruling party.
As the leaders of CPM and Congress remained clueless about how to resist that onslaught, the workers looked elsewhere to channelise their personal and collective frustration against the TMC. With a strong backing from the national leadership, the BJP became an obvious choice. Hence, people started joining the BJP. The last panchayat election saw the rise of the BJP as the second party in West Bengal. Though it was far behind the ruling TMC, it has been able to push the Left and the Congress to third and fourth positions. Also, in a number of assembly by-elections in the state, the BJP occupied the second place.
Now, Mamata is desperately trying to jack up the CPM and the Congress to foil the possibility of consolidation of anti-TMC votes into one basket.
Early February this year saw a huge rally by the Left at Brigade Parade Ground in Kolkata. Most of the crowd came from rural areas, and the buses that carried the supporters to the rally ground from adjacent districts were given a nod by the TMC leadership to make the trips.
Growth from communalism
Riven with the partition memory, West Bengal’s millions of Hindu refugees have always been a soft underbelly of the society. The fissures in the otherwise peaceful coexistence of the two communities, Hindu and Muslim, often come to light when fomented by hate campaign and external influences. Thus, there has been always a fertile ground for a political party to reap political dividends using a strong communal line. The BJP is doing exactly that.
The author is a journalist and political analyst. Views are personal.