The Bharatiya Janata Party has every reason to celebrate in West Bengal. Trinamool Congress chief Mamata Banerjee is losing the plot. The latest indicator came last Thursday when her administration looked the other way while Union minister Babul Supriyo was being manhandled and stopped from leaving the Jadavpur University campus.
The state seemed to be on autopilot: the chief minister was in Delhi; ministers and bureaucrats wouldn’t intervene without her signal; and the university vice-chancellor said he would rather quit than call the police, according to Supriyo.
Governor Jagdeep Dhankhar, the chancellor of universities, had to visit the campus to “rescue” the minister. What do you make out of these responses? A state unravelling at its seams. West Bengal is not new to political violence but it has grown much worse, with daily reports of injuries and deaths in clashes between political rivals.
In an interview with ThePrint last week, the governor flagged several issues – the “flight” of industries from the state, the need for promised investments to be seen on the ground, below par academic standards, and the “judgemental” police administration. Didi has other priorities though – appeasing Muslims and Hindus in turns, defending tainted party colleagues and police officials, unleashing state power and Trinamool Congress musclemen on political rivals, and playing sub-nationalism to counter the BJP’s nationalism plank. After all these occupations and distractions, if she has some time left, it goes in keeping her house in order. The parent party is faction-ridden. If you were to ask for the address of the Trinamool Congress office at a district headquarters, people would ask you back, ‘whose party office?’ Factional leaders run their own offices. Violent confrontations between Trinamool factions are a familiar story. The Trinamool Chhatra Parishad, the ruling party’s student wing, is so divided that Mamata Banerjee hasn’t shown any interest in holding student union elections, which have been due since January.
RSS-BJP’s unfulfilled dream
No wonder then, BJP leaders are upbeat. So are the activists of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). Sarsanghchalak Mohan Bhagwat was in Kolkata for two days last week – his third visit in the past seven weeks. The first agenda in his itinerary: a meeting with the city’s intellectuals at the residence of Indian classical musician Ustad Rashid Khan. It was followed by brainstorming sessions with 37 RSS affiliated and associated organisations, including the BJP.
Over breakfast (muri or puffed rice and kala chana) at Keshav Bhawan, the regional headquarters of the RSS in Kolkata, an RSS functionary who is a faculty member of the Saha Institute of Nuclear Physics, explained to this writer the long history of the Sangh in West Bengal and why the state is so important to it. It’s not just because the Sangh’s principal ideological adversaries, the Left, ruled the state for 34 years. The term ‘Hindutva’ was coined here – by Chandranath Basu, a college principal, in 1892. V.D. Savarkar, who popularised the term, spent some time in Alipore jail. RSS founder K.B. Hedgewar spent five years in Bengal. Bharatiya Jana Sangh founder Syama Prasad Mookerjee was born in Kolkata.
How is it that the BJS/BJP remained on the political margins in West Bengal? The RSS functionary at Keshav Bhawan explained that when Mookerjee died in Kashmir (in 1953, in detention), there “could have been” a mass agitation, giving a fillip to Hindutva politics. But, within a week after his death, the Communists “collaborated” with the Congress to start a violent agitation programme against a hike in second class tram fares “to divert the attention”.
Getting help from Didi’s TMC
Sixty-six years later, the Sangh and the BJP see huge opportunities in West Bengal, which will go to polls in 2021. There are three reasons for their confidence.
First, the TMC’s core vote bank – those who hated the Left reign – is no longer enamoured of Mamata Banerjee, thanks to her image of having become a replica of the Left – governance reduced to being an extension of politics, lack of vision for the state or the people, anti-industry mindset, politics of terror and intimidation, authoritarianism, intolerance to democratic dissent, and everything else that voters associated with her predecessors. Worse, the integrity of the Left leaders, which many liked about the front, is not something that the TMC regime could lay a claim on, notwithstanding Didi’s ostentatious display of austerity in her personal life. Unlike the Left, the Trinamool Congress is not burdened with any ideology. This also means that the ruling party doesn’t have any committed followers or cadres of its own. And Didi has nothing to show to the people, except anti-Leftism, which has become outdated.
Second, Mamata Banerjee seems hell-bent on proving that she can succeed by repeating the mistakes of many fallen heroes from the opposition camp. She is trying to emulate former Karnataka chief minister Siddaramaiah’s strategy of countering the BJP’s nationalism plank with sub-nationalism. That explains her demand to rename the state as Bangla. That’s also why she asserts: ‘if you are coming to Bengal, you have to speak in Bengali’. Like former Congress president Rahul Gandhi, who discovered his Brahmin caste and gotra after Narendra Modi’s ascension to power in 2014, Mamata Banerjee is also getting drawn to Hinduism, seemingly. Her government will now give Rs 25,000 each to Durga Puja organisers – up from Rs 10,000. She offered prayers at the ISKCON temple and flagged off the ISKCON rath yatra in July. And she also wants to build a replica of Puri’s Jagannath temple in West Bengal.
Third, the Sangh Parivar is confident that West Bengal, with a bloody legacy of partition, will always remain a fertile ground for polarisation along religious lines. The RSS and the BJP weren’t able to make inroads into the state during the Left Front’s rule because the Left parties didn’t overplay ‘minority politics’ through an “appeasement policy”, a charge former state governor Keshari Nath Tripathi levelled against the Mamata Banerjee government. She went out of her way to woo Muslims, giving monthly grants to imams, TMC posters showing her offering namaz, and restraining police officials in Muslim-dominated areas, among others. She is now trying for an image makeover, but the BJP has got her in a trap on the National Register of Citizens (NRC) issue. The BJP has promised to first get the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill passed in Parliament to shield Hindu refugees and then go all out to drive Bangladeshi (read Muslims) infiltrators out of the state. This has forced Banerjee to oppose the NRC aggressively. It may help her to consolidate her Muslim vote bank but it could also feed into the BJP’s narrative and lead to polarisation.
The BJP has had a tremendous growth trajectory in West Bengal: 4 per cent of the total voteshare in 2011 and 10 per cent in the 2016 assembly election; and 17 per cent voteshare in the 2014 Lok Sabha election jumped to 40 per cent in 2019 (when the BJP secured 18 seats in the state as against the TMC’s 22). That the BJP’s growth has been at the expense of the Left is evident from the increase in its voteshare coinciding with the decrease in the Left’s voteshare. The CPI(M)’s voteshare came down from 23 per cent in 2014 Lok Sabha election to around 6 per cent in 2019 polls.
Mamata Banerjee may choose to take solace in the fact that the BJP has grown at the cost of her political rivals. The Trinamool Congress’ voteshare has been largely intact through the years – 39 per cent in 2011 and 45 per cent in the 2016 assembly election; and 40 per cent in 2014 and 43 per cent in the 2019 Lok Sabha election.
But these numerical figures don’t reflect the prevalent sentiments on the ground – something one hears on the streets of Kolkata. ‘Poriborton’ or change is the buzzword there. “People were looking for a change and they see the BJP as a strong alternative after the Lok Sabha elections. You will see a Maharashtra-like exodus from the Trinamool Congress close to the elections. Trinamool leaders see the winds changing,” state BJP president Dilip Ghosh claimed to this writer. Didi may prove him right in 2021 unless she course-corrects immediately and takes time off politics to govern.