On the face of it, post-election events in West Bengal suggest a plot as petty and diabolical as politics can be: A party with immeasurable resources and power goes for a kill of a smaller rival, gets singed in the process, and like a petulant loser, goes for revenge in whatever way possible.
The refrain in political circles is: Unreconciled to its defeat in West Bengal, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has gone after the Trinamool Congress (TMC), deploying everything at its command — central investigation agencies, the governor and whatnot. If governor Jagdeep Dhankhar has to ride a bike to meet victims of post-poll violence, the Union home ministry has to send a team to Kolkata to take stock of the situation, and a “terrorised” Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) has to approach the high court to seek transfer of the Narada case outside the state, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee must realise the “repercussions” of “total lawlessness and anarchy” that the Raj Bhawan has warned her of.
Why Bengal hurts BJP
Political experts, of course, have many explanations as to why the West Bengal election outcome, more than any defeat in the past, is hurting the BJP so much. Bengal has long been an ideal laboratory for Hindutva politics, with about one-third of the population being Muslims and painful memories of the period before and after the Partition, like the ‘Great Calcutta Killing’ of 1946, providing a historical context. Bengal also had other factors that facilitated the BJP’s takeover in many Congress-ruled states in the past — lack of all-round development, flight of capital, law and order problem, corruption, and, of course, dynastic politics. The BJP couldn’t have asked for more. And then it had its brahmastra — Prime Minister Narendra Modi. It had ousted many Congress-led governments with much less going in its favour.
The West Bengal loss must, therefore, hurt much. In a way, the state was also the beginning of the second phase of the BJP’s Ashwamedha yagna, having successfully completed its first phase in most Congress-held territories. The second phase comprised territories where regional parties held sway. Although this phase technically started with Odisha, the loss in that state wasn’t so significant, given that the BJP got itself strategically placed there, ready to take over whenever ailing Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik of the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) hangs up his boots. Patnaik has been a friendly CM, anyway. After West Bengal, the BJP’s horse was to stomp on other major territories ruled by regional satraps. But that was not to be.
The pressure from RSS
These explanations for the BJP-led Centre’s post-poll moves in West Bengal are plausible but they don’t give the full picture. The fact is that the BJP’s post-poll overtures are not driven by hubris or revenge. It’s rather a sense of insecurity and question of survival. The party is also under pressure from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), its ideological mentor, to act.
According to Bengal RSS leaders who spoke to me Wednesday, 28 people have been killed in post-poll political violence and “all but one” were from the BJP. As per their version, houses of 4,000 karyakartas or activists were damaged “in complicity with the State power” and 5,200 karkaryatas were still “facing the heat” from the TMC. There are 3,500 BJP workers who have left Bengal to take shelter in neighbouring states, the RSS leaders alleged. “We set up 190 camps in Bengal where 6,800 people stayed because they feared for their life at their home. What the country needs to worry about is the fact that there are jihadi elements who are indulging in violence after the elections,” said a senior RSS functionary.
These claims and allegations by RSS functionaries may be a bit exaggerated but there is no denying the severity of the post-poll violence or the fact that the BJP and RSS functionaries have been at its receiving end, mostly.
CM Mamata Banerjee has accused the central ministers of inciting violence while conceding that “there are always some sporadic incidents after elections.”
When the RSS functionaries speak about victims of violence, what they wouldn’t say is that they may be talking about RSS volunteers who doubled up as BJP workers on the ground in the run-up to the polls. The BJP doesn’t have much of a cadre base in West Bengal.
The BJP is, therefore, under pressure from within the Sangh Parivar to keep the Mamata Banerjee government on the edge. Bengal is not new to political violence and Banerjee was at its receiving end for over two decades, getting brutally beaten up on many occasions as she led protests against the Left Front rule. After the 2011 assembly election though, the boot was on the other foot and the comrades were on the run.
It’s a matter of survival
Many in the Left say that a major reason behind the exodus of the Left cadres was the party’s inability to ensure their safety once it was out of power. Over the next decade, some of them embraced the enemy but many of them decided to join the hands of the enemy’s enemy, the BJP. By the 2021 election, the Left and the Congress camps were totally deserted. In the 2016 assembly election, the combined vote share of the CPI(M) and the Congress was 32 per cent; it came down to less than 8 per cent in 2021.
If that could happen to the Left and the Congress, which had such deep roots in Bengal politics, the BJP is a newbie there. It’s much more vulnerable because its leadership and the rank and file in Bengal largely comprise defectors. What one is witnessing in Bengal in terms of the Centre’s overreach is a sign of nervousness and jitters in the BJP.
Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant Dixit)