BJP Kolkota
The saffron party has made significant inroads in West Bengal.

Comrades turn ‘bhakts:’ Why Bengal’s Left voters are going with BJP

Sudip Naskar, a resident of Nepalgunj area on the southern fringe of Kolkata, had been voting for the CPI(M) since he attained the right to vote over two decades ago. His initiation to Marxism was natural as he came from a family of ‘comrades.’

Even when most members of his family embraced the ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC) after the fall of the Left government in the state in 2011, he continued to vote for the Communists almost by habit.

Sitting on the verandah of his two-room semi-pucca house, the middle-aged man said this election would be different. He has made a conscious decision to vote for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) this time.

Sudip’s is not an isolated case. There are many across West Bengal who are expected to make similar switchovers in the ensuing Lok Sabha elections. The ABP News-Nielsen’s latest Opinion Poll predicted that BJP’s vote share in the state would jump from 17.06% in 2014 to 26% this time.

Arjun Singh, the BJP candidate from the Barrackpore Lok Sabha constituency, who switched to the saffron outfit recently after being denied a ticket by the Trinamool Congress, claimed many TMC and Left supporters would quietly press the lotus button at the time of voting.

Even a staunch BJP critic would not deny that the saffron party has made significant inroads in the state, which remained glued to the Leftist brand of politics even after Mamata Banerjee ended the Left front’s uninterrupted 34-year rule eight years ago. In fact, clad in simple Tant sarees and trademark flip-flops, Banerjee often claimed to represent the ‘real’ Left.  Her supporters even went to the extent of claiming she is more communist than most communists.

Communal harmony was one of the few endearing legacies of the Left rule in West Bengal since 1977. Its class-based politics, prevented the Hindutva ideology from gaining ground even among Hindu migrants, who were uprooted after the separation of East Pakistan, despite being victims of communal uprisings.

For this impoverished mass of people, issues related to their food security, ownership rights over land to refugees, and abolition of landlordism championed by the Left parties were naturally closer to their heart than assertion of religious identity. After all, as Swami Vivekanadna famously said, one cannot practice religion with an empty stomach.

Even as the religion took political back seat during the peak of Communist rule, religious conservatism continued to flourish in the state parallel to liberal Advaita Vedanta philosophy of Ramakrishna Mission founded by Swami Vivekananda in 1897.  The popularity of Ánanda Márga, a militant brand of Hinduism, in West Bengal in the 60s and 70s caused a lot of discomfort to the erstwhile Left Front government, which applied ruthless tactics to suppress the movement. On the morning of April 30, 1982, 16 monks and nuns from the sect were dragged out of taxis, beaten to death and then set on fire simultaneously by frenzied mobs in the heart of the state capital in broad daylight.  Though no one was arrested in connection with the ghastly killing, the Ananda Marga blamed the ruling CPI (M) for the massacre.

The prevalence of religious bigotry in Bengali society was once again evident when devotees of Santan Dal, another radical Hindu sect, forcefully prevented cremation of their guru, Balak Brahmachari, insisting that he would emerge from his ‘meditative trance.’ Some 55 days after his death on May 5, 1993, the police finally could retrieve the body of the self-styled guru after fighting a pitched battle with his followers. According to an India Today report of the incident, a few bombs were found in the ashram when police stormed it.

Even a network of RSS-run organizations, particularly schools, continued to work on the ground in almost every part of the state.

During this period, activities of Muslim radicals too increased in the state with the mushrooming of unregulated madrasas. In 2002, the then chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee had voiced concerns over their proliferation.

History of radical Hinduism in Bengal

Militant Hinduism in Bengal, traces its root to the rise of Bengali nationalism in the 19th century. The Swadeshi movement in Bengal drew its inspiration from Bankim Chandra Chatterjee’s Vande Mataram that defined the motherland as goddess, much to the dislike of Muslim communities.

Even Rabindranath Tagore, who sang the song for the first time during the Calcutta Congress session in 1896, later in a letter to Subhas Chandra Bose justified the objection of the Muslims to the song. In his novel, ‘Home and the World,’ Tagore poignantly depicted how Swadeshi movement, spearheaded by Hindu elites,  failed to take into account the enormous losses that small traders, mainly Muslims, incurred after being forced to burn their stock of British goods — which were comparatively cheaper and affordable than the swadeshi products.

Resurgence of identity politics

Mamata Banerjee’s historic electoral success in 2011 was largely because of her social engineering by wooing Dalits and Muslims, who had until then, by and large, backed the Left. While doing so, she even joined hands with hard-line Islamic organisations like Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind, giving much needed room to hitherto dormant right-wing Hindu groups to unleash their brand of identity politics. They often taunt the CM as Mumtaz Begum, playing the ‘Hindu victimization’ card.

On the other hand, a new generation of emerging middle-class Muslims, emboldened by current populist political patronage, has increasingly become assertive and confident about their rights as equitable citizens, according to M Reyaz, professor of journalism at Aliah University, Kolkata.

“They have got active on social-media as well as on the streets, during protests organised by Jamaat-e-Islami in solidarity with the leaders of their counterparts in Bangladesh, or  while demanding  higher remuneration for madrasa teachers or most recently to garner support in favour of triple talaq by Jamiat-e-Ulama e Hind,” he pointed out.

This assertion is viewed by a section of Hindus as radicalisation of Muslims, thus giving further push to communal polarization in the state much to the benefit of the BJP.

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