During a debate at the Calcutta Club in 2017, the BJP’s Sambit Patra made a vociferous defense of the Modi government’s ‘surgical strikes’ using rhetoric appealing to ‘Bengali pride’ complete with recitations in praise of Ma Durga – Bengal’s presiding deity. He received loud cheers from the city’s elite. Emboldened by their response Patra then compared Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, Rammohan Roy and Swami Vivekananda. Suddenly there was shocked silence and then shouts of ‘shame, shame’, ‘chi chi’. Patra had gone too far. He and his team lost the debate hands down.
Bengalis have a pantheon of icons who cannot be touched let alone be compared to a mere politician. Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar is up there with Swami Vivekananda, Roy and Bose and smashing a bust of the great educationist in the college named after him is the worst form of desecration that no Bengali will tolerate. Just as Patra did not know where to stop, nor did his party president Amit Shah.
The violence during Shah’s road show on 14 May poured water on the BJP’s efforts to be accepted as a party for Bengal. Visuals of saffron-clad goons breaking the gates of Vidyasagar College and tossing around the bust of the man who gave Bengali language its alphabet, as if it was a football, sent shock waves through the state. ‘No Bengali would ever do that – this can only be the work of outsiders’. It reviled the Bengali elite and upper middle class who may have been attracted to the BJP as an option against the lumpen Trinamool Congress.
It also gave Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee just the stick she needed to beat the BJP with. Had the Congress been handed such an opportunity they would have probably fumbled and dropped the ball. But not Mamata who understands the pulse of her state like no other. She simply ran with it, leaving master strategist Shah dumbfounded.
Modi and Shah had set their sights on Bengal from 2014, just after they won a landslide majority thanks to the Hindi heartland. They knew that they had reached saturation point there and it would be impossible to replicate the success in the west and north of India in 2019 and so were in search of new pastures. West Bengal with its 42 MPs could help make up the shortfall in UP and Bihar.
Why the BJP’s focus on Bengal
Bengal became the sunrise state and for the last five years the RSS has been working assiduously to make in-roads particularly in the rural areas. With its nearly 30% Muslim population and a long border with Bangladesh, Bengal is ripe for the BJP’s favourite electoral tactic – religious polarization. BJP began chanting ‘Muslim appeasement’ against Mamata and made the majority community feel a false sense of victimhood. Minor clashes between Hindus and Muslims have been instigated in different parts of the state in the hope of provoking major riots. The BJP has declared that law and order has broken down in Bengal.
The BJP’s modus operandi has been the same here as in the Hindutva laboratory of Gujarat. The poison of hatred has slowly been injected into society and the proof that it was working can be seen in the BJP’s vote share which was negligible in the 2011 Assembly elections winning no seats, shooting up to 10% in 2016 fetching them three Assembly seats. In the infamous Panchayat elections last year, the BJP’s vote share went up even more, giving them the impetus to work harder for the Lok Sabha polls. Shah declared optimistically that his party will win at least 23 parliamentary seats in this election.
Modi and Shah have used all the weapons in their arsenal against Mamata. Money and muscle power have poured into the state. Not ready to give up even an inch of her hard fought space, Mamata has taken up the challenge head on. She followed Modi as he criss-crossed round the state, holding her own rallies the very next day. She returned every abuse hurled at her in the same language.
If Modi is street smart, then Mamata is no less a street fighter, having clawed her way to the top. In fact Mamata is one up on Modi, who is a product of the massive organization that is the RSS and BJP, while Mamata is the creator of the TMC and has done it all alone. If BJP candidates have no relevance in this election as the votes are being asked for in Modi’s name across the country, in Bengal it is only ‘Didi’ who matters.
At the fag end of the protracted and grueling election that has practically become a Modi Vs Mamata contest, it feels as if Shah suddenly lost the plot. He did not understand the importance of Vidyasagar to Bengal and he underestimated Mamata’s political acumen. Calling Bengal ‘Kangal’ and desecrating one of its cherished icons hurt Bengali sensibilities and showed up the BJP to be a ‘cow belt’ party whom the ‘Bangali bhadralok’ look down upon.
How the EC inadvertently helped Mamata
The Election Commission, which has not covered itself in glory in the last two months with its double standards, turned Mamata into a hero by invoking Article 324. By cutting short the campaign in Bengal just after Modi finished his rallies in the state, the Election Commission has raised fundamental questions about its neutrality. Preventing Mamata from campaigning for one more day has not brought any benefit to the BJP, but the injustice has galvanized the opposition behind her and pitchforked her to the front of the queue of prime ministerial candidates in case Modi loses.