The BJP is on a high in Bengal. However, it is not all hunky dory and there is no BJP wave on the ground. As yet, that is, even as the state prepares for a bloody fight for the assembly polls two months from now.
There are fears that these polls might be more bloody and violent than the last one held in 2016, when the BJP scored only three seats in the assembly, coming fourth after the Left and Congress with a 10 per cent vote share.
Indeed, if voters vote differently for the assembly and general elections, as has been the pattern historically across the country, the BJP, even with a much higher vote share this time, might still find itself way behind. That is why the extra adrenaline being pumped into the elections by the party this time.
The BJP scored an unprecedented 40 per cent of vote share with 18 seats in the Lok Sabha polls in 2019. Part of the addictive high is drawn from these results. The party therefore is leaving no stone unturned. They are engineering defections, pumping in muscle and money, polarising at the grassroots, overtly and clandestinely, using time-tested hate politics tactics, shifting slogans and strategies in quick succession, while their top leaders led by Union Home Minister Amit Shah and party president JP Nadda park themselves in the state once every month. This has made considerable impact.
Even Prime Minister Narendra Modi joins in, as he did, online, on the occasion of the Visva-bharati Convocation function at Santiniketan on February 19. Indeed, with a controversial BJP loyalist as the vice-chancellor in this prestigious central university founded by Rabindranath Tagore, with a great academic, aesthetic and intellectual inheritance, held with great pride in Bengal, Santiniketan too has been turned into a vicious battleground by the BJP, which so obviously lacks a cultural and intellectual legacy.
Modi was last in Kolkata on January 23 to participate in the grand show on the 125th anniversary of Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose at the famous Victoria Memorial. He sat totally mum and masked as BJP supporters, apparently invited in full capacity by party leaders, broke protocol and the sanctity of the occasion while heckling and shouting “Jai Shri Ram” and “Modi, Modi” as Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee stood up to speak.
She refused to speak, sending a signal across Bengal. She said, even while the slogans continued and the PM sat impassively, “I think there should be some dignity in a government programme… This is a programme of all parties and of the people… I thank the prime minister and the Union culture ministry for holding this programme in Kolkata, but it is unbecoming of you to invite someone and then insult them. In protest, I am not speaking any more. Jai Hind. Jai Bangla.”
Predictably, the prime minister expressed no regret. Indeed, as is the inevitable pattern in its belligerent politics, his best buddy upped the ante. Speaking at a ‘Poribortan Yatra’ rally in Cooch Behar, Amit Shah said, “Such an environment has been created in Bengal that raising Jai Shri Ram slogans has become a crime here. Mamata Didi, if slogans of Jai Shri Ram are not raised here, will it be raised in Pakistan? I promise that by the time the election ends, Mamata Didi will also say Jai Shri Ram.”
This is the latest trump card the BJP is using: Jai Shri Ram. In a state of Durga, Kali and female shakti worshippers, neither Ram nor the Ram Mandir, enthuses people, Trinamool Congress leader Mohua Moitra told the BBC in an interview. She said those who want to say Jai Shri Ram are welcome. But they shouldn’t force any particular slogan down everyone’s throats.
By insulting Netaji in a state where he is an icon, Jai Shri Ram seems a desperate call.
However, the insult to Bengal’s icons has been a ritualistic faux pas committed by BJP leaders who have goofed-up badly on several occasions. First, Amit Shah garlanded a statue of legendary tribal revolutionary Birsa Munda; it turned out to be a wrong statue – that of a tribal, not Birsa Munda. Then JP Nadda claimed that Tagore was born in Santiniketan. Indeed, he became a laughing stock because the whole of Bengal knows that Tagore was born in his famous ancestral house called Jorasanko in Kolkata. Nadda again put his foot in his mouth by visiting another temple in Jagadanadapur in East Bardhaman, claiming that Chaitanya Mahaprabhu was initiated into faith here. The irony is that the revered icon of the Bhakti movement died in 1534 – the temple was built 300-plus years later, in 1839.
Besides, when asked, BJP state chief Dilip Ghosh, who seems to have mastered the art of gaffes, declared that since the media was not present physically in the 16th century, they could not claim historical accuracy!
Goof-ups apart, the BJP is expecting to win more than 100 seats in the polls. It has consolidated its base among the ‘silent’ Bangladeshi Hindu refugees, for instance, in the vast South 24 Paraganas, the Sunderbans, and the border districts, especially those who have migrated to India after the 1980s. The CAA was pushed in Assam with an eye on Bengal to appease this displaced Hindu population, with a subtext of Hindu-Muslim polarisation.
That they have succeeded has been proved by the en masse shift of the CPM’s traditional support base among the refugees to the BJP. The CPM cadres overwhelming voted for the BJP in 2019 because of its compulsive dislike for the Trinamool Congress and Mamata. However, even in 2019, Trinamool’s vote base at 43 per cent remained intact, even while the BJP ate into the Left and Congress base, with both parties still floating in an eternal twilight zone. The CPM is equating both Trinamool and BJP as ‘political enemies’, while its cadre has been reportedly given a ‘suicidal, death-wish’ line: “Ekushe Ram, Chhabbishe Baam!” (In 2021, Ram, in 2026, Left.)
Seasoned observers believe that the BJP will be the number two party, despite its Rath Yatra getting lukewarm response. Even Moitra agreed on this in her BBC interview. The Congress-Left alliance might eat into the anti-incumbency votes, thereby cutting into BJP votes. With Abbas Siddiqui of the influential Phurpura Shariff joining the alliance, ‘vote-cutter’ Asaddudin Owaisi’s incipient plans have gone awry. However, the huge 30 per cent Muslim vote share, spread across Bengal, is not going anywhere – they will all go to Trinamool, except for traditional Congress strongholds like Malda. With beneficial schemes in their favour, Namashudras, Rajbongshis, SC and STs, with a big chunk going for the BJP in 2019, have reportedly returned to the Trinamool, and so have the Gorkhas and other communities in North Bengal and the areas around Darjeeling.
Said a veteran journalist, “Bengal is still not prepared for the BJP or Jai Shri Ram. It believes in a different discourse inherited from its intellectual, cultural and revolutionary past. The Delhi and Gujarati brand of politics is still not acceptable, especially among its intelligentsia. The BJP will gain, but Mamata will undoubtedly lead the next government. However, if the margins are close, then the BJP will buy-off some MLAs with money and muscle power, as they have done in several states. And that will be real bad news for West Bengal.”
(Amit Sengupta is a columnist and media commentator. He is currently Executive Editor, Hardnews.)
(The Federal seeks to present views and opinions from all sides of the spectrum. The information, ideas or opinions in the articles are of the author and do not reflect the views of The Federal.)