The utmost importance the BJP is giving to its “mission Bengal” is evident from the money and machinery it has brought into play in the ongoing assembly elections.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Home Minister Amit Shah, BJP national president JP Nadda, Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath and other top party leaders, to borrow a TMC phrase, have become daily passengers to Bengal.
Modi alone has lined up more than a dozen rallies in the eight-phase elections between March 27 and April 29, a first for a single state.
Apart from shuttling leaders, the BJP has also brought in 18 poll-battle-hardened functionaries from its various units to manage elections in the state.
The party’s spin doctor-in-chief and IT cell head Amit Malviya has been made co-incharge of the state to bolster its social media campaign, crucial in disseminating the BJP narratives among voters.
Newspapers, TV channels, FM channels, street corners, vacant fields are bombarded with BJP advertisements, extorting the electorate to vote for the party.
The BJP detractors even accused it of misusing central investigating agencies and election commission to influence polls.
Trinamool Congress chief and Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee took dig at central agencies and the poll panel for their alleged partisan role almost daily in this poll season.
“Home Minister (Amit Shah) is instructing central forces to help the BJP and its goons during polling. I apologise to my Election Commission for its silence. We have made several complaints to the commission in vain. It’s supporting BJP candidates,” Banerjee was heard saying on the polling day (April 1) in Nandigram from where she contested.
“The BJP government at the Centre has been brazenly and vindictively misusing the CBI, ED and other institutions against leaders and functionaries of non-BJP parties for its own partisan political ends. Both in West Bengal and Tamil Nadu, where Assembly elections are underway, the Modi government has unleashed the ED to conduct raids on the functionaries of the TMC and the DMK,” she alleged in a three-page letter to 15 non-BJP leaders appealing them for a united fight against the assault on democracy and constitutional federalism in India.
Such allegations could have been dismissed as political broadsides. But the sudden proactiveness of the central agencies selectively against members of the TMC and businessmen allegedly close to the state’s ruling party during the poll season appears more than a mere coincidence. More so as the investigations into many of these graft cases have been on for years without much progress.
The Enforcement Directorate, probing the Saradha ponzi scam, attached assets worth Rs 3 crore of TMC spokesperson Kunal Ghosh, the party’s Lok Sabha MP Satabdi Roy and Debjani Mukherjee, an incarcerated director of the chit fund company, on Saturday.
The TMC MP claimed surprise that the attachment order came out in the media during the polls even though she had returned the money nearly a year ago.
Ghosh claimed he had voluntarily started returning the money, received from the Saradha Group as salary, since 2013.
The two TMC leaders also questioned why a similar provisional attachment order was not issued against actor-turned-BJP leader Mithun Chakraborty.
The CBI grilling of TMC MP and chief minister’s nephew Abhishek Banerjee’s wife, Rujira Banerjee, in connection with a coal smuggling case in February ahead of elections too raised questions about its timing.
Importance of Bengal for BJP
The BJP’s no-holds-barred effort to romp home in Bengal stems from ideological and political dividend it expects to gain from a victory in this non-Hindi heartland.
Ideologically, the BJP, despite drawing its lineage to a Bengali stalwart Shyama Prasad Mookerjee, had been a marginal player in the state for long, being perceived essentially a cowbelt party.
Its ideological fountainhead Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) too could not penetrate deep into Bengali society, barring a few pockets in North Bengal and tribal-dominated Jangalmahal areas.
The BJP’s political rise in the state hitherto is more to do with shifting of allegiance by traditional Left Front voters, particularly in rural Bengal, from “Bam (Left) to Ram” as they say in Bengali, in retribution to TMC’s strong-arm tactics.
If it is the Left supporters that are swelling the BJP’s ranks at the grassroots, at the top, the party’s leadership positions in the state unit are dominated mostly by turncoats from the TMC.
Incidentally, many of these leaders are facing investigations into graft charges and are accused of running syndicates and commission raj, the ills the BJP promises to clean if voted to power.
It was a kind of an enigma for the saffron brigade that even partition refugees, who in its narratives are victims of Muslim persecution, have by and large remained aloof to its Hindutva ideology.
The refugees who had migrated to this part of the western Bengal from the Muslim-majority east after the partition of India mostly rallied behind the Left Front, giving prominence to the larger issue before them of roti, kapda and makaan, over religious bigotry.
It’s a major antithesis to the BJP’s Hindutva ideology built around Hindu victimhood. Hence, all along it has been an endeavour of the saffron ideologues to fit the piece of the jigsaw puzzle into their Hindutva gambit. Their painstaking efforts are coming handy for the BJP this election. Whether it will be enough to seal a victory for the BJP will be known only on May 2.
Regionalism a challenge to Hindutva
Further, since the Left Front, headed by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) came to power in 1977, the state has been ruled by parties with strong regional underpinning, laying a larger emphasis on federalism.
Just as the incumbent TMC government is seen as being always at loggerheads with the Central government, the erstwhile Left Front governments too had periodically asserted its independence of the Union government and whipped up Bengali regional sentiment.
One classic example of such an assertion was Marxist chief minister Jyoti Basu’s vow to build the 840 MW Bakreshwar Thermal Power Project with “blood of Bengal” after the Centre refused funding.
The then-Left Front government held blood donation camps to raise funds for the project, galvanising an anti-Centre sentiment in the state.
Thus, in the popular political narratives of Bengal, the Centre is always an aggressor and the state a victim. This has resulted in consolidation of Bengali regional identity pausing challenge to any ultra-nationalist or Hindutva construct.
A win in Bengal by Hindu nationalist BJP will deconstruct that social and political ethos built around Bengali asmita (pride).
“This will be a major perception victory for ultra-nationalist forces like RSS-BJP combine over regionalism not only in Bengal, but also elsewhere in the country, particularly down south where regional sentiment is as high if not more,” pointed out political commentator and author Subir Bhaumik.
It is the regional forces which are now mostly standing up to the BJP’s might as the regional aspiration and identity has turned out to be the biggest challenger to a pan-Hindu India.
Beyond the ideology, the fall of Mamata Banerjee, a regional satrap, will add a momentum to the BJP-led central government’s push towards a more centralised system of governance as against cooperative federalism.
The incumbent TMC government in West Bengal is most vocal against the contentious agenda of the Modi government such as implementing the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), reforms in power and agriculture sector and labour laws.
The non-BJP governments’ fight against the Centre will definitely be weakened in the absence of a dogged Mamata Banerjee at the helm in West Bengal.
On the other hand a defeat of the BJP in West Bengal will give much needed ammunition to the opposition to mount a spirited assault on the Narendra Modi government.
The Modi government is now passing through its weakest phase ever at the helms with economy in doldrums, farmers up-in arms, petroleum prices causing deep holes in the pockets of aam aadmi and the Covid-pandemic raising its ugly fang once again.
Amidst all these, a defeat in Bengal would be the last thing the BJP leadership would want at this juncture after putting so much stake in this election.
Barring Assam, the BJP does not stand any chance of its own in other poll-bound states—Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Puducherry. Even in Assam, the BJP’s prospects does not seem as bright as it was projected before the commencement of election process.
A defeat for the BJP in West Bengal may compel, one hopes against the hope, the party to take a hard-look on its strategy of communal polarisation as an effective plank to win elections, particularly in states where a large chunk of voters are from minority communities.
In West Bengal, a TMC victory may lead to a rise in Bengali parochialism. After all, a powerful narrative in this electoral contest has been identity—a tussle between Banglar nijer mey (Bengal’s own daughter) versus bohiragoto (outsiders).