The sudden spurt in the BJP’s popularity in West Bengal is unsettling for the Trinamool, whose shaky commitment to secularism is only worsening the situation. By SUHRID SANKAR CHATTOPADHYAY
ON April 5, West Bengal witnessed a phenomenon that was not only unprecedented in its post-Independence history but also completely alien to its cultural and political traditions. Thousands of people took to the streets as the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and other pro-Hindutva organisations led armed processions in different parts of the State to celebrate Rama Navami, a festival that has never been a part of Bengal’s mainstream culture. Draped in saffron and brandishing traditional weapons such as swords, daggers and choppers and shouting “Jai Shri Ram”, the Sangh Parivar activists asserted themselves and added a new facet to Bengal politics:religion-based nationalism. Even small children were seen in the procession carrying weapons. The Trinamool Congress government could do nothing to stop it. However, several top BJP leaders, including State BJP president Dilip Ghosh, were later booked under the Arms Act.
Just six days later, the saffron brigade once again staged a show of strength on the occasion of Hanuman Jayanti, another festival that had been confined to a few pockets of the State so far. This time too, the participants in the processions were seen wielding weapons. In one procession organised by the Mahavir Sena Samiti, midway through the rally people began to brandish menacingly weapons such as knives, choppers and swords. Six participants of the rally were arrested that night. In Suri in Birbhum district, activists of the Sangh Parivar clashed with the police after they conducted a rally despite being denied permission.
Given that the BJP is still weak organisationally and does not have a widespread presence in the State, political observers view this phenomenon as a result of increased polarisation between Hindus and Muslims and a direct reaction to Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s brand of “minority-appeasement politics”. The fact that a large number of Bengalis took part in the Rama Navami and Hanuman Jayanti celebrations despite both not being traditional Bengali festivals indicates that the rallies were more political than religious.
After a sudden growth in popularity in the State in the last several months, particularly after the 2016 Assembly elections, the BJP is now staking its claim to the status of principal opposition to the Trinamool. The result of the byelection on April 13 for the Dakshin Kanthi Assembly seat shows that there is some justification in the BJP’s claim: the Trinamool won with a total of 95,369 votes while the BJP got 52,843; the Communist Party of India (CPI) and the Congress could only secure 17,423 votes and 2,270 votes respectively (their candidates forfeited their deposits).
The BJP’s growth is changing the dynamics of politics in the State. With the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Front and the Congress showing no signs of revival, the Trinamool and the BJP seem all set for a protracted political battle in which religion is the focal point, for the first time in the State. The Trinamool, which was resting easy with the assured votes of the majority of the Muslim population in the State (officially 27.1 per cent as per Census 2011 and expected to be around 30 per cent now), has begun to display signs of nervousness at the BJP’s sudden rise and reach out to orthodox Hindu voters with its brand of “soft Hindutva”. The party also organised rallies for Rama Navami and Hanuman Jayanti.
“Religion has become the central theme of Bengal’s politics. It has now become clear that West Bengal politics is gradually becoming religion-based rather than issue- or ideology-based,” the noted psephologist Biswanath Chakraborty, who is also professor of political science at Rabindra Bharati University, told Frontline.
BJP’s growthEven BJP followers are stumped by the sudden spurt in the party’s popularity. The result of the Dakshin Kanthi election is a case in point. “Frankly, we did not expect so many votes. Dakshin Kanthi has always been one of our weakest constituencies. We were certainly not expecting more than 20 per cent,” a BJP source told Frontline.
The party’s success in making its presence felt in the State in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, when its vote share increased from 6 per cent to nearly 17 per cent, seemed to have been a flash in the pan. The “Narendra Modi wave” appeared to have died down as abruptly as it had begun, as was evident in the drastic plummeting of the BJP’s vote percentage in the subsequent local body elections. In the 2016 Assembly elections, however, when most expected the party to fare poorly, it managed to increase its vote share up to over 10 per cent and even won three seats, its best performance in the State so far. The Assembly elections were particularly bad for the Left Front, which had been the main opposition to the Trinamool. The Left’s plan to overthrow the ruling party by joining forces with the Congress failed to yield dividends and its vote share dropped further. In the months that followed, the continuous weakening of the opposition and perception that the Trinamool was blatantly favouring one particular religious community served to strengthen the BJP and other right-wing Hindu forces. Communal clashes began to take place in the State and Mamata Banerjee’s government remained in a state of denial. It dismissed the communal flare-ups at Dhulagarh in Howrah, Chandanagar in Hooghly and Haji Nagar in North 24 Paraganas as “local problems”.
At its recently concluded national executive meeting, the BJP made it clear that it had its sights set on, among other States, West Bengal. Rahul Sinha, national secretary and former State president of the party, told Frontline: “Our next step is to reach out to the people at the booth level to highlight the achievements of the Central government, expose the failures of the State government and present an alternative to the Trinamool. In the Lok Sabha elections [scheduled for 2019], we are confident of emerging as the number one party.”
The polarisation of votes between the Trinamool and the BJP is hurting other opposition parties, particularly the Left. CPI(M) Polit Bureau member and Left Front chairman Biman Bose admitted after the byelection result was declared that “sections of those who were with the Left movement have now joined the BJP”. Biswanath Chakraborty pointed out that it was evident that whatever little was left of the Left’s Muslim support base had shifted to the Trinamool, while the Hindu vote rallied behind the BJP. “In the following days, one can expect the Muslim votes to go even more to the Trinamool, as it will be seen as the only force to counter the rising BJP,” he added.
Mamata’s politicsThe BJP and other Hindutva outfits claim that Mamata Banerjee’s “politics of appeasement” since 2011 has catalysed their speedy rise in the State. Rahul Sinha attributed the BJP’s gain in momentum to the State government’s “unrestrained appeasement policy of the Muslims”. He added: “The people of the State are disgusted with this policy and this is a direct reaction to it. Along with this is the continuous breakdown of law and order in the State and maladministration by the Trinamool.”
Realising how crucial the minority votes are for her political ascendancy, Mamata Banerjee has been quite unabashed in playing the religious card. Soon after assuming power, she announced a monthly honorarium to imams, who lead the prayers in mosques, and a stipend to muezzins, who perform the task of calling to prayer, but this decision was struck down by the Calcutta High Court as “unconstitutional”. Mamata Banerjee was often seen not only sharing the dais with Muslim religious leaders but also allowing them to dictate terms to her and intervene publicly in political matters.
According to BJP leader Abhijit Roy Choudhury, “the turning point” for many Hindus came during Durga Puja, Bengal’s biggest festival, when immersion of the idol was suspended for a day as it coincided with Muharram. The Calcutta High Court, while hearing a public interest litigation (PIL) petition on the matter, slammed the State government, saying: “There has been a clear endeavour on the part of the State government to pamper and appease the minority section of the public at the cost of the majority section without there being any plausible justification.”
“The fact that fundamentalist forces are having a free run has driven Hindus away from Trinamool. When the government is talking only of one religion, obviously people of other religions will feel neglected and move away from the ruling party,” said Roy Choudhury.
For all of Mamata Banerjee’s avowed opposition to the BJP, it is under her rule in the last six years that the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) and other Hindutva forces have penetrated the State effectively. According to reports, between 2013 and 2016 the number of RSS shakhas (branches) increased from 820 to 1,090 in southern West Bengal alone. “From 2011 the RSS spread its network but did it in a very silent manner. Unlike the CPI(M), the Trinamool never had the organisation to understand the development. When they did understand, it was too late. Now things are already getting out of the Trinamool’s control,” an RSS source told Frontline.
Besides the Sangh Parivar, the other ultra right-wing Hindu organisations that have been spreading their influence in the State, particularly in the south, are the Hindu Samhati and the Hindu Jagran Manch. Devdutta Maji, vice president of the Hindu Samhati, said: “Our organisation was founded in 2008 by Tapan Ghosh. Our main job is creating awareness among the masses and including them in our movement. The government does not have the capacity to accept the fact of Islamist menace and act upon it. We believe that ordinary Hindus will have to be mobilised as it is the ordinary Muslims who are creating trouble. What is worrying the anti-nationals the most about the Hindu Samhati is that we are the most reactive organisation with most coverage and control of the ground and are expanding like wildfire.”
Maji admitted that between 2008 and 2011 the organisation faced severe difficulties in functioning and growing. “In the last three years of the CPI(M)’s rule, we were very badly harassed. Hindu religious organisations had no part in awakening Hindutva in Bengal. It was done by Mamata Banerjee and her policy of blatant minority appeasement,” he said.
Interestingly, Mamata Banerjee’s political tactic to take on the growth of Hindutva has not been by placing greater emphasis on secularism but by adopting a milder form of Hindutva. In fact, the Trinamool and the BJP tried to outdo each other in the celebration of Rama Navami and Hanuman Jayanti. Several Trinamool leaders, including Sports and Youth Services Minister Laxmi Ratan Shukla, organised rallies as a response to the BJP’s programme.
At a recent public rally, Mamata Banerjee even warned the BJP against claiming Rama Navami as its own, exclusive festival. “It is as though Mamata is now saying that Hindutva is not the BJP’s property alone. She is now clearly trying to appropriate for herself BJP’s Hindutva card to combat the right-wing aggression,” said Biswanath Chakraborty.
However, this new ploy is making Mamata’s Muslim supporters a little apprehensive. For long they had placed their complete trust in the Trinamool in the hope that it would resist the rise of Hindu right-wing forces, but now many are looking at other options. Mohammed Quamaruzzaman, general secretary of the All Bengal Minority Youth Federation, said: “We have kept our eyes on all political parties. The Trinamool is in power today. It has the police and the administration under it, and yet we saw how those people [at the Rama Navami and Hanuman Jayanti rallies] blatantly defied the police and illegally brandished arms in the open. If the police and the administration do not take action against them, then we will know that the Trinamool too has surrendered to these radical fundamentalist forces.”
The Trinamool is yet to finalise a strategy to oppose this new challenge to its practically supreme political authority in the State. It is a very delicate balancing task that now lies ahead for the Chief Minister. On the one hand she will have to ensure that her minority support base does not slip away, and on the other she cannot take for granted the support of members of the majority community who have for so long been her staunch supporters.