BJP Gains as Cracks Appear in West Bengal’s Consensus on Communal Harmony

It has become respectable now to articulate latent feelings about issues concerning minorities that were hardly talked about some years ago.

Woman devotees blow conches during a religious procession to celebrate the Ram Navami festival at Bolpur in Birbhum district of West Bengal on April 6. Credit: PTI (PTI4_5_2017_000253A)

Woman devotees blow conches during a religious procession to celebrate the Ram Navami festival at Bolpur in Birbhum district of West Bengal on April 6. Credit: PTI

Kolkata: The by-election result for Contai South, also known as Kanthi Dakshin, in East Midapore in West Bengal is not a straw in the wind. The Trinamool Congress won the contest with 55% of the votes, but the BJP came in second with 31%. The Communist Party of India, as part of the Left alliance, polled 10.2%, which meant that the candidate lost his deposit.

The Contai South results suggest that about a third of the voters can be mobilised in support of the Hindutva cause.

CPI(M) state chief Surya Kanta Mishra has acknowledged that voters from the Left had switched to the BJP. The results also revealed that the Trinamool Congress has added another 2% of votes to its share since the last election. The BJP gained at the expense of the Left and the Trinamool Congress pulled away Congress votes. The contest therefore was between the hard Hindu right and the non-denominational Trinamool Congress, which has been a partner of the BJP and the Congress at different times at the Centre.

Every state has its distinctive political canons. West Bengal is no exception. The shift in voter allegiance from the Left to the hard Right is a metamorphosis that confirms apprehensions that the post-Partition political consensus on communal harmony as the founding principle in the state has begun to crumble. There is one other exceptional characteristic of politics in West Bengal – polarisation of votes between two parties. The Contai South results indicate that a new polarisation is emerging with the BJP on one side and the Trinamool Congress on the other.

The inescapable reality is that the Contai South elections were held soon after the incredible rallies by the BJP-RSS and their associates showcasing a revival of militant Hinduism through processions of sword wielding activists to celebrate Ram Navami. The turnouts revealed the transformation of the BJP from a party from North India with non-Bengali loyalists to a local party with deep roots in West Bengal. The resurrection of Syama Prasad Mookerjee, the founder of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, an almost forgotten leader in the state, is a new weapon to serve the BJP’s strategy in West Bengal.

Social media has been actively propagating the connection between Syama Prasad and protection of the beleaguered Bengali Hindu. One reads: “Dr Mukherjee (sic! the correct spelling being Mookerjee) saved lives and dignity of 5 crore hindus by keeping western part of Bengal with India. Today he is almost forgotten in Bengal. He is counted a communalist because he saved hindus from the hands of death awaiting in Pakistan… Never forget this date of history if you are a Bengali hindu still living with a grace in West Bengal.” He is also being re-cast as the founder of West Bengal and so saving a space for the Hindus.

This connection with Syama Prasad will help the BJP find its local roots. The stirring of emotions around a homeland for the Hindus in West Bengal will prod awake a tension that the consensus for communal harmony had buried after the terrible Hindu-Muslim riots in Kolkata and Noakhali in 1946. If 1946 was a call to direct action, then the BJP’s efforts post the Uttar Pradesh elections has been a call to direct engagement in political terms. In the present context, the emerging narrative points to making the Congress, the Left and by extension the Trinamool Congress complicit in encouraging Muslim migration and settlement in the border districts and so endangering the helpless Hindu majority.

The success of the BJP and its position as the dominant party in India is a difficult challenge to counter for Mamata Banerjee as the leader of a regional party. The possibilities that Modi’s slogan of “Sab ka saath, sab ka vikas” conjures up for young voters in West Bengal is directly proportionate to their frustration with the Trinamool Congress government for its failure to create jobs and open up business opportunities for the self-employed and small businesses. More than that, the BJP has made it respectable across the country to think that communal harmony and religious tolerance are not worthy values, thereby making it possible to openly profess till now privately, almost secretively held anti-Muslim opinion in West Bengal.

Hindu revivalism in West Bengal has a long history and was once mainstream in the early years of the nationalist movement. The deep division between conservative Hinduism and liberal, tolerant politics and social exchange was told and retold in the literary novel, a genre that captured the attention of educated Bengali elites. Among the novels, Ananda Math and in it the ‘Vande Mataram’, hold a special place with muscular monks and heroic conflicts to protect the motherland serving as a call to direct action. The BJP is perhaps working to tap into this rich lode of emotion leveraging its spectacular success in recent elections by every possible means.

In doing so, it is positioning its politics as an alternative to the established canon of protecting communal harmony espoused by the Trinamool Congress and the original parties to the consensus – the Congress and the Left, led by the CPI(M). This is clever branding, because it skirts around the challenge of directly confronting Banerjee by trashing her as a leader and chief minister, which at this stage, would not succeed, given her immense popular appeal and her image as a lone crusader against all evils.

By focusing instead on the beleaguered Bengali Hindu, in danger in the homeland, the BJP is working to use rising discontent against the Trinamool Congress and its style of governance and politics, to increase its own appeal. The space to launch this appeal has opened up for the BJP because the CPI(M) has not only grown weaker, but its capacity to lead has diminished, the Congress is reduced to a small party and there is no real and robust opposition in West Bengal.

By its own admission, the CPI(M) is today “strong in some pockets” and capable of resisting the Trinamool Congress only in those pockets. Its leadership honestly concedes that it cannot challenge the ruling regime everywhere in West Bengal. The processions and rallies organised by the CPI(M) and its Left allies in recent days, immediately after the BJP’s extraordinary showing around Ram Navami, have been selectively organised, because the Left lacks the strength to do so everywhere. The procession in Chandernagore in Hooghly district against communalisation of politics on last week attracted local attention, but overall the CPI(M) lacks the ability to reach out and hold on to voters who have either switched sides or are disgruntled with the Trinamool Congress and uncertain about the BJP.

For the Trinamool, countering the BJP is far more difficult than it was to confront the CPI(M). Modi’s party is not Banerjee’s enemy, nor is the prime minister. Recall that she was among the first to send a bouquet to Modi after he won the post-Godhra elections in Gujarat. The party is also vulnerable given its entanglement with the Saradha and Narada scams, its need for support from the Centre for financial accommodation and on shelving solutions to water sharing with Bangladesh.

Till now the Trinamool Congress has walked on the razor’s edge with admirable dexterity. It has worked actively and effectively to attach and keep attached the Muslim vote by giving the clergy a place at the high table, by announcing special schemes and turning a blind eye to border crossings, the proliferation of dubious madrassas and the growth of Muslim identity politics. It has also pandered to Hindu sentiment by its active participation and patronage of various community organised Durga and Kali pujas, the visible piety of its leaders and its encouragement of local Hindu practice by declaring various days as state holidays. The visual messages that Banerjee has communicated through gestures that identify her affinity to the Muslim community have added to the misgivings of the Hindu poor and the middle classes, where memories of Partition and the violence that preceded it and followed it, the forced displacements, all remain deeply embedded. The BJP has certainly stirred this pool of emotion.

Twenty years ago, what was privately felt but never articulated – when the BJP’s campaign against illegal migration in the border areas became louder and explicit, with the detection of illegal immigrants in Mumbai and New Delhi making headline news – is today a major discourse in West Bengal’s public sphere. The growth and spread of RSS shakhas has been explosive in the past five years according to reports; from around 600 in 2011, the shakhas have mushroomed to around 1,500 in 2016. Along with it, the RSS has opened schools, established cultural-religious groups and encouraged public piety.

The idea of a revival, by whatever means, has therefore become respectable in West Bengal and is creeping up to the point where it could captivate the popular imagination. Now that the BJP is no longer a non-Bengali party, it is better positioned to do so than ever before.

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  • Siddhartha

    Communal harmony as an enshrined principle is not possible without fairness in governance. The Congress actively encouraged illegal immigration from the erstwhile East Pakistan into Assam, leading to the current disturbance in that state. The CPM turned a blind eye on border infiltration to create its own vote bank comprising Muslims from Bangladesh. TMC is carrying on in the same tradition so the author representing them “as espousing the established canon of communal harmony” is a bit misleading. Vote bank politics comes in the way of communal harmony, as it is inherently discriminatory, so the sooner parties abandon this path the better for our future. West Bengal has resembled TamilNadu in its inherent antipathy towards a North Indian party like the BJP. But while Tamil politics has not come in the way of development, WB politics has not figured out a way to get out of this morass. An anti-business attitude among average Bengalis has really hampered entrepreneurship, and pro-left policies has ensured flight of capital to other states of the country. It is time, WB politicians work to move the state forward, and not just to stay in power or to push their ideologies.