‘Nationalism Versus Regionalism’ Emerges Theme of West Bengal's 2021 Election

While TMC has been eager to push BJP as the 'outsiders' party', the latter has stuck to its Hindutva nationalism narrative.

Kolkata: Nationalism and regionalism have emerged as the underlying themes of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Trinamool Congress’s (TMC) battle ahead of the West Bengal state assembly election next year.

While BJP is known for using the nationalism rhetoric in every single election (at both national and state levels), the ruling TMC is using the regionalism card just like Janta Dal United (JDU) did in 2014, when Nitish Kumar popularised the political slogan of ‘Bihari versus bahari’ (outsider).

While nationalism is a fairly known idea, regionalism narrows it down to aspirations of political independence of a particular region.

On a number of occasions, the West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee has herself called the BJP an “outsiders’ party.” The latest was on Wednesday, in her first election rally at Bankura, around 200 kilometres from Kolkata, where she blazed all guns at the saffron party and said, “Some people were sent to Bengal from Delhi. These are not people from Bengal. These are outsiders. They will snatch whatever you have. They will loot your belongings.”

Also read: Armed With Doles, Mamata Banerjee Is Out to Counter BJP’s Popularity Among Her Lost Voters

This strong sense of regionalism is an attempt to portray the superiority of the local (the TMC in this case), while discrediting non-locals (BJP here) in terms of language, culture, and tradition.

Many political commentators believe that this ‘nationalism versus regionalism’ narrative could be a key one for the 2021 election in Bengal.

Associate professor of political science at Jadavpur University, Imankalyan Lahiri, says, “BJP is pushing an aggressive Hindutva narrative which is alien to Bengalis. This is the reason why the ‘outsiders versus insiders’ debate is emerging.” In comparison, Lahiri says, Banerjee has attempted to send an inclusive religious message.

BJP’s new slogan — Ebar Bangla, parle shamla — is an “aggressive and imperialistic” one, feels Lahiri. The slogan lends itself to several double meanings but roughly translates to ‘this time it’s Bengal, stop us if you can’.

It is at odds with TMC’s Maa, mati, manush slogan, which Lahiri says is more rooted.

Also read: Why Mamata Banerjee Is Backtracking From the Bengali Regionalist Stance

The outsider tag

Five days ago, state minister and playwright Bratya Basu, speaking at a press conference in Kolkata, said, “North Indians have tried to corner Bengalis since the time Subhas Bose lost in the Congress’s Tripuri session [of 1939]. The same is being repeated now with Mamata Banerjee. Why has BJP not given a full cabinet berth to any of its Bengal MPs? Their sole aim is to control Bengalis so that we remain subservient to them. Have things come to such a low that Bengal and Bengalis will bow down to them? Should Bengalis accept leaders from other states, imposed on them?”

Basu further added, “The fact that they say Rabindranath Tagore was born in Bolpur [where he actually set up his school] or garland a different person’s statue saying it is Birsa Munda, or celebrate when Vidyasagar’s statue is vandalised, it indicates a lack of knowledge and more importantly the insensitivity towards Bengalis in general.”

In his latest visit to the state, Union home minister Amit Shah garlanded the statue of an Adivasi hunter in Bankura, but the BJP popularised the event as the garlanding of the statue of anti-colonial leader Birsa Munda.

Trinamool is also using various social media platforms to invoke Bengali pride. A campaign called ‘Banglar Gorbo Mamata’ (Bengal’s pride Mamata) has over 26 lakh followers on Facebook. Another, ‘Save BJP from Bengal’ has over 10 lakhs.

More often than not, Trinamool leaders invoke Bengalihood in party meetings, while speaking to press or while using various social media platforms.

Also read: BJP Floats ‘Mother Tongue Day’ for Bengal, Opposition Sees Communalisation Plan

On Independence Day, West Bengal finance minister Amit Mitra tweeted, “PM praised freedom fighters. Touched. But PM, RSS Pracharak since 1972, please educate us on RSS role in freedom struggle. My father, condemned to death by British, commuted to life imprisonment. We, children of freedom fighters, have the right to know the truth of Sangh Parivar.”

TMC is also cashing in on Mamata’s popularity which is arguably still not matched by anyone from the opposition. “They (BJP) don’t have a face. Their leaders in  Delhi don’t trust them. They don’t understand Bengal, its rich culture and heritage, why will people support them,” asks a TMC minister from North 24 Parganas.

BJP’s leaders in Bengal

Even though the state BJP has a host of leaders to lead the party for the crucial assembly election but none has been given charge. The party’s central leadership believes direct control from Delhi is the need of the hour.

Last week, BJP deployed five central leaders — Sunil Deodhar, Vinod Tawde, Vinod Sonkar and Harish Dwivedi and party national general secretary and Rajya Sabha MP Dushyant Gautam to look after the affairs of the five organisational zones of the party in Bengal.

The saffron party has also deployed IT-cell head Amit Malviya as a co-incharge along with RSS pracharak Arvind Menon, who will be directly reporting to reappointed state in-charge Kailash Vijayvargiya.

TMC wasted no time and dubbed these appointments as indications that Delhi had no confidence in BJP’s Bengal leadership. Speaking to The Wire, TMC MP Saugata Roy said, “BJP is parachuting its Delhi leaders in, to control Bengal. This clearly shows they don’t trust their Bengal leaders.”

Also read: Replace Local BJP Leadership with ‘Parachute’ Leaders: Modi-Shah’s Ambitious Bihar Plan

However, the principal reason for deploying central leaders is that the state BJP unit is a divided house — with constant cold wars happening between the state chief Dilip Ghosh’s camp and TMC turncoat Mukul Roy’s camp.

On the recent appointments, a BJP source told The Telegraph, “The party’s Mission Bengal is a project of Amit ji‘s [Shah] and all the five appointees are his men.”

‘Development and/or Hindutva’

The BJP, on the other hand, is keen to fight the polls on their mainstay, the Hindu nationalism agenda. At times, it balances this with developmental issues.

BJP, for the past one year or more, have been trying hard to get hold of Bengal icons who help further their Hindutva politics in the state.

The party has clearly zeroed in on Jana Sangh founder Syama Prasad Mookerjee, calling him “the beloved son of Bengal” who gave his life to make Kashmir an integral part of India. In June this year, the Centre gave its approval to rename the 150-year-old Kolkata Port as Syama Prasad Mookerjee Port.

The saffron brigade also repeatedly uses the Hindu nationalist icons from Bengal like Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, Swami Vivekananda and Nirmal Chattopadhyay to establish a connection with locals in the state.

In order to create a sense of fear among people over a non-existent danger to Hindus, BJP has pushed various narratives. The state chief famously once said that TMC is turning “West Bengal to West Bangladesh.”

Also read: BJP and the Art of Selling Hindutva Nationalism to Bengal

Recently Ghosh alleged that some elements are attempting to turn “Bengal into Kashmir”. “Every district has bomb manufacturing units. Operatives of al-Qaeda, Jamaat are setting up their bases here. Recently two such groups were nabbed from Murshidabad district,” he said, while taking a dig at the state’s law-and-order.

Ajay Gudavarthy, assistant professor at the Centre for Political Studies, JNU, however, believes the regionalism narrative has its own limitations. “Outsiders’ (BJP in this case) developmental pitch is likely to puncture the regional pride narrative put forth by the Trinamool,” he said.

“BJP successfully lured a large section of people, especially the youth, with their development agenda. People like to believe this development rhetoric because it is more of an imagination and less of a reality. So, in the upcoming election in West Bengal, the likely binary would be ‘outsider’s development’ versus ‘insider’s culture’. In the new liberal world people connect more with aspiration, hope and desire than culture and heritage,” Gudavarthy explained.

Ghosh has also said that upon coming to power in Bengal, his party would emulate Gujarat’s growth model to develop the state.

In a scathing attack, Ghosh said TMC and previous Left Front governments have done nothing to create jobs and turned the state into a hub of migrant workers who would have to go to other states for jobs.