February 28, 2021
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The Battle For Bengal

The Left vote’s fast and unprecedented collapse and the BJP’s swift rise to capture that vacated opposition political space in West Bengal should not be a surprise to those who have tracked history

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The Battle For Bengal
File: PTI
The Battle For Bengal

The 2014 Lok Sabha elections as well as the assembly by-elections have effectively imploded West Bengal’s bipolar political scene. Polling nearly 17% of the votes in the Lok Sabha, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is fast becoming the cat among the secular pigeons, upsetting the known formulae that have dominated the political discourse in West Bengal for decades. The September by-election to the Dakshin Basirhat assembly constituency in the North 24 Parganas district saw BJP score a first— an MLA in West Bengal without any alliance. In Dakshin Basirhat assembly seat, its vote increased from 3.91% in 2011 to 37.18% in 2014, thus maintaining its 2014 Lok Sabha vote of 38.08%. 

Both here and in the broader West Bengal context, the phenomenal political rise of the BJP is not simply anti-TMC disaffection. The TMC held its vote percentage intact while CPI(M) led Left Front saw a drastic collapse. Anti-TMC Hindu votes that deserted the CPI(M) largely went to the BJP as support for some of the communally divisive issues it raked up during its campaigns, as a reaction against some of TMC’s pro-Muslim policies and posturing and as a result of their assessment of the ground-situation of certain constituencies where a vote for the BJP would not be a ‘wasted’ vote as it was thought earlier. The weak fight put up by the CPI(M) against the BJP vis-à-vis the aggressive anti-BJP stance that the TMC supremo displayed during the Lok Sabha polls resulted in the haemorrhage of Muslims votes from the CPI(M) to the TMC. This is especially true in minority-heavy areas like Dakshin Basirhat. The CPI(M) had held this seat uninterruptedly from 1977—it even won it during 2011 when the Left was routed in most areas. In 2011, the winning CPI(M) candidate won with 35.94% votes. In the by-election caused by the death of CPI(M)’s sitting MLA, the party garnered a mere 13.03% of the votes. 

The spectacular collapse of the CPI(M) is certain areas has resulted in its erstwhile votes splitting two ways to the BJP and the TMC along mostly communal lines. Especially in South Bengal, the Muslim vote has swung strongly to the TMC at the cost of the Left. No party in South Bengal is as dependent on the Muslim vote as the TMC. Though this consolidation of Muslim votes in TMC’s favour has brought it gains, the party is increasingly nervous, especially as it is being type-cast as the pro-Muslim party. What it primarily fears is a consolidation of Hindu votes in in urban areas (typically large Hindu majority) and border areas in constituencies of South Bengal where Muslims are a large factor. With about 30% of West Bengal’s population being Muslim, such constituencies are more than a few. TMC has nursed the Muslim vote aggressively, hoping to hit the sweet spot where its Muslim base and BJP’s buffer role would make the Left unable to give a serious challenge. It seemed to have it all in the 2014 Lok Sabha election with one caveat— BJP wasn’t limited to a buffer. The Left vote’s fast and unprecedented collapse and the BJP’s swift rise to capture that vacated opposition political space, has made TMC’s sweet-spot very unstable. TMC’s present electoral arithmetic may well be an eventual albatross around its neck in this dynamic political scene. West Bengal has always been a fertile ground for sectarian political consciousness (among the majority and the minority) without a serious electoral outlet for these currents. The present scenario isn’t that unnatural. 

Certain themes dating back to the turbulent times around the 1946 Calcutta killings and the 1947 Partition of Bengal are being increasingly evoked politically.

The Politics of Remembering

Some argue that West Bengal never gave its due to Syama Prasad Mookerjee, the founder of BJP’s earlier avatar, Bharatiya Jan Sangh (BJS), and a key political player in Bengal before the 1947 partition and in West Bengal in early post-partition days. A long-time opposer of Bengal’s partition and the junior partner in the first and last truly trans-community government of United Bengal (the wartime Progressive Coalition called the Shyama-Haq ministry), Syama Prasad was instrumental in shaping Hindu public opinion in 1946-47 for a partition of Bengal with the objective of creating a homeland for Bengali Hindus. West Bengal’s formation was not a ‘natural’ corollary of India’s partition but a specific political demand backed by agitation and activism by the likes of Syama Prasad and others. That’s nearly forgotten now. 

In the present political context of West Bengal where the proportion of Hindus has been steadily decreasing, Syama Prasad and the 1946-47 movement for West Bengal is being increasingly memorialised. An event called the ‘Paschim Banga Dibas’ (West Bengal Day) was organized in Kolkata where a single theme resonated strongly— that there was an imminent demographic threat to the idea of West Bengal as a homeland for Bengali Hindus who did not wish to live under a communal Pakistan. It is undeniable that the official stance of West Bengal being just another appendage of the secular Indian union is far from how West Bengal was conceived by its proponents as a place for Bengali Hindus to flee to escape religious persecution. This idea that West Bengal is the refuge of last resort for Bengali Hindus is something that is widely held, just like East Bengal (with its culmination as sovereign Bangladesh) is the Bengali Muslim homeland. 

The gulf between official secular-speak and people’s conceptions is obvious. While no mainstream party directly claims West Bengal to be a Bengali Hindu homeland, BJP has an edge in getting the most political mileage out of that conception. The presence of its leaders at the Paschim Banga Dibas events and pronouncements that Hindu refugees from East Bengal are welcome are proxies for the endorsement of the homeland idea. Mainstream political discourse with its set of lakshman rekhas necessitates the usage of codes, private pronouncements and the usage of signals that put forward ideological stances without publicly spelling it out.

The BJP in West Bengal is the only mainstream party whose overt and covert stances on illegal migration and a permanent Bengali Hindu homeland speaks to the demographic anxieties of the majority. Unwritten partition-time compacts about communal majorities or communal homelands that have no place in the written constitution are being brought back to haunt this subcontinent. The violence of partition and this mismatch between public discourse and official discourse makes any kind of demographic ‘transition’ unthinkable to the present majority. But the transition threat can extract votes and the BJP knows that. So does the TMC but on this front, there is not much it can do except warning against communal forces. 

The spectacular and ongoing decrease in the percentage of Hindus in East Bengal provides a strong rationale for the anxious to the idea of ‘Fortress West Bengal’ as a viable political programme of some currency. The fact that Hindu population percentage has been steadily decreasing in both West Bengal and East Bengal feeds into theories that talk about fertility rate differentials between Hindu and Muslims Bengalis as well as illegal immigration of East Bengali Muslims that is not related to human rights violations. In the absence of much credible data, widely varying statistical projections of when Hindus will become a minority in West Bengal make up for real information. In certain circles, these projections are a hit and serve as calls to action. It’s unclear what form those actions may take. The bloodiest single-day action that West Bengal has ever seen was the Great Calcutta killings of 16th August 1946, on Muslim League’s ‘Direct Action’ day. 

Every act of remembrance is embedded in the politics of the present. On 16th August 2014, Hindu Sanhati, a fire-breathing Hindu communal organization led by Tapan Ghosh, held a march and a rally in Kolkata remembering an important character from the days of the Great Calcutta killings. Gopal Chandra Mukhopadhyay, popularly known as ‘Gopal Patha’, earned fame and notoriety for being the leader of a large gang of Hindu youths who were active during those riots, attacking armed and unarmed Muslims of Calcutta. The ‘effectiveness’ of the gang made commander Gopal somewhat of a legend who had saved many Hindus from death and dishonour and gave back as good as he got from the other side. The fame was transient as this Hindu ghazi concentrated on non-communal goondaism in the years to come. His attempted make-over as a ‘social-worker’ was short-lived. What did endure was his lasting ‘apolitical’ acquaintance with Bidhan Chandra Roy, the Congress chief minister of West Bengal for many years. 

The rally that celebrated Gopal as a ‘hero’ had crowds of a size that would characterize an organization and a cause that is slowly crawling out of the fringes. Organizations like Hindu Sanhati are entities that the BJP would not risk publicly associating with. However, it is not hard to guess which party would be the electoral outlet of choice for the kinds of passions that Hindu Sanhati excites. Whether it is the Paschim Banga Dibas or the Gopal Patha remembrance, both seek to ride on an existing popular consensus about the nature of that past. On the face of it, no one in today’s West Bengal should have any problem with the selective valorization and demonization of past events. But then let's remember that no talk about Babar is ever complete without intentional conflation with his supposed contemporary aulaad.

The capacious 'large tent' of the Old Congress ‘accomodated’ the likes of Gopal Patha. At the other extreme, Malda-Murshidabad-24 Parganas-based Muslim Leaguers who turned into Indian nationalists overnight post-partition were also part of the Congress fold. This ensured ‘peace’, a legacy that the Left inherited. How animosity can reverse a multi-generation but superficial ‘peace’ is evident with the return of large-scale communal rioting in flashpoint areas like the North and South 24 Parganas. 

Mamata Banerjee didn’t react sharply to the 2010 riots at Deganga where many fingers pointed at Nurul Islam, the local MP from TMC. On August 28th 2014, the TMC supremo warned that ‘some people are trying to incite riots in Bengal’. This charge, whether true or not, brings back that dark four-letter word into West Bengal’s political lexicon. That in itself is proof of the nature of the ongoing political contestation. Mamata clearly had the BJP in mind when she said this but the Deganga riots also show that that many of these ‘some people’ don’t belong to saffron ideologies. Green ideologies and its soldiers have also been very active in the communal disturbances in Deganga and Canning. 

A Dangerous Game

The North 24 Parganas, with its demographic mix and the long border it shares with Bangladesh, has lately been at the eye of several minor potentially communal storms. It is the first stop of the active Hindu refugee trail from East Bengal. No political group privately denies that there are illegal East Bengali Muslims in the district in considerable numbers. Having escaped religion-based persecution and discrimination in the Bengali Muslim homeland, the East Bengali Hindu refugee is walking into an area where the area is thick with the talk of a creeping demographic shift whose final form is precisely what they fled from. 

A significant proportion of the Scheduled Caste (largely Namasudras) population of North 24 Parganas district belongs to the Matua faith community. One of the worst victims of partition, citizenship eludes many members of this numerically substantial community. So influential are the Matua faith-leaders that the CPI(M) and TMC tried publicly to woo them in the past by various sops and promises. Since 2009, TMC has received the support of most Matuas. However, a change in laws that would then give citizenship to the stateless Matuas is something that only the union government can deliver. Herein lies a potential game-changer for the BJP that the TMC is afraid of. 

North 24 Parganas is where the Hindu Sanhati is at its strongest. This is also where the Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami activists take refuge when things get too hot in their country. Reports from Enforcement Directorate sources claim that a serious amount of Sarada scam cash could have flowed to Bangladesh through Jamaat hands. Given the ruling party is in the line of fire for its alleged Sarada links, the confluence of unholy interests points to a bad moon rising. Cross-border cattle, drug and human trafficking interests and the unaccounted money that is easy in these parts often make strange bedfellows out of political enemies, thus adding a layer of cynicism to an already unstable situation. 

Abdul Barique Biswas and other elements perceived to be close to the TMC have often been associated with trans-border gold smuggling as well as cattle smuggling interests. Across the border, lies Satkhira— a stronghold of the militant Islamist Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami, whose leaders are now on trial in Dhaka for their war-crimes during 1971 Bangladesh Liberation war. The Sarada scam probes are bringing in focus a possibility of some elements from TMC being quite close to the Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami. Some Sarada money might have flowed into Bangladesh through the Jamaat channels. Basirhat, between the nation of Bangladesh and the state of West Bengal, the ground-zero of illegal cattle-trade, is the other cow-belt destined to make headlines beyond the by-elections. The present by-election was the first among the many battles of Basirhat, both electoral and otherwise, in the days to come.

The present flux in West Bengal politics has also seen curious happenings like some Muslim (in addition to Hindu) activists of some Left parties joining the BJP in the hope that the government party from Delhi would be able to provide security against TMC’s rough actions. The TMC is also responding to the shifting political situation. The frequency of the very public hobnobbing of its supremo with select Muslim divines and ‘community leaders’ has come down drastically. The nature of TMC’s voter base demographics allows it limited manoeuvring space. It cannot afford to appear to change course suddenly, even if it actually is changing course. This is why TMC leaders lost no time to announce that Taslima Nasreen will not be ‘allowed’ to enter West Bengal when the union home ministry extended her residency permit. Earlier, political pressure resulted in the cancellation of a television serial which was due to be aired in a Bengali TV channel and whose story Taslima Nasreen wrote. Last year, Kolkata, the self-styled ‘cultural capital’ became the only city that Salman Rushdie was threatened from flying into. In the absence of a substantive socio-economic uplift programme for minorities, the Taslimas and Rushdies come in ever so handy.

BJP has always had a problem in West Bengal— it is perceived to be the party of non-Bengali Hindus with an urban trader constituency. BJP is in an aggressive re-branding mode. One high note of BJP’s 2014 electoral performance was its second place finish in both North and South Kolkata Lok Sabha constituencies, with the CPI(M) coming in third. The BJP also led in the TMC supremo’s assembly segment, making it especially painful. 

Whether BJP’s unprecedented success in Kolkata and West Bengal was the result of a certain ‘wave’ or signs of a more enduring shift of political equations will become clearer in future. The so-called left-secular citadel of Kolkata has not always been hostile to the ideological brand that the BJP represents. One might remember that Syama Prasad Mookerjee was elected to the Bengal Legislative Assembly in both 1937 and 1946 from the Calcutta University Graduates constituency— probably the most highly educated electorate in the whole subcontinent. In the first Lok Sabha elections of 1952, Syama Prasad Mookerjee, as the BJS candidate, trounced both the Congress and the Left by huge margins. The seat was Calcutta South-East. But that was then. 

The coming battles for Bengal will determine whether certain things repeat themselves as tragedy or as farce or as a new saffron dawn, as some are hoping.

Garga Chatterjee - @gargac on Twitter - is a PhD from Harvard and is a Bengal-based commentator on politics and culture. He blogs at http://hajarduari.wordpress.com

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