There is little doubt about the fact that Mamata Banerjee is one of very few mass-leaders remaining in the subcontinent in the real sense of the term. When her detractors ridicule her party, the Trinamool Congress (TMC) by saying that ‘TMC-te ektai post, baki shob lamp-post’ (there is only one post in the TMC party and the rest are all lampposts), they are not very wrong. It is an acknowledgement of the lady’s charisma in a state that really has not seen such a popular leader in a very long time. Though West Bengal has seen more popular parties and governments, I cannot think of any one individual who has had such personal popularity and such indispensability to the ruling party ever since the introduction of universal adult franchise. This is no small thing.
Due to the massive population living in the territories of India, one tends to under-appreciate the size of its constituent states and hence the sheer volume of human support behind so-called ‘regional’ leaders. As a point of comparison, the population of West Bengal is bigger than Canada, Australia, Netherlands, Belgium and Mongolia put together. While Mamata Banerjee still remains the single most popular leader in West Bengal, she and her party are increasingly showing signs of anxiety that, come the next election time, the collective popularity of the post and the lamp-posts may not be enough to repeat the spectacular 2011 performance that toppled the behemoth called the CPI(M) after 34 years of uninterrupted power. Her primary headache is the BJP, the fastest growing political force in West Bengal at present.
The murky events around the recent Burdwan blast case that pointed at Islamist terror modules in West Bengal, the deep ideological and functional connections between Jamaat elements in West Bengal and Bangladesh, their alleged connections with local TMC members and the alleged cover-up attempts by the state police have been deftly used by the political opposition in West Bengal to portray the TMC as a party that harbours, encourages, sustains and shelters Islamic terrorists in West Bengal.
Naturally, the BJP has taken a lead in pushing this line. While the prominent party functionaries of the BJP choose their words carefully, they have not actively fought against the patently false suggestions that large swathes of West Bengal are nothing short of Jihadi training camps or sleeper camps, biding their time to wage some kind of a tectonic attack on Hindu-majority West Bengal and other parts of India. (That the nabbed people most probably were plotting against the Sheikh Hasina government of Bangladesh is, of course, played down). It is this insidious and dangerous whisper campaign and speaking in codes that starts conflating Bangaldeshi Muslim Jihadis to West Bengali Muslim Jihadis to West Bengali Muslim militants to West Bengali militant Muslims to staunch Muslims and only falls vaguely short of branding all West Bengali Muslims as suspect.
It does not help the TMC that a person of very questionable past and present profile like Ahmed Hasan Imran is a Rajya Sabha member of parliament on its party ticket. Had he only been a party functionary, denial may have have been easier, but how do you disown a member of parliament? After all, this is on government record and not mere TMC letterhead. Hence, it has no choice but to protect its flock. If Ahmed Hasan Imran were a ‘mere’ in-charge of the party in a state like, say, Uttar Pradesh, as Asif Khan was, the TMC would have lost no time to distance itself from him.
It is undeniable that the BJP cannot make serious inroads in major parts of West Bengal without some degree of communal polarization. Some of it undoubtedly exists and the rest needs to be manufactured, After having received numerous body blows where the BJP scored points, with Burdwan blasts and Saradha chit-fund scandal being the most potentially damaging ones, Mamata Banerjee has chosen to go on the offensive. As one of the most seasoned mass-politicians of the world, she knows that she does not need to win all votes, but just enough votes. BJP used this ‘enough’ strategy to the hilt in its 2014 Lok Sabha campaign everywhere, reaping handsome dividends in the first past the post election system. Mamata Banerjee has chosen to situate herself as the wall between a ‘peaceful’ West Bengal and the nefarious forces that allegedly want to breach that peace. She has been repeating a certain word called ‘Danga-guru’ (riot-master) to refer to the saffron forces in general and, seemingly, Narendra Modi in particular. She contrasts this with the assertion that Bengal has traditionally been a place of peaceful ‘Dharma-gurus’ (that it is hardly so is a different discussion). Hence, she is upholding Bengal’s ‘tradition’ of inter-communal peace. Whether this strategy will work, only time will tell. But does she mean it? From her past and present moves, the signals are mixed.
West Bengal does not need to import ‘Danga-gurus’ from Gujarat or anywhere else. The very birth of the state, as it is, can be partly traced to the ‘Danga’ (riot) that happened in Kolkata in 1946 and the mass-murders that followed in Noakhali in the same year. It is true that the two most widespread post-1947 riots, namely the anti-Sikh riots of 1984 and the post-Babri demolition riots of 1992 did not strongly affect West Bengal, nor has anything remotely of the scale of Gujarat 2002 taken place in the state after Partition. However, the uptick in medium scale communal incidents of recent years is worrying. The most significant of these are the riots in Deganga (2010) and Canning (2013). The BJP alleged that Haji Nurul Islam of the TMC, then local MP, was deeply implicated in instigating the Deganga riots. While Mamata Banerjee did not overtly show any displeasure with Haji Nurul Islam, she shifted the sitting MP to fight in Jangipur—a Congress stronghold seat where he had no local base. For the 2014 elections, he was the only sitting MP of the TMC who was fielded in a different constituency, away from his home base, in an opposition bastion. In Jangipur, he came a distant third.
If this was meant to convey that Mamata Banerjee acts in her own ways to rein in characters who may have a shady reputation when it comes to communal politics, her chosen replacement for Haji Nurul Islam’s old seat could not have been more unfortunate. She fielded Idris Ali who gained fame as an accused in the rioting around Park Circus in Kolkata demanding that the author Taslima Nasreen be kicked out of West Bengal. This was in 2007, during the Left Front regime. While the Left Front did kick out Taslima Nasreen in the face of threats from street bullies and anxiety due to its perverted perception of ‘what Muslims want’, Idris Ali (at that point with the Congress) was also arrested, charge-sheeted and later imprisoned for inciting violence. Though he got released on bail, the cases against Idris Ali went on. If Mamata Banerjee wanted to make West Bengal free of ‘Danga gurus’, she could have demanded and facilitated speedy trials of those already accused of ‘danga’ or rioting. She awarded this Idris Ali character with a Lok Sabha ticket, as Haji Nurul Islam’s worthy replacement. Idris Ali won. Recently, the police withdrew the cases pending against him related to the 2007 Park Circus mob violence incident. The police fall under the home ministry of West Bengal. Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee is also the home minister of West Bengal.
It is this state of affairs that makes the BJP jubilant. West Bengal presents a strange conundrum to the BJP. In this state with near 30% Muslim population, some Muslim-majority villages have overnight ‘switched’ allegiance to the BJP from the CPI(M). Whether this will make the character of the West Bengal state BJP any different from its Hindu-Hindi-Hindustani-Bania-
Not every issue can be communalized and no party can come to power in West Bengal on the basis of communal polarization alone. This is where the alleged corruption by senior TMC functionaries has come in handy for the BJP. The Saradha chit-fund scam broke during the UPA 2 regime. A force that is looking increasingly rudderless when out of power, the CPI(M) led Left Front was singularly unsuccessful in capitalizing on the issue. If the wobbly coalition led by the Congress, under the names of UPA 1 and UPA 2 allegedly ran the CBI as the ‘Congress Bureau of Investigation’, one can only imagine that without any new step to make the agency independent of the Prime Minister’s Office, what will be the nature of its working under a government that has a single-party majority and within that party, a person has single-man majority. The CBI reports directly to this man. However, there is a difference between the two kinds of interferences, the one of the past and the present. While the earlier one can be called a go-slow mode ('inaction in lieu of support' bargain), the present one can be called a 'go super selective' mode. The Saradha ponzi scheme is indeed a case where hopefully many big fish would be caught. They should be, if they are guilty. The political use of an agency is not simply about action but creating a non-level playing field by selective action and predictable inaction. It would appear that the CBI is most active in pursuing corrupt people in those states where BJP is looking to snatch the principal opposition space at the least. In many big states like Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Madhya Pradesh, the BJP may well have peaked in terms of Lok Sabha seats. Come next time, it needs to look at other places to make up what it will lose in these states. West Bengal and Orissa top the lists of states where much can be gained. The two states together have 63 Lok Sabha seats. Of these, BJP holds just three.
In both these states, the CBI has been active in questioning and arresting top functionaries of the ruling parties, the TMC and the Biju Janata Dal (BJD), both bitterly opposed to the BJP at present. The TMC and BJD condemnation of CBI’s ‘hyperactivity’ and its alleged political use sounds almost identical. There are many reasons why parties in power at Delhi do not want an independent CBI. If the BJP indeed manages to occupy principal opposition space or more, as it would hope, in these two states, the CBI will go down in folklore as an essential part of the remembering ‘how the east was won’.
Garga Chatterjee—@gargac on Twitter—a PhD from Harvard, is a Bengal-based commentator on politics and culture. He blogs at http://hajarduari.wordpress.