The contours of the Bengal battle
In this election, the BJP is hoping that its Hindu identity will trump Banerjee’s Bengali identity. To strengthen its bid for the Bengali Hindu vote, the BJP has accused her of cultivating a Muslim vote bank
Next Sunday, the winner of the West Bengal elections will be known. The result has the potential of shaping, and possibly undermining, India’s federalism.
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) campaign has been fronted by star campaigners from Delhi — Prime Minister Narendra Modi, home minister Amit Shah, party chief JP Nadda, and Union minister Smriti Irani, the only one to speak Bengali. So notable has the been absence of the state BJP that party leaders from Delhi have had to assure crowds that the chief minister will be Bengali if the party wins.
The BJP’s dependence on Delhi campaigners has enabled chief minister (CM) Mamta Banerjee to play the Bengali card, for all its worth, and attack the BJP as a party of outsiders. She believes she can win because Bengalis have a strong sense of their identity, and a long record of voting for staunchly Bengali leaders and parties, whatever their political hue.
After Independence, Bengalis stayed with BC Roy as CM until his death almost a decade-and-a-half later. He was a member of the Congress but, in those days, the Congress was a federation of parties headed by leaders who were very much their own men. Roy was an independent-minded Bengali patriot who was close to Mahatma Gandhi but had an ambivalent relationship with Jawaharlal Nehru.
After him came a period of political instability, which earned Bengal a bad name for violent unrest. Then there did come five more years of Congress rule, but in 1977, Bengal revolted against Indira Gandhi’s autocracy and elected the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and its allies. They ruled for almost 34 years.
The state’s long-serving CM, Jyoti Basu, once told me that the CPI(M) hadn’t been able to spread to the neighbouring states because it was so firmly identified as a Bengali party.
Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress, which displaced the Communists ten years ago, is even more firmly Bengali than they were.
In this election, the BJP is hoping that its Hindu identity will trump Banerjee’s Bengali identity. To strengthen its bid for the Bengali Hindu vote, the BJP has accused her of cultivating a Muslim vote bank. Even though the central Border Security Force is responsible for preventing illegal immigration, the BJP maintains it is still continuing and blames the state government for it.
The immigrants issue led the home minister to jeopardise the success of the PM’s recent Bangladesh visit. Two days after Modi’s return, Shah said in a newspaper interview, “Poor people are leaving Bangladesh because they don’t get enough to eat in their own country.” This provoked an angry response from Bangladesh’s foreign minister, who called the remark unacceptable.
The BJP has also tried to persuade Bengalis that joining the mainstream will revive investment in Kolkata and its hinterland, once known as the workshop of India. Bengal’s reputation for violent industrial unrest has lingered on, harming investment prospects. The years of Communist rule didn’t help, nor did Banerjee when she drove Tata’s Nano project out of the state.
This election, with its eight phases, has been controversial because of its duration — the longest in West Bengal’s history. This may well have favoured the BJP because it has the resources to sustain such a lengthy campaign.
There has also been the controversy over the rallies both sides have held, ignoring the pandemic.
It’s been a bitter, personalised fight. If, when the din of electoral warfare dies down, the BJP emerges the winner, India will lose a doughty champion of federalism and Bengal will break its tradition of being ruled by a Bengali party.
The views expressed are personal