By Nantoo Banerjee
It may easily be the worst election battle of its kind ever fought in this country. Murder, rape, stabbing, physical attacks, bombing, gun-shooting, brick-batting, arson and looting have become a commonplace across poll bound West Bengal. With several national leaders of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), including the prime minister and home minister, relentlessly trying to seize the power in the state from Trinamool Congress (TMC), especially after the former’s unexpected large tally in the last parliamentary election in 2019, the ruling TMC is using every possible weapon under its control and imagination to thwart BJP from reigning in Bengal
An uncanny tension prevails almost everywhere — from the Sunderbans in the south to northeastern fringes of Coochbehar — to indirectly control the voting process. After a 80-percent-plus first and second phases of voting, goons are out to scare away non-partisan electorates from polling booths. The state police seem to have taken a back seat after the arrival of some 1,000 companies of central security personnel, following the Election Commission directive, to ensure free and fair election. Most constituencies are marked ‘sensitive’. Over a dozen VIPs have been given high security cover by the CRPF even as a large number of central paramilitary personnel are being put on active operational deployment across the state for the eight-phase polling that began on March 27 and would end with the last phase on April 29.
For both BJP and TMC, it has become a do or die situation. Both the parties are determined to make a reckless effort to succeed. The stakes are high. If TMC gets defeated, it may be the end of the party’s political relevance in the state. If BJP gains, it will immediately look for a much bigger seat support from West Bengal in the 2024 parliamentary election. The party will also control the country’s fourth most populous state.
The five of India’s 29 states, namely, Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Bihar, West Bengal and Madhya Pradesh, account for almost 50 percent of the country’s population. Of these, BJP rules in UP, Bihar and MP. The combined opposition Left Front, Congress and their new ally Abbas Siddiqui’s Indian Secular Front (yet to be registered as a political party) are expecting to regroup themselves to emerge as a political force after the election. The Left combination’s newest slogan is : ‘Bam after Ram’, meaning the Left after the Right.
BJP does not have abig cadre base in West Bengal. Out of the state’s 355 polling booths now, BJP has reportedly failed to provide agents in 180 booths. RSS, the progenitor of the Sangh Parivar, of which BJP is the most important political connect, has little presence in historically secular West Bengal. The Left-led opposition alliance, which is likely to come third in the 2021 state election, is highly hopeful to return to power anytime later if TMC loses the election and substantially disintegrates thereafter. BJP owes its current strength in West Bengal to highly active support of several top former TMC leaders, including MPs, MLAs and municipal corporators, who left Trinamool due to differences with the chief minister and her emerging politically powerful nephew, a parliament member.
BJP’s rise in the state has been rather astounding in the last five years. The party managed to bag only three seats out of 294 in the 2016 Assembly election. In the 2011 state election, it managed to grab only one seat. The picture suddenly changed for BJP in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. Of the 42 Lok Sabha seats in the state, BJP had won as many as 18 seats as against TMC’s 22. BJP also raised their seats in the Legislative Assembly by 15 at last year end. Now, the party is going all out to capture at least 148 seats to achieve the controlling majority and form the government. Can BJP make it? Doubtful. There is a possibility of a hung assembly with BJP emerging, at the most, the single largest party having 110 to120 MLAs. However, in such a case, it may not be difficult for financially strong BJP to get additional number of MLAs out of TMC. BJP is very hopeful of forming the next government in the state. And, that is creating a kind of panic among TMC leaders and their mostly unscrupulous supporters in the rank and file.
The BJP leadership is buoyant, especially after sweeping the last bye-elections in 13 states. It translated into an overall strike rate of 71.4 percent. However, going by poll analysis, bye-elections do not mean much when it comes to full state elections or general elections. Moreover, the case of West Bengal is totally different. This is one state where the Hindu card has never been very popular despite Muslims aggregating some 30 percent of its population. Immediately, after the partition of Bengal in 1947, a few pro-RSS political and cultural outfits such as Hindu Mahasabha and ‘Bratachari’ movement were in the public view.
But, all of them disappeared within 10 years for want of popular leadership and public support. This is despite the fact that Nirmal Chandra Chatterjee, a well-known jurist from Bengal, was the first Hindu Mahasabha member of Parliament and Shyama Prasad Mukherjee pioneered Jan Sangh, the earlier Avatar of BJP. In the late 1950s, young Bengalis were more influenced by Left political thinkers such as Muzaffar Ahmed, P. Krishna Pillai, EMS Namboodiripad, M.N. Roy, Nalini Gupta and Sripad Dange.
The BJP’s election campaign seeks to create a religious rift in West Bengal, dividing its two major communities — Hindu and Muslim. The elections are also expected to shape the trajectory of national politics and the balance of power between the centre and states. Historically, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu and Kerala are more concerned about their regional supremacy than BJP’s ‘double-engine’ growth (under the same government at the centre and states) theory.
For BJP, which already made a strong inroad in Assam, West Bengal is its next target to push its political agenda and close the debate around the immigrants and move with the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) and the National Register of Citizens. The political agenda does find some support in both Assam and West Bengal, bordering Bangladesh and having a sizeable Muslim presence. BJP is pushing the development dream hard alongside control of illegal immigration from Bangladesh and Myanmar. Unfortunately, the no-holds-barred TMC-BJP poll rivalry has degenerated into a dangerous hate campaign in Bengal. (IPA Service)