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Saturday, February 24, 2024

Bengal may be heading for a saffron summer

Bengal is probably on the cusp of the most radical power shift since the second partition of the state in 1947. A high saffron tide threatens to wash away the decade long fascist rule of the intemperate Mamata Banerjee and her thuggish party, the Trinamool Congress, in the eight-phase polls commencing on March 28.

A lot depends on whether the BJP manages to hold on to the sweeping electoral gains made in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls when it stumped even its own backers by winning 18 of the state’s 42 seats and picking 41 per cent of the popular vote. Impartial reports emanating from field researchers feel that the anti-TMC consolidation is by and large intact.

The finding militates against the claims of Prashant Kishor, the political strategist contracted by Didi to help retain power. The unflappable Kishor has undertaken to quit his calling if the BJP wins a single seat beyond 100. This is a promise he will be held up to by many should his prediction come a cropper.

2019 was a sign of the gathering storm. Intricate social engineering at the grassroots worked to the BJP’s advantage in the dalit and tribal majority belt of rural North and South Dinajpur, Bankura, Murshidabad, and Nadia districts and the adivasi dominated Jangal Mahal belt.

Ideally, it is Bengali Hindu voters who ought to have been the principal instruments of change. Most are still perched on a fence weighing their options. The few who have made up their minds are mum. Fear stalks. The threat of violence from Didi’s roughnecks in the interiors is real. Around 130 BJP workers have been killed in the last six years. Graft in the shape of tolabaji (organized extortion) by TMC workers has been monopolized. The vice-like grip of the so called “party society” put in place by the communists has further tightened.

Not a leaf moves without the consent of the local TMC dada in mofussil Bengal. Anti-socials and contractors have replaced primary school teachers as intermediaries. Party goons have been known to poke their noses into the nuptial arrangement of families, supply of essentials, and construction activity. The CPM did much the same. Only that their modus operandi was more diffused and dispersed, the butter applied more evenly over the bread.

Didi’s decade long rule has fostered a culture of untrammeled violence in the countryside. The lure for unchallenged power resulted in a record 34 per cent of seats going uncontested in the 2018 panchayat polls. Eighteen people died in the clashes. The prevailing anti-TMC sentiment in rural areas can be traced to this single event. It was an unforgivable breach of public trust.

Local TMC leaders have fattened on their illicit earnings. Their prosperity is visible in the clothes they wear, the cars they drive, and the houses they built. Open display of the change in fortunes was never seen under communist rule. It goes against the basic grain of Bengal’s political culture.

Above all looms the lengthening shadow of Islam. Adherents of Allah constitute around 27-30 per cent of the populace compared to 12 per cent 73 years ago. Didi has staked her entire political future to get their backing for reasons which extend beyond the dictates of electoral politics.

Pre-Partition politics in Bengal was presided over by educated Muslim communalists like Sher-e-Bangla AK Fazlul Haq, a jurist, and his Oxford educated comrade-in-arms, Hussain Shaheed Suhrawardy. Both rose to become prime ministers of the state. Neither made Bharat their home after 1947. Both also went on to serve the ruling regimes in Pakistan: Haq as home minister, and Suhrawardy as the fifth PM. The chief minister of Bengal today is a Hindu of dodgy vintage not above rattling off Quranic verses in public but offended by chants of Jai Shri Ram.

Blood curdling details of the Great Calcutta Killings between 16-19 August 1946 stoked by Suhrawardy in response to Jinnah’s call for Direct Action Day still arouse anger and revulsion. More than 3,000 people were done to death in the raging violence. The riots along with the Naval Mutiny in Bombay six months earlier hastened the departure of the British a year later. Centuries of cultural commingling did not deter Bengali Hindus and Muslims from parting ways. The separation was a historic necessity.

British historian Simon Sebag Montefiore’s take on Marx’s famous observation in his essay, the Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, that history is often inclined to repeat itself, first as tragedy, second as farce can be applied to Bengal’s politics today. What Marx opined, said Montefiore, was witty but far from true. History is never repeated, but it borrows, steals, echoes, and commandeers the past to create a hybrid, something unique out of the ingredients of past and present.

Deracinated Bengali Hindus, mostly of the middle class, remain reluctant to set aside their petty cultural pride for the sake of national unity. The more hot-headed ones recall the radical Amra Bangali (AB) movement of the mid-1980s in Assam. The campaign stressed on speaking in Bangla and adopting Bengali ways in an imaginary Bangalistan whose borders extended beyond Paschim Banga to neighboring states with a sizeable Bengali presence. Mercifully, they are a negligible minority, and scoffed by their own brethren.

The AB agitation, an anti-communist adjunct of the Ananda Marga founded by Prabhat Ranjan Sarkar, might have been an extreme reaction to the injustices meted out to Bengalis in Assam. The miasma of regionalism, however, still afflicts many Bengali Hindus. Self-imposed isolation from the political mainstream can only deepen the divide in a sensitive state bordering a country which has since its creation in 1971 been the main smuggler of radical Islam into Bengal and Assam. The communal passions of 1940s Bengal may return to haunt unless a regime wedded to keeping the post-1947 compact replaces the current dispensation.

A steady wave of illegal immigrants since 1947 has disrupted the demography of both states. The birth of Bangladesh did nothing to stem the tide given the persecution, intolerance, and adverse economic conditions prevalent across the border. It is on the strength of their vote that the TMC hopes to return to power for a third straight term on May 2. And it is this which the BJP hopes to prevent with all the resources at its command.

The ground reality is staggering.

Forty-six of Bengal’s 294 assembly constituencies have a Muslim population of 50 per cent or more; 16 where their numbers hover between 40-50 per cent; 33 with 30-40 per cent; and another 50 where they make up 20-30 per cent of the electorate. (Source: India Today)

Muslims thus wield a decisive influence in well over 100 constituencies spread over the districts of Malda, Murshidabad, North Dinajpur, North and South 24 Parganas, Nadia, and Birbhum. Hindus are in minority in Malda, Murshidabad, and North Dinajpur.

Hence, the mad scramble for the Muslim vote between the TMC, CPM, and the Congress, and the undue importance of new-fangled anti-Hindu formations like the Indian Secular Front. The body’s head is a young cleric, Abbas Siddiqui, whose family runs the Furfura Sharif shrine in Hooghly district and controls the large Muslim vote bank in South 24 Parganas.

Siddiqui’s sole relevance in the BJP’s scheme of things is that his opposition to Didi could eat into her formidable Muslim vote bank. Fishing in the same communal waters will also be AIMIM boss Asaduddin Owaisi in alliance with the ISF.

The BJP’s counter has been to build bridges with the sizeable lower caste Hindu migrants from Bangladesh, the Matuas  (Namashudras) concentrated in North and South 24-Parganas, and the Rajvanshis of north Bengal.

The Matuas make up 17.4 per cent of the total SC population, the second largest in the state after the Rajvanshis whose numbers are a chunky 33 lakh. As descendants of the medieval kingdom of Kamtapur whose borders encompassed parts of Assam, Meghalaya, and Bihar, their votes will prove handy for the BJP in the Assam poll as well.

The good thing is that almost cent per cent of Bengal’s 1.8 crore SC population is Hindu, and a more reliable vote bank than Bengali caste Hindus. Ten of the 42 LS seats are reserved for SCs. Four of them viz. Coochbehar, Jalpaiguri, Bishnupur and Bongaon were won by the BJP in 2019.

The saffron party seems to have successfully displaced Didi in the affections of both communities. Narendra Modi had sought the blessings of the matriarch of the Matua community, Boro Maa Binapani Devi, a centurion, before the 2019 poll. The party fielded her grandson from Bongaon and won the seat at first shot.

Honoring the right of citizenship of Matua refugees stands assured with the passage of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act. The decision to postpone the implementation of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) has nullified the protests over its impact on Bengali Hindu refugees identified as illegal immigrants in Assam.

The main weapon in the TMC’s arsenal to counter the might of the BJP’s election machinery is the old chestnut: tap into the nascent fears of deracinated Bengali Hindus and Muslims that a saffron sweep could convert their shonar Bangla into a communal cauldron, lack of evidence notwithstanding. Quite apart from the time-tested invocation of regional Bengali pride which helped communists to keep the state in splendid isolation for over three decades before being voted out.

Conjuration of Bengali amour-propre was for the Marxists merely an additional tool to deepen their ideological dominance. That their real loyalties lay not (and still does not) with Bharat Mata but the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was never a secret. Which is why Didi’s Maa Maati Manush slogan coined in 2009 struck an emotional chord with voters. It paid handsome dividends in the LS poll that year, pushing the TMC seat count from one to 19 and creating the ground for ousting the CPM in the 2011 assembly poll.

That slogan has long outlived its utility. For no leader with a commitment to the mother, motherland, and its people would seek to return to power by shamelessly courting a community whose belief system anchored in ghazwa-e-Hind seeks to violate its very sanctity.

Lobbing the “outsider” card at the BJP is nothing but a desperate ploy to obviate the likely loss of power. There is nothing so exclusionary about Bengal’s culture and traditions which a party sworn to saffron values and the ideals of Vivekananda cannot understand. The founder of the party’s forerunner, the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, was Bengali.

Didi’s street fighting qualities brought her to power in 2011. Singur and Nandigram have since proved to be monumental blunders. Ten years at the helm have reduced her to a tinpot dictator. The desertion of two of her ablest lieutenants — Mukul Roy and Suvendu Adhikari — has much to do with her crass conduct and choler. Belated efforts to recover lost ground with programs like Duare Shorkar (government at your doorstep) are unlikely to work.

Most of the good work she did was in the first term. Voters reelected her in 2016 despite scams like Narada and Sarada. They gave her the benefit of the doubt. A second stint as CM should have matured her. It quadrupled her arrogance instead.

There is, as the proverb goes, many a slip between the cup and the lip. The best calculations can go wrong. Didi remains a formidable opponent with much of her appeal among diehard proponents of Bengali sub-nationalism still intact.

All said and done, if there is one reason why Didi needs to be ousted it is this: Bengal cannot be allowed to become another Kerala which it surely will given her penchant to put her narrow electoral interests above the national. Her defeat will be of her own making.

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Sudhir Kumar Singh
Sudhir Kumar Singh
Sudhir Kumar Singh is an independent journalist who has worked in senior editorial positions in the Times Of India, Asian Age, Pioneer, and the Statesman. Also a sometime stage and film actor who has worked with iconic directors like Satyajit Ray and Tapan Sinha.


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