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Mainstream, VOL LIII No 14, March 28, 2015

West Bengal at Crossroads: An Insight into the Emerging Political Dynamics

Monday 30 March 2015

by Ayan Guha

Politics of West Bengal is going through a transition. The Left seems to be on a road to steady decline while the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is looking poised to take on the role of the principal Opposition to the Trinamul Congress (TMC). There are already enough signs that indicate that the organised domain of politics has at last started to cede space to the BJP in West Bengal.

The rise of the BJP as a credible political force apparently challenges the general notion that the political culture of modern Bengal does not accommodate identity politics based on caste and religion. The rise of the BJP has led many to raise an alarm about the probability of using religious sentiments in politics and the resultant communal polarisation. Does this mean that the polity of Bengal no longer remains an unconquered domain for communal politics? This question needs to be answered through an analysis of the recent political events of the State.

The Politics Surrounding Illegal Migration

Many analysts have expressed the view that the fear of communal polarisation in West Bengal looms large in its border areas due to the possibility of Hindutva politics finding its footprints. Their fear is not entirely unfounded. The illegal migration to West Bengal from Bangladesh continues unabated. Such immigration over the years has changed the demographic profile of the border districts. The fact that such districts have become the hub of illegal Madrasas preaching the message of Islamic fundamentalism has come to the fore thanks to the recent blasts in Bardhhaman’s Khagragarh.

Under such a situation if the Hindutva political idioms are used, then communal polarisation may well be a likely outcome. The BJP made illegal migration a political issue before the 2014 national elections. To gain political mileage out of this issue Modi cleverly made a distinction between refugee and infiltrator and even went to the extent of promising citizenship for the former. This looked like a clever ploy to bring within the larger Hindu fold the low-caste Namsudras who had crossed over to India after March 25, 1971. They have so far been denied citizenship and refugee status despite their persistent demands because the current Citizenship Act does not allow citizenship to those who entered India after March 25, 1971.

The BJP took the stand that illegal migration was nothing short of infiltration and the infiltration should be treated as an act of aggression on India following the Supreme Court’s verdict. Modi, during an election rally, said: “People who enter India are of two types — illegal immigrants and refugees. The refugees are part of our family. India has a duty to respectfully rehabilitate them.” On another occasion he said that the people who worship Maa Durga could remain in this country while the others who crossed over with ulterior designs would have to leave.

All these remarks led the so-called secular constituency to release considerable anti-Modi venom in various public forums. In the liberal discourse Modi’s refugee promptly became the prototype of the persecuted Hindu and Modi’s infiltrator was dubbed as the stand-in conceptual category for the nuisance-creating minorities. Arnab Goswami, the Times Now anchor, in his interview of Modi before the Lok Sabha elections raised this issue of illegal migration from Bangladesh. He took a cue from the BJP manifesto which carried the term ‘persecuted Hindus’. His question was pretty direct to Modi—‘In your manifesto, you mentioned good governance and development but in your manifesto you also mentioned that India should remain as a natural home to persecuted Hindus and these persecuted Hindus will be welcomed to seek refuge here. My question to you is why only persecuted Hindus, Mr Modi, and why not persecuted Buddhists, why not persecuted Sikhs, why not persecuted Jains, why not persecuted Muslims or persecuted Christians? Because if the BJP speaks the language of inclusion, then Mr Modi, your manifesto should have included all religions.’

Modi seemed to be well prepared for such a knee-jerk reaction from the mercurial anchor and got away on that occasion with his characteristic flamboyance and confidence. He responded that as per the Supreme Court version Hinduism is not a religion but a way of life that defines all the inhabitants living in the Indian subcontinent and, therefore, the word Hindu is itself inclusive. However, despite his convincing arguments in support of the refugee-infiltration distinction, it was feared with considerable certainty that such rhetoric would polarise the situation on the ground and this anticipated polarisation was blamed on Modi.

Recent Political Lessons 

Any fair and objective analysis would agree to the point that in the last Lok Sabha elections the BJP made minimum use of the Hindutva rhetoric and fought the elections primarily on the issue of development. However, the echo of the Hindutva agenda was heard by many in the invocation of the controversial refugee-infiltrator distinction. But the issue of development was clearly the dominant agenda and consolidation of votes on religious ground seemed a limited strategy resorted to on selective planes, that is, areas adjacent to the Bangladesh borders. At least seven Lok Sabha constituencies of West Bengal are adjacent to the Bangladesh border. These constituencies are Ranaghat, Bongaon, Barrackpore, Basirhat, Barasat, Krishnagore and Joynagar. These constituencies are generally considered to be most vulnerable to the impact of communal polarisation and Hindu consoli-dation. It was therefore expected that the strategy of restricted polarisation in those areas would work in favour of the BJP.

In this context, the comparative analysis of the electoral performances of the BJP in these constituencies and other constituencies will help us to understand the success of the latent Hindutva narrative. In all the above-mentioned constituencies the vote-share of the BJP increased significantly but it came third in each of these constituencies, behind the TMC and Left Front. However, it surprisingly won the Asansol constituency—an urban-industrial hub. Most importantly, its success in Kolkata raised eyebrows in political circles. It gave the TMC a close fight and came second leaving the CPI-M behind in both Kolkata (North) and Kolkata (South) constituency. As per the results of the Lok Sabha elections, 2014, in a sizeable number of Vidhan Sabha constituencies of Kolkata (North) and Kolkata (South) the TMC is trailing behind the BJP and some of these constituencies are considered political bastions of many heavyweight TMC leaders and Ministers like Partha Chatterjee, Firhad Hakim, Subrata Mukherjee, Javed Khan, Aroop Biswas and Sovan Chatterjee. Even the Chief Minister of the State, Mamata Banerjee, is trailing by an extremely slender margin in her Bhowanipore Vidhan Sabha constituency. Moreover, in the posh Salt Lake Vidhan Sabha constituency, the address of many of the super elites of the State, the BJP has gained a steady lead over the TMC.

This electoral outcome clearly demonstrates that the BJP has registered a much better performance in the urban industrial centres which have long been engulfed by a sense of gloom and despair. The prospect of industrial growth and urbanisation seems to have caught the imagination of the urban voters. This points to the fact that it is the issue of development that has brought electoral success to the BJP in Bengal. The fruits of the strategy of controlled polarisation in the border areas have failed to match up to the electoral dividends paid by the rhetoric of development. Therefore, it would not be correct to see the rise of the BJP as the emergence of religion-based identity politics. West Bengal has warmed up to the incarnation of the BJP in its development avatar not in its Hindutva avatar. The recent developments in the state have also confirmed this fact.

A few months ago by-elections were held in two Vidhan Sabha constituencies—Chowringhee and Basirhat. These elections attracted considerable attention. They were closely watched by the observers because their outcome was expected to give valuable insights into the political dynamics of the future. The results of these elections clearly established the BJP as the principal Opposition party in place of the CPI-M. The BJP won the Basirhat seat after a neck-to-neck battle with the TMC while it came second in the Chowringhee constituency which was won by the TMC. Not only did the CPI-M finish last but something unimaginable happened to the erstwhile political giant. Their election deposit money got confiscated in both these constituencies.

What happened in these elections would seem extremely intriguing if we delve deeper into the underlying political dynamics. The BJP failed to win the Chowringhee seat but it put up a good fight by coming second and surging ahead of the CPI-M and Indian National Congress party. The Basirhat constituency is inhabited by a large number of Muslims and it is close to the Bangladesh border. However, the consolidation of Hindu votes in favour of the BJP did not occur though the TMC seems to have obtained the majority of the minority votes. In the initial phase of vote-counting, when the votes of the rural areas were counted, the TMC gained a sizeable lead over the BJP. However, when the counting of the votes polled in the urban areas began, the BJP saw a turnaround in its fortune. Every round of counting saw the TMC’s lead declining steadily. The neck-to-neck battle went down to the last round which saw the BJP’s votes ultimately surpassing those of the TMC. This means that instead of the Hindu-Muslim polarisation Basirhat witnessed an urban-rural polarisation. While the villages sided with the TMC, the urban areas voted overwhelmingly in favour of the BJP.

A Distinctive Political Culture

Rural-urban polarisation may not be a general trend across the State but it is quite clear that the BJP’s development agenda has made a strong impact in the urban areas which seem to have been swayed by the prospect of industrial revival on the lines of Gujarat. Therefore, in Bengal the Hindutva agenda does not seem to have curried favour with the BJP’s traditional support base in North India—the urban elite, often referred to as petty bourgeoisie by the Marxist scholars. It is Modi’s development record that has drawn them close to the BJP.

The recent incidents of political violence in Makra and its adjacent villages in the Birbhum district also demonstrate the limitations of religion-based identity politics in the State. What happened in these villages is virtually unimaginable in other parts of India. According to media reports, these villages, almost entirely inhabited by Muslims, shifted their allegiance from the TMC to the BJP and this led to the eruption of violence between the villagers and goons who allegedly came from outside and attacked the villagers. This unprecedented event of Muslims of a particular place en bloc shifting their loyalty to a party like the BJP, which is generally seen by them as a communal force, has raised many eyebrows. However, this shocking incident divulges a lot about the peculiar nature of West Bengal’s politics. In the typical political culture of West Bengal, primor-dial identity is less important than political identity. As reported by the media, people of these villages were dissatisfied with the ruling party for various reasons and therefore, they decided to change their political identity. They became BJP supporters/members from being TMC supporters/members. The BJP seemed to them the best choice to fill the political vacuum created by the decline of the CPI-M. It is reasonable to suggest that in the whole process their religious identity mattered little. If that was of primary consideration, then they might not have supported the BJP to counter the TMC. This means that in this case political considerations preceded religious identity.

From the whole discussion two points can be made regarding the rise of the BJP. First, in the urban industrial centres the BJP’s rise is due to its development rhetoric which has attracted the middle class Bengali population seeking better opportunities after years of industrial gloom and development paralysis. Second, in rural areas the surprising inroads made by the BJP have been possible because it is increasingly being seen as the party capable of filling the vacuum. The BJP is heading a strong government at the Centre after capturing power without the support of any regional political outfit. On the other hand, its share of votes in West Bengal rose from below five per cent to almost 17 per cent in the last Lok Sabha elections. Therefore, it is in a position to offer some amount of political protection and patronage to people disgruntled with the ruling party and the grassroot CPI-M cadres facing political backlash. Under such circumstances rebel TMC cadres and CPI-M grassroot workers are joining the BJP in search of physical protection and political survival.

The bottom-line is that the rise of the BJP is West Bengal is not because of its Hindutva discourse but because of its development plank and practical political realities at the ground level. Therefore, it would be wrong to see the BJP’s rise as the emergence of religion-based identity politics in West Bengal. The CPI-M has declined as a political force in West Bengal. But it would be extremely simplistic to equate the electoral defeat of the Left parties with the decline of the Left ideology and culture in the social psychology and popular consciousness. Public wisdom widely supports the contention that Mamata Banerjee won the 2011 Assembly elections because to the general public she seemed to be more Leftist than the Left leaders who looked like making too many ideological compromises. So we must not overlook the deep hangover of a secular Left-liberal political culture in Bengali society which is likely to impose debilitating constraints on identity-based political mobilisation.

Under such a constraining atmosphere, the journey of the BJP from the Hindutva hinterland to the eastern parts of the country has to occur on the wheels of development, not on the chariot of Hindutva. Therefore, even if in some near future West Bengal is politically conquered by the BJP, it remains and will likely to remain unconquered by Hindutva.

Ayan Guha is a Doctoral Scholar at the Dr K.R. Narayanan Centre for Dalit and Minorities Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi.