The Curious Case of Many Bengals
The most exciting and passionately followed news right now is about what’s happening in West Bengal and are we likely to see a change of guards this year, after the Assembly Elections are held? Against this backdrop, let us examine the mood of the people there.
TMC took over the helm in 2011 by crushing the CPI(M) government which ruled the state for 34 long years. Bengal has traditionally been left-leaning and the Communist government under Jyoti Basu and later Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee held sway during the period 1977 – 2011 – the defining period in West Bengal’s political theatre. The greatest angst at that time was that the State wasn’t business-friendly and industries were held to ransom by militant trade unions, and the eighties decade became synonymous with bandhs in West Bengal. I spent the period 1983 – 89, growing up in Calcutta and studying in one of the premier schools there – St. Xavier’s.
I can still recall the sight of empty roads (due to bandhs) and cricket/football matches being held in the busiest of commercial hubs. It was not at all uncommon to see these occurrences once in two months and sometimes more frequently. As kids, we loved it, of course, little realizing the damage it was inflicting on the economy but more importantly the spirit of the people. Towards the end of the 90s decade, there was an impassioned effort by the Left government to attract investments and things got marginally better. But essentially, it was too late, and subsequent “mishandling” of Nandigram & Singur incidents rung the death-knell for CPI(M) towards the end of 2010.
TMC, as a political party, was registered in December 1999 and from the very beginning, Mamta Banerjee has been extremely vocal about her brand of politics. In turn, she earned sobriquets such as political activist, firebrand politician, and finally, the all-encompassing – didi. She promised great change while effecting a turnaround of sorts in a state which was fast dwindling as a laggard. Thirty-four years is a very long time in politics and unarguably, the people were fed up with the status quo. “Things aren’t moving at all,” was the common man’s refrain. And, the brain drain sort of cemented this line of argument, as talented people sought greener pastures.
Interestingly, as she dons her warrior armour yet again, her government is also facing a flurry of criticisms similar to what she heaped on the Left more than a decade back – lack of growth, rapidly failing law & order, and crippling graft charges. Nepotism breathed fire as her nephew started to grow stronger by the day and cemented his position within the party ranks. Internal conflicts galore led to alleged betrayals which saw some of her trusted lieutenants jumping ship and joining the BJP. One can argue till the cows come home whether the BJP is effective in driving growth but even its bitterest enemies will concede that the party comprises extremely well-oiled machinery that steamrolls opponents in its relentless endeavor to topple elected governments. It has almost brought it into an art form and does it with great panache. Flush with funds and the support of 37 percent of voters (2019 elections) it epitomizes hubris.
The M-factor: Elephant in the Room
In India, the percentage of Muslims is about 14. In West Bengal, this figure is 27 – 30 percent depending on who you ask. Be that as it may, it is safe to assume that the count is almost double that of the national average. And, that is a major concern for many Bengalis/Kolkata-residents. Being a border state, there’s a heavy influx of Bangladeshi Muslims looking to change their fortune. The stinging criticism against Mamta Banerjee is that of minority appeasement and that she leaves no stones unturned to leverage this segment as a vote bank. In the last 10 years, every time she has won an election (LS or Assembly) TMC’s vote share has ranged between 41 – 45 percent Given the weight of numbers here, there is merit in this criticism. And, when the nation strides towards a Hindu majoritarian State (even if it may be argued, tacitly) this line of debate accords supreme significance – at least in the minds of millions of people who are easily influenced by doublespeak and questionable propaganda.
This also circles back to an earlier criticism – many believe, illegal immigrants are a serious threat to law and order. Therefore the argument goes – remove Mamta and make Bengal safe again.
Agey Ram porey Baam
“Baam” is the leftist government so it roughly translates into – Hindutva (or BJP’s brand of Hindutva) trounces left and compels left-leaning cognoscenti to join hands with a right-leaning government. Theoretically, they have reasons to. The defeat at the hands of the TMC has left a deep scar and the erstwhile CPI(M) voters are looking for an opportunity to strike back with great venom. At present, the leftist party is too weak and insignificant to pose any serious challenge on their own. While this is good in theory but in real terms, the ideologies of the two parties are as different as chalk and cheese. Though, we mustn’t forget the old saying, “Revenge is a dish best served cold.” And, a wait of ten years is cold enough.
The other possibility is that Congress and the Left will form an alliance and enter the race as the third option. This, of course, will work in TMC’s favour. But again, this is possible only on paper. There’s a massive disagreement between the two parties in terms of ideologies. Moreover, there’s yet another twist. The All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) supremo Asaduddin Owaisi is likely to contest the Bengal Polls. If that happens, it will cut into TMC’s Muslim vote bank. To what extent, is mere conjecture, right now.
The BJP is known for it’s sloganeering. In the 2019 LS Elections, they demonstrated witticism in Bengal – “Unish e half, ekush e saaf”, was coined. It roughly translates to – half the seats in ’19 (Unish) and clean (saaf) by ’21 (ekush).
The Saffron Party won 18 out of 42 LS seats in WB in the 2019 elections with a massive increase in vote share from 10.16 percent in the 2016 Assembly Elections when it won only 3 seats to 40.64 percent (2019). Perhaps we are comparing apples to oranges when we try and bring LS & Assembly Election results to the same plane. Every voter in India knows that.
The contest is wide open and only the poll results will show what lies in store for Bengal. Right now, it’s crucial that the BJP announces its Chief Ministerial candidate, and a very strong face is required at that.
The Modi vs Didi narrative worked well in 2019 but this is a different game altogether.
Modi Magic or Didi Histrionics?
Having said that, she is the only leader (arguably) from the opposition who continues to put up a brave fight against a political juggernaut called BJP. If nothing else but for the sake of democracy and to have a healthy opposition, the TMC must win!