The battle for Bengal has begun
The battle for Bengal has begun. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is leaving nothing to chance and is deploying every possible means to win West Bengal in the coming assembly elections as the significance of the victory is evident from the fact that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been twice in the state in this month of February alone.
On February 2, Modi kicked off the party’s electoral campaign at Thakurnagar raising the issue of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). The choice of Thakurnagar for Modi’s first rally reveals the significance of the place as the place is the hub of the sizeable Matua community, which originally is from erstwhile East Pakistan and began migrating to West Bengal at the beginning of the 1950s mostly due to religious persecution. The venue was near the house of Matua matriarch Binapani Debi, also called Boroma.
Matuas with an estimated population of 30 lakh in West Bengal - the Matua Mahasangh claims 3 crore - have influence in at least five Lok Sabha seats in North and South 24 Parganas districts. Not only are they refugees, but they are also a scheduled caste community with an impact beyond Bengal.
From Thakurnagar, Modi went to address another rally at Durgapur, where the BJP has been undertaking a massive ‘Gantantra Bachao’ (Save Democracy) campaign and in which Modi attacked Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, slamming her for lack of development in the state.
Within five days on February 7, Modi was back in the state addressing a rally at Haldia where BJP chief J P Nadda had ramped up the party’s campaign a day earlier by flagging off the first “Parivartan Rath Yatra.”
In his address, Modi was at his aggressive best in attacking Banerjee accusing her of “cruelty” against the people of the state. He said ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC) has criminalised politics, institutionalised corruption, and politicised police.
Modi’s two visits in the first week of February were termed political though he was in Kolkata from January 23 to celebrate the 125th birth anniversary of Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose where he did not either object or reprimand the BJP followers to raise "Jai Sri Ram" slogans. Banerjee, who was present at the event, had refused to speak.
The BJP has been actively preparing the ground for years and months now in West Bengal with party leaders and functionaries playing the communal card. It began with the saffron party’s old tried and tested trick of communalizing the situation on the ground, It accused the TMC government of "appeasing" Muslims and dispensing favours to them.
The second weapon that the BJP frequently uses is of raising the issue of corruption. It began to accuse the TMC government of corruption but at the same time, it did not hesitate in inducting many TMC leaders who were involved in cases of corruption into the party.
Three of the TMC leaders, namely Mukul Roy, Suvendu Adhikari, and Sovan Chatterjee, who was accused of Narada sting case and Sardha chit fund scam and have been questioned by central and state investigating agencies, are now BJP’s main faces.
While Roy was given the post of the BJP’s national vice-president a few months ago, Chatterjee, a former minister and ex-mayor of Kolkata, was appointed as the party’s observer of the Kolkata zone. Adhikari, who joined the BJP this month, is being promoted as one of the star campaigners of the party ahead of the crucial West Bengal assembly elections.
From 2014 to 2019 Lok Sabha elections, Saradha and Narada scams have remained the BJP’s primary political weapons against Banerjee’s party. The Narada sting operation – in which several politicians and a high-ranked police officer is said to have accepted cash bribes in exchange for providing unofficial favors to a company - had come just ahead of the 2016 assembly elections.
Last but not the least important card that the BJP is playing in the state is that of the dynasty as it is accusing Banerjee of promoting her nephew Abhishek Banerjee.
A victory in West Bengal for the BJP is important and it is also a test of Modi’s popularity but apart from it, West Bengal is a doorway to the Northeast. The BJP knows very well that without a firm foothold in Kolkata, it would not be able to hold power in Assam and other northeastern states.
The ongoing farmer's protests and anti-CAA agitation in 2019-20 have dented the image of the BJP and that of Modi in the public mind. Unemployment and the deteriorating economic situation in the country have raised serious doubts over the promises that the BJP has made.
The coming weeks are going to be crucial for the BJP. But the task is difficult if not impossible because of Banerjee’s indomitable spirit and her fighting skills. Moreover, West Bengal is unlike other states. It remains to be seen whether the largely Bengali electorate of the state is going to be persuaded in the name of Lord Rama, the divinity in whose name BJP is banking upon. Bengal has worshipped Lord Krishna for centuries.
Despite the BJP enjoying a massive advantage over its political rivals in West Bengal and the northeastern states, the outcome of the electoral battle in Assam and West Bengal continues to be uncertain (IFS).
(The writer is Research Associate, Observer Research Foundation)