Why BJP won in West Bengal and how to reverse the trend?
If any single state has provided the biggest momentum to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindutva fascist juggernaut during the 2019 Lok Sabha election, then it’s West Bengal, the state where the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was always considered as a non-factor. BJP’s 2019 Lok Sabha poll tally in West Bengal, where it won 18 out of 42 seats, is the best for the party since its inception in 1982.
Not only did the BJP added 16 new seats, but it also retained its previous seats — Asansol and Darjeeling — with a comfortable lead. The ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC) and its supremo, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, faced their biggest debacle since winning power in 2011. The TMC only managed to win 22 seats this time vis-a-vis 36 seats in 2014.
In the 2019 Lok Sabha election, the BJP managed to bag 40.23% votes in West Bengal, inching closer to the ruling TMC’s 43.29%. During the 2014 election, the BJP had acquired 18% votes while the TMC had 39.80% vote share. The parliamentary opportunist left under the aegis of the CPI(M) managed to win 23% vote share in 2014, while it only got 7.47% votes in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls. The erosion in the left’s traditional anti-TMC vote bank has actually boosted the BJP’s prospect, helping the party gain an additional 22.23 percentage points from the waning left and the first time voters, especially the non-Bengali Hindu voters of the state.
Arithmetics apart, what made the BJP a formidable force in West Bengal to reckon with has been discussed repeatedly in the last five years when the party forayed into the state’s political arena with an agenda of Hindi-colonisation and Hindutva polarisation. In multiple analysis done in the last five years, it has been found that under the patronage of Banerjee and the TMC, the BJP was able to grow manifold in the state. A secret pact that’s in force between Banerjee and Modi, helped the BJP to become the major opposition party that’s breathing on the shoulders of the TMC as the 2021 assembly election approaches.
The history of the TMC’s tryst with the BJP
Banerjee, who became the chief minister by toppling the 34-year-long rule of the CPI(M)-led Left Front in 2011, took help of the BJP and the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) led by Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 1998 to carve a niche for herself in West Bengal’s politics after she quitted the Congress party.
Though her earlier attempts to dislodge the left’s rule failed during the late 1990s, she, in her desperation to survive, helped the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and the BJP to entrench deep into the Bengali heartland and captivate gullible Bengali Hindu, tribal and Bengali Dalits (Namasudra) with vitriolic propaganda. At the same time, her party and she accused the then-ruling Left Front of Muslim appeasement and patronising Bangladeshi infiltration, echoing the RSS and the BJP. Ironically, the RSS and the BJP are still raising the same allegations, albeit Banerjee herself is at the receiving end now.
After the 2004 poll debacle, when Banerjee was the lone NDA constituent to win the Lok Sabha election, her ties with the BJP started deteriorating. It was also the time when Banerjee thought about weaving an unusual alliance of upper-caste Bhadraloks, the Namasudras and the Muslims, by weaning these blocks away from the left’s sphere of influence.
To woo the Muslim votes in the wake of the Sachar Committee report, the Singur-Nandigram agitation against land acquisition, etc, she left the NDA to become a part of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance II (UPA II). By 2011, the Muslim vote was largely polarised in favour of Banerjee, apart from her loyal Bhadralok, Namasudra and tribal vote banks.
After the TMC was out of the UPA II, the BJP tried to woo her back to the NDA, however, Banerjee didn’t join the NDA fearing Muslim vote loss. She bitterly opposed the Modi’s candidature for the prime minister’s post, though she had earlier offered bouquet and greeted Modi in 2002, soon after the latter won the assembly election riding on the corpse of hundreds of Muslims massacred under his watch.
Thousands of people lost their savings due to the Ponzi schemes promoted by the TMC’s leaders and ministers, which fuelled their anger against Banerjee and the TMC. The BJP, under Modi, seized this opportunity and brought its anti-corruption narrative to fight the 2014 general election. Modi promised to prosecute each culprit of the scam and spare no one, which helped the BJP’s vote share to go up in the 2014 Lok Sabha election.
After forming the government, the Modi regime unleashed the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), Enforcement Directorate (ED), etc, to chase the TMC over its role in the Chit Fund Scam. Working as the BJP’s docile tools, the CBI and ED coaxed the TMC stalwarts to join Modi’s bandwagon to remain immune from investigation. Lacking any local leadership, the BJP harped on swingers from the TMC for its growth.
The BJP’s pressure caused severe attrition at the top level of the TMC, rocking the boat of Banerjee’s government. Though Banerjee maintained a confident lead in the 2016 assembly election, the BJP, for the first time won three seats in the state’s assembly. The switching of camp by the TMC’s co-founder Mukul Roy in 2017, in a bid to save himself from the CBI and ED for his role in the Saradha Chit Fund Scam, helped the BJP immensely. With Roy, whom the BJP leaders earlier called “thief”, the party got into a poaching spree, throwing lucrative baits to the TMC MLAs and MPs. Within a period of less than two years, Roy and his team brought several heavyweight MPs and MLAs to the BJP.
Though Banerjee bitterly opposed the BJP in public, privately she shared a cordial relationship with the BJP and formed an unholy alliance with it against left-wing workers’, peasants’ and student-youth movements. The BJP supported Banerjee when she cracked the whip against the peasants of Bhangar who had been fighting against land acquisition and construction of a power grid; they supported her when she started suppressing mass agitation in Bhabhadighi or repressing the students in Birbhum. When Banerjee’s government cracked down on civil rights activists, accusing them of being Maoist sympathisers, her stand got applaud from the Modi regime.
Even though she opposed the Modi regime’s policies between 2014-19, Banerjee didn’t oppose Modi’s crackdown on dissent at all spheres of public life. Banerjee remained mum over the allegations of “Urban Naxal”, “Tukde Tukde Gang”, etc, used by the Modi regime to target dissenting voices and critics of the government, and silently endorsed the government’s move.
When the trade unions called for massive all-India strikes in 2015, 2016 and in 2018 against the Modi regime’s anti-worker and anti-people policies, Banerjee fervently opposed those strikes and, like the BJP, mobilised the state machinery and her thugs to break the strikes. Her government took punitive action against employees and workers who participated in the strikes against the Modi regime. Though they criticise each other vehemently, yet, on the occasion of suppressing people’s movements, the TMC and the BJP show similar, undistinguishable traits. This anti-rights mentality, reverence of fascism and narcissism brought a harmonious relationship between Banerjee and her bete noire Modi.
Their antagonism aside, Modi and Banerjee showed a unique bonding against all forms of people’s struggle, social justice movements and struggles against the corporate loot and plunder of Indian resources and labour. This unity is a result of a secret understanding between the BJP and the TMC, which eventually ended any scope of true resistance coming from Banerjee against the BJP and the Modi regime. Thus, it’s normal, that as Banerjee and her party lost the plot, the BJP gained immensely from the chaotic situation in West Bengal.
The Hindutva fascist aggression on West Bengal and the TMC’s complicity
The RSS and the BJP couldn’t grow their organisation organically and couldn’t recruit many cadres locally to organise pogroms targeting Muslims, which forced them to depend on men brought from the cow belt. Still, the Hindutva fascist camp actually managed to penetrate and rig the Bengali Hindu and tribal minds. It made Islamophobia a dominant theme in West Bengal’s politics. It made the Bengali Muslims “other” in their own land while making the non-Bengali, Hindi or Gujarati-speaking upper-caste Hindus acceptable to the Bengali Hindus and tribal people.
The splitting of the Bengali identity was done by designing Islamophobic content for each social segment. The five-decade-old Hindi colonial aggression, done through television, films and media houses, played a crucial role in enslaving the Bengali Hindu mind earlier, making it believe that Hindi-speaking north Indians are culturally and religiously superior beings. A gradual hatred towards the typical Bengali Hindu and Bengali Muslim identity was developed and the Bengali Hindus were cajoled to embrace the Hindi north Indian way of life, including vegetarian food habit and celebration of alien festivals like Ram Navami.
Banerjee became the RSS’s target for its bush telegraphs. Its proselytisers started portraying her as a pro-Muslim politician, adverse to Hindu welfare. With the help of a plethora of corporate-controlled mainstream media outlets, the Hindutva fascists ran incessant smear campaigns against Banerjee. Social media campaigns of the BJP built a narrative around a myth that the Bengali Hindus are in minority and are threatened by an assertive Bengali Muslim community, portrayed as Bangladeshi infiltrators. Banerjee and her government have been shown persecuting Hindus. Bengalis were taught to hate Bengalis on communal lines and love their “greater Hindu” brethren who would neither respect the distinct identity of the Bengalis nor their culture.
Though such campaigns earlier only got traction among the Sangh’s followers and Modi’s fans outside West Bengal, since 2017, a large number of Bengali Hindus started falling prey to them as the circumference of the propaganda and the money behind it increased exponentially. Throughout the urban and semi-urban areas, the BJP and the RSS recruited unemployed youth in its army at a daily wage that varied from Rs 350 to Rs 3,500 per day, as per the skills of the recruits. Many intellectuals and semi-intellectuals looking for an opportunity to show servility in return of crumbs, were recruited by the BJP’s campaign managers to influence Bengali Hindus.
Using the Ram Navami processions and the celebration of Hanuman Jayanti, two north Indian and utterly non-Bengali festivals, the RSS and the BJP started rolling the juggernaut of Hindutva fascism’s Hindi-Hindu aggression on West Bengal since 2017. The Hindutva fascists started popularising Ram and Hanuman as mainstream deities among the Bengali Hindus and tricked them to leave behind their regular deities like Durga, Kali, Mansa, Shitala, etc, to accept what’s acceptable to the north Indian standard of Hinduism. By 2018, one Hanuman temple in each locality became a normal sight, even though at many places the population of non-Bengali Hindus have been considerably low. The notorious Hindutva fascist slogan “Jai Shri Ram” is popularised as a Bengali Hindu greeting in most parts of the state.
Rather than resisting this aggression on Bengali culture and rituals, rather than stopping this cultural sacrilege, this imposition of north Indian religion and festivities on the Bengali Hindus with brute force, Banerjee and the TMC toed a soft Hindutva fascist line and started organising their own Ram Navami and Hanuman Jayanti celebrations, ignoring the fact that despite such attempts to woo the Hindutva-incensed minds that have shifted to the saffron camp, it will only popularise the RSS’s agenda among the loyal TMC supporters. Beneath the foundation of all those Hanuman temples that popped up under Banerjee’s watch, lies the reason of her poll debacle.
The meek opposition from the TMC and its compromise with the Hindutva fascist agenda polarised the Bengali Hindus, the tribal people and the non-Bengali upper-caste Hindus in favour of the BJP. A large number of Bengali Hindus started feeling threatened by purported Islamic aggression, after succumbing to the RSS’s Goebellian propaganda, and they started opposing the left, democratic and progressive movements for the sake of their newly-found Hindu identity. The ghost of a communally divided Bengal, which triggered the largest and the goriest communal riot in the history of India in 1946, has returned to haunt the conscience of the state.
The way ahead for democracy and secularism
It’s only the revolutionary left forces that can play the role of a vibrant opposition and channelise the people’s dissent and frustration in the right direction to defeat Hindutva fascism. To do so, it’s important to smash the Constitutional illusion and take political steps to build up people’s resistance struggle against fascism. It’s also imperative to discard the practice of responding to each narrative created by the Hindutva fascist camp. It’s necessary to build an alternative narrative to unite the poor and to build up a large-scale democratic struggle for political power.
The time isn’t over, however, it’s running out. To save West Bengal and its common people, it’s imperative to build up a massive, united and comprehensive people’s struggle for political power. It’s the urgent task for the working class and peasantry to smash the Modi myth, smash the very edifice of Hindutva fascism and struggle hard to unhorse the emperor. Unless the revolutionary left moves now to unite the class, nothing will be left to be mobilised later.
Neeladri Mukherjee is a former high school teacher and a Rabindra Sangeet lover. An M.A. in Political Science (not entire), Neeladri is a close observer of West Bengal politics, South Asian affairs and the trade union movement.