The BJP should benefit from a wave of anti-incumbency against the Trinamool Congress, but fear is a key factor in this election. (Sayantan Bera/Mint)
The BJP should benefit from a wave of anti-incumbency against the Trinamool Congress, but fear is a key factor in this election. (Sayantan Bera/Mint)

Saffron Salaam in Mamata Banerjee's West Bengal

  • Widespread anger over violence during panchayat polls has turned 2019 Lok Sabha elections into a referendum on TMC's rule
  • The BJP’s strategy of whipping up Hindu religious pride in West Bengal, where 27% people are Muslims, seems to be paying off

Purulia/Bongaon/Kolkata: "I am not a magician, I have done so much for you…even if I sell my blood, it will not get enough money (for your needs)," a visibly emotional Mamata Banerjee told the crowd at an election rally in West Bengal on Tuesday. At every public meeting—84 have been planned so far, two for each parliamentary constituency in the state—the chief minister has been presenting a report card of her eight years at the helm in Bengal, and ending her speeches with an earthy appeal on the importance of maintaining communal harmony. Didi, as she is fondly referred to, typically ends her speech by reciting parts of Chandi shloka, an ode to goddess Durga—Bengal’s most worshipped deity.

After a visit to the Bengal hinterland, it becomes clear why the chief of Trinamool Congress (TMC) needs to invoke the gods. Mamata is fighting a furious battle to protect her turf from a resurgent Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

The unpaved road which connects Bisriya village to the outside world is as rugged as it gets. On a hot summer afternoon in April, the village in West Bengal’s Purulia district, bordering Jharkhand, wore a deserted look. Few were lazing under the shade of a giant Kusum tree.

Shyamapada Mahato, 62, once a devoted worker of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPM, was the first to speak. In a calm voice, Mahato, who farms on less than a third of an acre of land, lists his grudges against the Mamata-led government. Most schemes, be it old-age pension for farmers or the state government’s housing scheme for the poor, have eluded him. “At every step you need to bribe local party leaders... in the 100-days work programme (the centre’s employment guarantee scheme) the work is being done by JCB machines. For every 1,000 transferred to bank accounts as wages for work we never did, we are asked to keep 100 and give the rest to them. I said no," he says.

The writing on the wall of Mahato’s house gives away his political affiliation. His son, 32-year-old Krishna Chandra Mahato, has painted the lotus symbol, seeking votes for the BJP in the general elections. The brush strokes are uneven and are no match for the skilled hand-painted election graffiti which Bengal is known for. The younger Mahato is angrier. He is jobless and blames the state government which is yet to announce a recruitment drive for school teachers. “For a primary school teachers’ position 8-10 lakh bribe is common. This government needs to be taught a lesson."

Purulia goes to polls on 12 May, in the sixth phase of the elections. This underdeveloped constituency in many ways encapsulates the poll battle in West Bengal. In 2014, the TMC candidate won the seat with a margin of over 153,000 votes, defeating the Left front candidate. the BJP candidate ranked fourth, polling just 7% of votes compared to the TMC’s 39%.

Five years later, the BJP is a strong contender for the seat. It is banking on the wave of anti-incumbency against the ruling TMC government coupled with popular anger due to violence and intimidation during Panchayat elections (in a third of the seats, the TMC won uncontested, since opponents were not allowed to file nominations). A strategy of whipping up Hindu religious pride in a state where 27% people are Muslims also seems to be paying off as it has polarized voters sharply.

Act of protest

It looks like Balarampur town is painted in saffron. The mood is festive. Shops are covered with saffron flags with Jai Shree Ram or Jai Hanuman, the mythical monkey god, painted on them, and life-sized Hanuman idols greet visitors after entering the villages. The village is celebrating the last two days of Ram Navami, a biannual Hindu festival, with blaring music. A resident from Ruchup village explains that it is easier to plug a saffron flag on the bicycles or at the entrance to homes, than display a BJP party flag which may invite the ruling TMC’s wrath. Here, in the Panchayat elections last year, the BJP won several seats despite widespread violence and intimidation by TMC workers, he informs.

“After the elections, elected members were coerced to join the TMC. What they don’t understand is that they may have captured a few leaders but the public is not with them," says a young Swapan Pramanik. As the conversation ends he persuades his friends to put up a show of stick fights. Then he and his friends call a child for another show. The boy lifts his legs over the shoulders, and presses his palms together above his head in a namaste pose, holding a saffron flag and chanting Jai Shree Ram. The gathered youth pour out their complaints: rampant corruption, a perceived appeasement of Muslims, and grabbing Panchayats by force, etc.

It appears as if the upcoming elections are a referendum on the state government, and not one to elect a federal government. The performance of Prime Minister Narendra Modi does not come up as a factor until asked explicitly by this reporter. “Balakot airstrike is not the poll issue... here anti-incumbency has overshadowed the Modi factor and people are likely to vote like assembly elections," says a senior journalist from Kolkata.

The BJP’s party office in Barra village in Purulia’s Raghunathpur is a tiny room which also doubles up as the meeting point of the local orchestra. It is here that Bhairav Karmakar recounts the ordeal of fellow party workers during the Panchayat elections in May last year. “There were uncountable false cases filed against us... during police raids in the night we used to swim across the river and take shelter in Jharkhand." “We felt like biplobis (revolutionaries)... as if, this is another struggle for independence," Karmakar says with a burst of laughter.

Odd it may sound, but in these parts donning saffron and working for the BJP is an act of resistance. For a party charged with weakening of democratic institutions at a national level, the BJP is campaigning to “restore democracy" in Bengal. “The sentiments of the majority population have been hurt by Mamata Banerjee... we are not allowed to take out astra michil (procession with swords) on Ram Navami," argues Bidyasagar Chakraborty, district president of the BJP, during a lunch break between campaigning. “You can forget what happened in 2014, the BJP won’t advance step by step... we will arrive in Bengal like a storm like we did in Assam and Tripura," he adds.

The BJP is expecting to breach Bengal despite the party lacking a leader who can match the stature of Mamata Banerjee, who stormed to power in 2011 on the back of violent land rights agitations, dislodging 34 uninterrupted years of left rule. But despite her earthy charisma and pro-poor image, the ground beneath Banerjee’s feet seems to be slipping fast. The electorate speak well of her pet schemes such as cycles for students, financial assistance for the girl child, and subsidized food grains, yet they seem eager to vote for change.

“No political party has been able to address the core issues raised by the BJP, which is equating India with monolithic Hinduism," says Amitava Chowdhury, a public health practitioner from the Sundarbans delta, and a keen observer of Bengal politics. “In Bengal, Mamata’s primary area of influence is south Bengal, which she cemented through her struggle for people’s rights. The party spread in the rest of the state through opportunistic elements whose primary objective was to make money, which led to anger on the ground."

According to Derek O’Brien, senior TMC leader and a member of Rajya Sabha, the BJP may emerge as the main opposition party in Bengal replacing the Left but “Trinamool will win big… who comes second, third or fourth is not out concern". On the subject of corruption, O’Brien hits back: “The BJP is the most corrupt political party in the world. The more they throw muck on us, the more we will win bouquets of appreciation from the people who will give the BJP a big zero in Bengal."

Leftward erosion

In the 2014 elections, the BJP won just two of the 42 Lok Sabha seats in the state, compared to 34 won by the TMC, its best performance ever. But in 2019, the saffron party has set itself a steep target of winning 23 seats, hoping to recover some of its expected losses in Hindi heartland states. How close or far it will end up from the target will depend on several factors, most importantly, by how much vote share of Left parties and the Congress collapses in a bipolar contest. In 2014, the Left front and the Congress together polled close to 40% votes, while the TMC and the BJP increased their vote share to 40% and 17%, respectively.

Though, the average Left voter seems to have changed sides, the Muslim voter is strongly behind the TMC. “Bengali Muslims stagnated during the Left rule, but under Mamata their economic and social mobility went up," says Prasanta Chattopadhyay, editor of the Bengali periodical Kalodhwani. “Muslims are participating more in civil society activities, they are vying for mainstream jobs, they have assumed leadership positions at local party levels... this has antagonized the bhadralok (elite) and the BJP is exploiting this situation by terming it as appeasement," he said, adding that in at least 28 Lok Sabha seats the Muslim voters will play a determining role. This is likely to offset some of the losses to the TMC as far as anti-incumbency is concerned.

But what explains the erstwhile Left voter taking an ideological leap to vote for a right-wing party in the elections? “You can expect cadres to be regimented, but not voters... still we expect to hold on to a majority of our vote share," said Pradip Roy, a district level secretary of the CPM.

According to Surjya Kanta Mishra, state secretary of the CPM, it is the BJP which has perpetrated the idea that “people need to vote for the saffron party, since Left cannot remove the TMC". “The TMC also reciprocates... they both need and feed each other. They have a tacit understanding, else why did the BJP not act strongly against TMC leaders accused in the chit fund scam?"

Political observers in Bengal Mint spoke to expect the BJP to bag between five-seven seats. If polls are held fairly with adequate deployment of central forces, they feel the BJP will put up a strong show in at least 15 seats. These include seats in northern parts of Bengal (Alipurduar, Cooch Behar, Darjeeling and Raiganj) where National Register of Citizens and the question of “illegal Muslim infiltrators" were drummed up by the BJP.

The western part of the state (Bankura, Purulia, Jhargram and Midnapore) dominated by tribals and plagued by chronic underdevelopment is another region where the BJP is expected to do well. Add to this the bordering districts of Nadia and North 24 Parganas (Bongaon, Barrackpore and Krishnanagar seats) where communal conflicts have flared up in the recent past. Parts of Kolkata too seem to be seeking change.

The fear factor

Bangaon Junction, a two-hour ride on the packed suburban train from Sealdah, is the last station before one hits the Petrapole border of Bangladesh. Outside the station, an army of e-rickshaws is in waiting, dressed in blue trousers and shirts, with the face of chief minister Mamata Banerjee embossed on the shirt pocket. It is mandatory to wear the dress for vehicles approved by the municipal corporation, and the drivers aren’t happy about it. Yet they are scared to speak or reveal their names.

“The chief minister has done a lot for our village, but she has no control over local leaders... and we don’t have a choice but to vote for her to keep the BJP away," said a Muslim resident of Jayantipur, who stressed that people were not freely able to exercise their choice in the Panchayat elections.

There is an unmistakable climate of fear in these villages. No names, no photographs and no notes. Residents speak in hushed tones, scanning the horizon to see if anyone else is close by. Purulia was more relaxed, but Mahato was worried too. “Maybe its better not to publish our photos in the paper," he suggested.

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