Finally this week, the BJP got what it wanted in West Bengal. Kolkata exploded into a battlefield. In the months leading up to this election, the BJP has been goading Mamata Banerjee and her Trinamool Congress (TMC) to react to its non-stop war of attrition. A war between the muscular secular ruling TMC and the aggressive pro-Hindutva BJP. With the destruction of the Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar statue, the BJP got what it was looking for -- the Election Commission intervening in its favour one more time to stop the Bengal campaign after Prime Minister Narendra Modi's speeches and a 'level playing field' for the last phase of the election on Sunday, with the removal of two senior state officials.
It may seem shocking that a strongly pro-Hindu party has established itself with such vigour in what was the left secular bastion of India for decades. But the truth is that the CPM had "out-Marxed" itself and was withering away. At the CPM office, there are no crowds of workers milling around as you would expect in the middle of a general election. In fact, except for couple of decrepit cars and old men, the office of the party that once ruled West Bengal looks like it is waiting for someone to come and pension off the few remaining staff and lock up. Or like the last man leaving will switch off the lights and lock the gates.
The Left's stunning defeat at the hands of the TMC in the last assembly election really finished the morale of the party. Though it polled more than 25 per cent of the votes, it won just 26 of 295 seats. Suddenly, the party seemed to implode. Cadres who could cross over to the TMC made their way there, while the rest seemed too tired to do much more than nurse their wounds. It left a void. That is until the BJP arrived in full force.
The Modi-Shah plan is to do a Mamata on Mamata and topple the Trinamool using strategy similar to that for the CPM -- with two major differences. One, strong Hindutva, and two, the power and the money of a party in power at the centre.
The BJP realised that if you scratched the secular surface of Bengal, there would be Hindus waiting to be persuaded that the state was being overrun by Muslims from Bangladesh and that their faith needed defending.
Kolkata is fertile ground; the founding father of the Jana Sangh (BJP's predecessor) was Shyama Prasad Mukherjee from Kolkata; and the communal riots that sent Gandhi fasting there in 1946-47 have never been buried, just hidden in the vaults of the mind. With a 27 per cent Muslim population, many Hindus were fed up with decades of secularism that both the Left and Mamata fostered and depended on. The dependence probably fuelled caste Hindu angst.
The nationality bill, which would have disenfranchised Bangladeshi Muslims in Bengal, was directed to create a Hindu backlash. In the Northeast this had a negative impact on the BJP allies, so it was put on pause, but the intent was clear. After all, the prize of 42 seats in Bengal is much more attractive than the scattered 25 of the northeast shared with "untrustworthy" beef-eating allies.
For the distraught cadre who remained targets of the TMC with no protection from the lifeless CPM, the money and might of the BJP was an attractive refuge. Deepak Patnaik, a bookseller in the famous College Square in Kolkata, sums it up, "There is always fighting (in Bengal)...those who did want to go with the TMC had to find somewhere where their opposition could go. They need an 'anti-party', so they ran to the BJP." The BJP, which had no ground organisation in the state, was suddenly transformed into a fighting force.
In Medinipur (formerly Midnapore) we join BJP state chief Dilip Ghosh on a rural road rally. It's a show of force; young men on motorcycles and packed into trucks and tempos are there to convince villagers that they don't need to fear the goons from the other side, the BJP has enough of their own to provide protection. In village after village, you are surprised by the number of women that greet the procession with flowers and aarti.
Even before Kolkata exploded, everyone recognised that the BJP had gained much ground. Probir Das says: "Could be that BJP is gaining position. I can say we will definitely win 7-8 seats. Log didi se pareshan hain, bohoth saal se hai (people have been upset with Didi for years)." His prediction could be on the low side if the satta bazaar is to be believed.
In the cavernous Indian Coffee House near Calcutta University, a group of students from the local catering college reflect the inroads the BJP has made by openly and confidently voicing their support for the ruling party. In this once-bastion of leftist intellectuals, even now run by a workers' cooperative, such sacrilege now goes unnoticed. To Shovi mitra and friends, Modi is the man of the moment. "He's the reason we are interested in politics. This is my first vote, it's for Modi," says Shovi.
Her friend Tanisha Singha of Durgapur says she "did not vote because the TMC doesn't allow people (who oppose) to vote."
While the mention of Congress president Rahul Gandhi only draws a few smiles, Mamata Banerjee gets stronger reactions.
The election of 2019 has shown the Modi-Shah desire to conquer Bengal. PM Modi has visited Bengal in every phase of this election twice; only UP (with its mammoth 80 seats) has received more attention. (ET May 13). Such is the desire to upset the equation in Bengal.
But Mamata is not surrendering meekly. For someone who ousted the CPM by battling every street and village square, she will match Amit Shah and Modi "slap for slap". Her aim remains, as she told NDTV, to "oust Modi". She marches up and down the stage at one of her rallies and she calls Modi an actor, one who does nothing but make promises. She vows to stop him.
If anyone had said two decades ago that the saffron brigade would be a power house in West Bengal, they would have been laughed out of town. Today it's not a joke. Everyone concedes that they will get 30% or more of the vote.
Finally, with the Election Commission kindly deciding on seven phases of polling in the state, ostensibly to enable peaceful elections, what it did was to allow the parties to move their cadre from area to area, just like the police forces, making a mockery of their intent, if it was that.
(Ishwari Bajpai is Senior Advisor at NDTV.)
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