The strains of a shehnai in the background, the aroma of ‘dhuno’ incense filling the air, the chants of ‘Chandi Paath (shlokas dedicated to goddess Durga)’ and the beats of the ‘dhaak’. Durga Puja at the Eastern Zonal Cultural Centre in Kolkata’s Salt Lake, the West Bengal BJP’s first ever, was a quintessential Bengali affair, marked by the presence of party leaders keen to look at home. If the male ushers, among them national leaders like Kailash Vijayvargiya and RSS pracharaks like Arvind Menon and Shiv Prakash loaned to the BJP, wore dhuti-panjabi, the women leaders, such as Locket Chatterjee and Agnimitra Paul, wore the traditional ‘laal paar (red-bordered)’ saris.
The festivities were opened by Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself, albeit virtually. Wearing tussar silk, sourced from Bengal, he peppered his address with references to Bengal’s history, traditions, icons and proverbs. He had done his home work and paid tribute to the intellectual and cultural prowess of Bengalis, to the leading lights of the Bengal Renaissance and their contribution to nation-building. Modi sought to be excused for his Bengali pronunciation, but added that he found the “sweetness of the language” irresistible.
The political underpinning of this Bengal(i) lovefest is not lost on anyone with even a nodding acquaintance with the BJP’s gameplan for Bengal. The party wants to consolidate the 55 million Bengali Hindu vote in the state, and is trying its damnedest to ingratiate itself with the section of the electorate that sees the BJP as a ‘Hindi heartland party’ with no real feeling for, or appreciation of, the state’s culture and ethos. This mistrust suits the embattled incumbent Mamata Banerjee, and her party’s poll campaign for 2021 makes much of Bengali regionalist pride, the openly parochial appeal reflecting in slogans like ‘Bengal for Bengalis’.
The ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC) has been trying to stir up regional sentiment by telling the people of Bengal that the BJP-led Modi government is discriminatory, has not cleared Rs 50,000 crore worth of central dues to the state, and has been unfairly upbraiding the Mamata government over the handling of Covid, Amphan relief and law and order. The BJP counter-claims that Mamata is depriving her people the benefits of central schemes, such as the PM Kisan Samman Nidhi dole and insurance under Ayushman Bharat.
In the culture wars, the BJP also has the services of its ideological parent, the RSS, which is hosting seminars and events celebrating Bengal’s icons and its glorious past, while also simultaneously engaging people on Hindu nationalism and sanatan Hindu dharma. “The messaging is that Bengalis need not feel threatened by the BJP’s promotion of ‘Bharatiya’ culture. Rather, they should feel proud that Vande Mataram, composed by Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, and ‘Bharat Mata’, as depicted by artist Abanindranath Tagore in one of his works, are at the core of the BJP’s ideology,” said a senior RSS leader, requesting anonymity.
Political scientist and former Presidency University principal Amal K. Mukhopadhyay was scathing of both campaigns. “Both the TMC and BJP are indulging in a politics that reinforces narrow identities. Anyone living in Bengal is a Bengali, irrespective of mother tongue,” he says.
Politics of polarisation and provincialism
The BJP’s meteoric rise in Bengal has coincided with intense communal polarisation in the state. In 2017, surveys commissioned by the party, then led by Amit Shah, sensed discontent brewing among Bengali Hindus over the Mamata government’s alleged appeasement of Muslims. If the BJP was looking for an opportunity to milk it, Mamata offered it on a platter when, the same year, her government postponed the immersion of idols after Durga Puja by a day to prevent it from coinciding with Muharram. The directive invited flak from the Calcutta High Court and had Shah declaring: “Now, the people of Bengal have to move court [to get permission] for immersion of idols after Durga Puja.”
For some, the BJP is only making political capital of a deep-running communal fault line in Bengal. As Sumit Chakrabarti, professor of English at Kolkata’s Presidency University, says: “An undercurrent of communal sentiment has run in middle-class Hindu households for decades. It is evident in, say, how people feel uncomfortable about letting out homes to Muslims or having them as neighbours.” On the TMC government’s alleged appeasement policy, he says: “Why only Hindus, even educated upper class Muslims feel embarrassed about the preferential treatment given to their community, such as the blocking of roads for namaz.”
Some observers link the rise of communal politics in Bengal to the end of over three decades of communist rule in 2011. That the BJP’s vote share in the Lok Sabha election jumped from 17 per cent in 2014 to 40 per cent in 2019, just 3 percentage points less than the TMC’s, indicates a Hindu consolidation in favour of the party, they say. A post-Lok Sabha election survey by Lokniti and CSDS (Centre for the Study of Developing Societies) last year shows that 57 per cent of the BJP’s votes came from Hindus and only 4 per cent from Muslims. For the TMC, Muslims accounted for 70 per cent of the votes and Hindus 32 per cent.
Union home minister Amit Shah targeted the Mamata government during his November 6 visit to Dakshineswar temple in North 24 Parganas district, saying that “politics of appeasement” had hurt West Bengal’s image as a centre of spiritual awakening in the country. Bengal officials already see tell-tale signs of the BJP sharpening its polarisation campaign for the assembly poll. “What, after all, made the Union home ministry send the Bengal government an advisory singling out Muslim-dominated areas of Kolkata for so-called violation of lockdown norms and saying that the administration was being lax about it?” asks a senior state bureaucrat.
Mamata’s decision to permit community Durga Pujas despite the risk of a surge in Covid infections is considered a calculated move to prevent any Bengali Hindu backlash. When rumours surfaced on social media about proposed restrictions during the puja, she promptly announced that puja pandals would open to public three days in advance. Her other moves to gain traction among Hindus include the doubling of annual doles for community Durga Pujas to Rs 50,000, a monthly honorarium of Rs 1,000 for 8,000 Hindu priests, renovation of pilgrimage spots and refurbishing of temples.
The Bengali regionalist stance has been Mamata’s other strategy against the BJP’s polarisation. On her way to North 24 Parganas in May 2019, it saw her confront the men who were raising ‘Jai Shri Ram’ slogans en route just to needle her. She even had them booked. This July, Derek O’Brien, the TMC’s leader in the Rajya Sabha, launched Shoja Banglaye Bolchi (Plainspeak in Bengali), a video series to highlight the state government’s achievements and to counter BJP propaganda. TMC strategists later warned Mamata about the risk of alienating Bengal’s 15 million non-Bengali Hindu population. And so, her announcement on Hindi Diwas (September 14) that the TMC’s Hindi cell would be restructured and Bengal would get a revamped Hindi academy.
Which way will the Hindu vote swing?
Hindus add up to about 70 million in Bengal’s 100 million population, of which around 55 million are Bengalis. Bengali Hindus cannot be treated as a monolithic entity in elections as class, caste and geographical differences determine political affiliations. “Bengali Hindus have never been a homogeneous group. But the past decade has seen politics and religion cross paths, transcending caste and class barriers. Worse still, identity politics is on the rise among caste groups, their ambitions stoked by political outfits,” says Chakrabarti.
In the last Lok Sabha poll, the Other Backward Classes, Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes of Purulia, West Midnapore, Jhargram, Bankura and Birbhum backed the BJP, which won five of the eight seats in these districts.
In their heyday, the Left parties attracted a heterogeneous group of supporters. The late Jyoti Basu, who led the Left government in Bengal for 23 years, was popular among upper-caste, conservative Bengalis, while leftist farmer leaders, such as Hare Krishna Konar and Benoy Chowdhury, had influence in rural Bengal. The working class, consisting of SC/ STs, adivasis and minorities, supported the Left because of its strong social foundations and grassroots presence among these groups. Bengal’s electorate, cutting across class and caste, kept the Left in power for 34 years.
That social fabric in Bengal is certainly frayed, but even so, and despite the political machinations of the BJP, Bengali Hindus are not likely to vote on communal lines. Educationist Sugata Hazra says, “Unlike a political construct like Hindutva, Hinduism in Bengal has been inclusive, enriched by spiritual leaders like Sri Chaitanya, Ramakrishna Paramahamsa and Swami Vivekananda. Bengalis are largely expected to base their voting on political and economic concerns.”
Maidul Islam, assistant professor of political science at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta, says Mamata may counter the BJP’s polarisation with narratives woven around class, caste and language. “The more the BJP attempts religion-based mobilisation, the more Mamata will play upper castes against lower castes. The Hathras (gang-rape) case may play out big in the Dalit pockets of West Midnapore, Purulia and Bankura,” says Islam. “Mamata’s spectacular rise from a lower middle class family was always sniggered at by the elite, upper-caste Bengali Hindus, who were traditionally Congress or Left supporters.”
Islam feels it is too early to predict which way Bengali Hindus will swing in this election. “The Congress-Left, a secular alternative, could be a key player. They have stepped up attacks on the TMC to prevent the BJP from cornering the anti-incumbency vote.”
Mohit Ray, head of the BJP’s refugee cell in Bengal, accuses the Left of propagating a distorted version of history to dissuade people from talking about religion. “Bengali icons like Syama Prasad Mookerjee, Jadunath Sarkar and Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay favoured a separate state of West Bengal because they wanted a homeland for Hindus,” he claims. Ray is confident of a Hindu consolidation in the election. “Bengal’s Hindu population has slumped from 80 per cent in 1951 to about 69 per cent in 2020, whereas the Muslim population has shot up from 19 per cent to almost 30 per cent. While 20 million Hindu refugees migrated to Bengal to escape religious persecution [in their native countries], the state has witnessed the influx of 15 million [illegal] Muslims. Aren’t these enough reasons for Hindus to unite and vote?”
It would certainly help the BJP’s cause if they did, but even after their best efforts to polarise the state electorate, the Bengali Hindu is unlikely to vote en bloc. Not only is the intellectual, cultural and class history of the state a counterpoising weight to that possibility, Mamata Banerjee will know that such a consolidation will work against her interests, and she’ll do everything at her command to head it off.