WEST BENGAL: MAMATA’S FEARS
The Bengal chief minister is clearly unnerved. The expansionist strides of the BJP in West Bengal, a state that had practically no saffron presence till recently, is forcing Mamata Banerjee to adopt strategies she would never have considered—like wooing the beleaguered Left Front and tomtomming her ‘Hindu’ credentials.
Here’s one reason why: from the 17 per cent vote share it grabbed from the Left and the moribund Congress in Lok Sabha 2014, the BJP jumped to an impressive 30 per cent to take second place in the recent assembly bypoll in Contai (South) in East Midnapore district. The Left Front and Congress polled a miserable 17,423 and 2,200-odd votes respectively, compared to the BJP’s 52, 843 votes.
The BJP may have just two MPs and three MLAs but by never wasting an opportunity to take on the Trinamool Congress government it “has emerged as the main opposition in the state today”, says political analyst Biswanath Chakrabarty.
Saffron is suddenly visible everywhere—from the breathless string of public meetings and demonstrations to the aggressive processions around Hindu festivals. “There were more people at the (BJP’s) Ramnavami procession than at CPI(M) rallies,” a TMC minister grudgingly admitted.
Keenly aware that the BJP was gaining from the increasing attrition in the Left’s traditional support base, Mamata is doing the unthinkable—offering tacit support to the Left by allowing them political space and support in the hope that this will
prevent further haemorrhaging among the comrades. Sources in her government say the urgency follows a state intelligence report that claimed scores of Left voters had moved to the saffron fold. At a closed door party meeting on April 21, the chief minister reportedly told TMC leaders to visit their constituencies and reassure Left voters and warn them of the dangerous designs of the BJP and RSS.
But is it too late already to stop the saffron juggernaut in Bengal? In the past six years, some 50,000 RSS swayamsevaks have fanned out into the villages. Chakrabarty says that with its unlimited money and muscle power, and with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and party president Amit Shah’s combative postures, the BJP is increasingly being seen as the only party capable of challenging Mamata’s stronghold on voters.
The saffron rise is also due to a visibly sharpened communal polarisation in the state. “Hindus are questioning her (religious) identity,” says state BJP chief Dilip Ghosh, amused that “Mamata is being forced to say publicly that she is a true Hindu, born in a Brahmin family and knows Sanskrit shlokas by heart”.
It’s true that Mamata has sparked off a new debate on who is a true Hindu. “Hinduism teaches love. It is the religion of Ramakrishna Paramhans and Vivekananda. I am a sachcha (true) Hindu. They (BJP) are a shame on Hinduism,” she has been heard saying in public. A senior state administration official says “she has also stopped inviting Muslim imams to her political gatherings and refrains from using Urdu couplets in her speeches like before”. Instead, the chief minister has taken to reciting Sanskrit shlokas and inviting religious leaders from the Ramakrishna Mission to her meetings.