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BATTLEGROUND BENGAL

BJP is desperate to win Bengal – and their pursuit has taken them down a questionable path of canards and communal provocation intended to jeopardise the prevailing goodwill of Mamata Banerjee’s TMC government

The people of West Bengal are witnessing a chain of events hitherto unknown to the state. First, never have people in the state witnessed a prime minister attending more than a dozen election rallies to gain support for her/his own candidates. Second, people in the past have also never seen their leaders harp on religion more diligently than on development; that too with a clear view towards inciting one community against another. Third, neither have citizens of the state seen national leaders of important stature fabricate lies specifically targeting festivals and pitching them against progress. People have also never witnessed such blatant muscle-flexing by politicians to win an election; finally, never have the discerning people of Bengal experienced the heat of a political party that relies entirely on manipulating and spreading canards on social media to gain electoral victory.

Narendra Modi and Amit Shah have addressed more than a dozen election rallies in West Bengal and in every meeting, they have criticised Mamata Banerjee for supposedly preventing Durga Puja, Saraswati Puja and Ram Navami celebrations in the state. Even Banerjee's strongest critics living in Bengal are shocked to hear this chosen electoral pitch from prominent national leaders. Exhausted of the deliberate and calculated lies being spread by the ruling party, Trinamool Congress supremo and chief minister Mamata Banerjee urged Modi to brush his homework before addressing political meetings. Accountability to one's people is clearly a thing of the past.

In truth, since assuming charge in 2011, the TMC government has emphasised sufficiently upon popularising Durga Puja, to make this essentially Bengali festival an international event. In fact, the Sangeet Natak Akademi has nominated the inclusion of Durga Puja in UNESCO's list of Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH) for 2020. What is even more, clubs are provided Rs 10,000 to organise Durga Puja and a grand carnival is organised on Red Road prior to immersion. More than one lakh Durga Pujas are held all over the state and it is the most important festival in Bengal with people from across religions and communities playing an active role. In many Durga Puja associations, the president and secretary are Muslims. The poison of communal hate that hasn't yet crippled Bengal appears to be BJP's chosen weapon. And, for Saraswati Puja celebrations, more than a crore are held across the state. Bengal can perhaps teach the rest of the country how being religious mustn't necessarily complement being divisive.

The lotus party is fully aware of the extent of Durga Puja celebrations as the income tax department had sent notices to several clubs demanding disclosure of account details post last year's puja. Banerjee had strongly opposed and both Modi and Shah alleged that she was shielding the puja organisers. But while addressing election rallies, both have deliberately lied that pujas aren't held in Kolkata to confuse people and spew more hate.

Organising grand Ram Navami processions has never been a custom in traditional Bengali culture. The state government had imposed restrictions on carrying maces and swords at religious processions. The 'Jai Sri Ram' call, popularised by karsevaks during the pitiful demolition of Babri Masjid on December 6, 1992, had only been a chant for temple walls, never a public slogan. In Bengal, along with the slogan, BJP demanded that its sympathisers be allowed to carry weapons and sketched their walking route specifically through areas dominated by minority communities. Had the state government allowed such rallies to parade through Bengal's streets, communal tension would've surely escalated to riots. However, the government never imposed restrictions on any rally without weapons.

This election has been a celebration of lies and BJP's campaign in Bengal has been no different. Across its campaigns, BJP has rued over the lack of development in Bengal. But, most will agree, what Banerjee has accomplished in eight years can be matched by very few statespersons of today's time. Her projects have touched all corners of Bengal's rural belt – under Khadya Sathi, more than 8 crore people have been given rice at Rs 2 per kg, Kanyashree has earned United Nation's recognition, having assisted more than 60 lakh girl students in pursuing higher education. Further, under Sabuj Sathi, which has also earned global recognition, more than one crore students in state-run and aided schools are being provided bicycles for free. With people bearing direct witness to development in the state, particularly in the construction of roads and infrastructure, the lie-coated speeches of Modi and Shah have failed to create any mentionable impact. Despite its strength, it is indeed surprising that the ruling party has to resort to lies rather than its positive promotion to earn people's trust. For instance, a sensitive event that took place in Bangladesh was circulated as an event in Basirhat in North 24 Parganas.

BJP leaders were euphoric after the party secured 17 per cent vote in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls. But in the 2016 Assembly election, polling dropped to 10 per cent and BJP remained satisfied with three MLAs. Dilip Ghosh, party's state president from Kharagpur Town, Manoj Tigga from Madarihat and Swadhir Kumar Sarkar from Malda South. BJP's poll percentage in 2016 dropped from 21.12 to 8.84 in Nadia, from 21.43 to 6.60 in North 24 Parganas, from 27.27 to 14.85 in Kolkata, from 18.10 to 9.25 in Hooghly, from 17.62 to 8.96 in Bankura, and from 20.35 to 12.03 in Burdwan. However, BJP leaders never invested enough to strengthen their organisational power; instead, they opted for glittering lies.

BJP had organised a nationwide campaign where, by sending an SMS, one could become a primary member of the party. Siddharth Nath Singh, national BJP leader who once looked after Bengal, said that new members would be given training and invited to a brainstorming session. But none of this happened. In Bengal, BJP never made any sincere attempt to train workers at the booth level.

Every political party needs around 3,85,000 workers to man the 77,000 odd booths in Bengal. In every booth, political parties have to deploy five workers, including two polling agents, two election agents and one worker who acts as the reliever. Moreover, those who are appointed as polling agents and election agents are expected to know each voter. Leaders of both CPI-M and Congress had said that their party would not be able to field workers in 50-55 per cent booths.

However, BJP leaders have asserted that people's support is with them. But it is not easy. Babul Supriyo was furious that his party could not deploy polling agents in Barabani, where elections were held on April 29. Anupam Hazra, BJP's candidate from Jadavpur, was found to criticise his party workers for not pursuing the election campaign seriously.

Mamata Banerjee has said that BJP will not get more than 150-160 seats and, in Bengal, her party will bag all 42 seats. On January 19, 2019, Banerjee had organised a grand show rally of United India which was attended by leaders of 21 political parties. From the podium, Banerjee raised the slogan in Bengali: "Du hazar unish, BJP finish" (Come 2019 and BJP will be ousted). Across rallies, she has urged voters to cast their choice in favour of secularism and thereby, Trinamool nominees. Banerjee is believed to be a person whose political predictions have rarely gone wrong. But the country will have to wait till May 23 to know if her predictions were well-thought or simply a reflex of the terrible election heat.

Tarun Goswami

Tarun Goswami

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