Its traditional bastions appear apprehensive while Bengal presents a most lucrative opportunity for power-hungry BJP. But, unlike the Hindi heartland, violence and communal rhetoric will not sway the Bengali accustomed to intellectual ignition and truly accepting of diversity
The fall of Vidyasagar's bust was not merely a consequence of political vendetta – it was the peak of weeks-long, ruthless muscle-flexing that has been attacking the sensibilities symbolised by the bust and indeed represented by the rest of Bengal. 17 rallies were held by Prime Minister Narendra Modi across Bengal, unprecedented for a prime minister, while 18 were held by BJP chief Amit Shah – the desperation to snatch West Bengal from chief minister Mamata Banerjee seems all so real. While always politically relevant, Bengal has never attracted the lotus's attention as today. The incessant throw of jibes, circulation of rumours and sporadic instances of violence have irked the ordinary Bengali voter, for whom dark days of democracy had been pushed to the past with the quiet resignation of CPIM. But why Bengal – when all 29 states of the country are preparing for the same Lok Sabha polls, why has Bengal grabbed attention unlike any other?
The answer lays hidden in thin layers of insecurity carefully concealed behind a facade of empty political rhetoric. BJP is losing ground in its bastions and the prospects of Bengal makes it all too greedy. Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Bihar and Gujarat, states that had contributed almost all their seats to BJP in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, today show signs of apprehension. In fact, every state that has endured the bitter aftertaste of BJP's fundamentalist rule is jittery to have the saffron party back at Centre. Bengal then presents a most lucrative opportunity with no memory of harsh communal administration. Incidentally, Bengal also contributes the third highest number of members to the Lok Sabha (42) and currently presents a most ripe political vacuum in the absence of any opposition to Mamata Banerjee's solo show. For the power hungry, this culmination of reason and opportunity makes Bengal irresistible.
Saffron is the new red
Decimated in 2011 by Banerjee's Trinamool Congress (TMC), CPIM vanished. Suddenly, from being the blood that flowed through the veins of every Bengali, they were invisible ashes on a set horizon. But, not entirely. They were still lurking in the shadows, waiting to pounce on their target – a woman from the streets who had refused to succumb to their masculine authority. CPIM workers harnessed deep vendetta for Banerjee and today, they are flocking to BJP 'to teach her a lesson'. While many communist workers left the party, the more ambitious still craved political relevance. BJP, known to never miss an opportunity at manipulation, came to their rescue. Today, Khagen Murmu, a sitting CPIM MLA, is contesting for BJP from Malda North constituency, while several other constituencies including Cooch Behar, Alipur Duar, Raiganj, will see CPIM workers voting in favour of BJP to defeat Banerjee, their one true enemy. Last week, former Bengal chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya and former Tripura chief minister Manik Sarkar spoke out, requesting CPIM workers to not sway towards BJP, but it seemed all too feeble all too late. While BJP has come to hopeless CPIM workers' rescue, they have duly paid back their favour. BJP was facing a severe shortage of candidates to assign across 42 seats and booth workers too were virtually amiss. Those that came to the party lacked ideological inclination or discipline that was once central to karsevaks. This was visible in their dwindling performance too; while in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls BJP managed 17 per cent votes, in the 2016 assembly polls, their share fell to 10 per cent. But now, CPIM workers have come to aid them across districts, courting earlier communist sympathisers towards the communal camp. BJP provided them succour as they became its silver living in an otherwise cloudy Bengal sky.
BJP's Bengal Bachao Andolan relies entirely on a triangle of repeating falsehoods, inciting sporadic violence and luring people, whether workers or voters, with copious amounts of money.
"If you repeat a lie often enough, people will believe it and even you will come to believe it yourself," Hitler wrote in Mein Kampf, an ideology practised widely by him and his closest aide, Reich Minister of Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels. Goebbels has found a friend in our ruling Centre today that has quickly abandoned its Bapu-fanaticism in perhaps its most exhaustive scope. Carrying Gandhi's symbolic glasses in a cleanliness campaign is far less relevant than adopting his political philosophies that were so very evolved even for today's time.
Narendra Modi and Amit Shah do not believe so. They believe in Goebbels and have well-appropriated him across their Bengal campaign to malign Banerjee, her governance and her purported clasp on Hindu practices.
"Durga Puja is now in danger due to Didi's appeasement politics," Narendra Modi bellowed in Midnapore, not realising that this one statement of provocation would prove quite costly. Unlike the rest of the country, Bengalis are not a believing lot. Early recipients of the Renaissance, Bengalis question what they are told, fight for they believe and choose their ideologies without fear of persecution.
Durga Puja, to the contrary, has been Banerjee's weapon to connect with Bengal, empowering local communities with cash compensation, supporting their puja festivities and organising a grand carnival that witnesses guests from across the globe. Durga Puja is today an internationally-recognised event and only a most irrational leader would think of thwarting its essence in Bengal, Ma Durga's home. And, Banerjee is no fool. Modi's lie was shamed when Mamata addressed her rally, asking,
"Now, tell me mothers & sisters, do we have Durga Puja or not?"
Crowd: We do!
"Does anyone stop you from celebrating Durga Puja?"
"Louder, does Durga Puja take place here?"
Crowd (in roars): Yes!
"Boro din (Christmas)?"
"But there's only one thing that doesn't happen here – Modi. Modi hoy na… BJP hoy na, mithya hoy na, kutsha hoy na." (Modi, BJP, lies and character assassination don't happen here)
Goebbels's propaganda was defeated by a woman from the streets – who has risen from the ranks, fought against brutal communist rule and overthrown a 34-year-old regime to occupy the chief ministerial seat with conviction – and her faith in the power of Gandhian truth (the one so voraciously preached but never practised by our saffronists).
Blood for blood
"Even Kashmir has less violence than Bengal," Narendra Modi roared again, pointing a stout finger at Banerjee without noticing the four more pointing right back at him. Unsurprisingly, until BJP was lured by Bengal's prospects, the state witnessed relative calm. In fact, the Election Commission (EC), by now sharing an uncanny resemblance with Mahabharat's Gandhari, has been compelled to file an FIR against two BJP candidates – Babul Supriyo and Arjun Singh. Imagine what they must have done for EC to finally take a brave peek outside the darkness of its blindfold. Arjun Singh, earlier TMC leader and now Ram-bhakt, had been accused of spreading hooliganism with a section of CISF personnel who were later replaced by EC in view of their actions. Even more surprising is the case of Tripura where two seats have witnessed unparalleled violence and re-polls have been ordered across 168 booths, 10 per cent of the pool. Here, booths were ransacked, CCTV cameras were broken and an Election Commission officer was suspended. The extent of false polling was appalling even for EC, which ordered a re-poll to only meet the same fate again. But, in Bengal, despite the widely popularised violence, polling has been reordered in only six booths, 0.014 per cent of the total.
That elections were ordered across seven phases in Bengal and over 800 companies of central forces were deployed to the state indicate that violence was expected and for that, the state police machinery needed to be crippled. In fact, it was a most integral part of the Bengal Bachao Andolan led by messiah Modi and saviour Shah. Violence has been their weapon – whether in Gujarat in 2002 or across Alwar, Una, Assam, Kerala through 2014-2018 or in Bengal in 2019.
Bengal has never allowed communally polarisation. BJP has naturally failed miserably here with its vote bank largely comprising migrant traders. It held two municipal seats in Burrabazar but that too received a jolt when its leader Shantilal Jain joined TMC. This desperation of losing existing ground in Bengal while also being threatened by the collapse of traditional bastions elsewhere convinced BJP that an aggressive campaign was the most potent means of making inroads into the state. For this, virulent social media campaigns have been conducted focusing mostly on spreading lies about Mamata's purported Muslim appeasement and sheltering of goons.
With close to 30 per cent Muslims in the state, Banerjee as chief minister has ensured that her policies reach the most marginalised, whether in providing food grain subsidies, access to resources or education to the girl child. What BJP terms as appeasement is indeed equanimity in the distribution of state resources. When BJP says that Banerjee appeases Muslims, it indeed questions why Banerjee provides resources to Muslims who, for BJP, are not 'Indian' enough to gain access to the realm's means.
BJP fails to realise that the Bengal brand of Hinduism is distinct from its cow-belt counterpart. Here, Gods eat meat and encourage people to consume meat. In fact, second-generation Gujaratis and Marwaris living in Bengal too enjoy the cosmopolitan eating habits of the state, relishing their occasional chicken cutlet and fish kobiraji. In UP, MP, Bihar and other Hindi heartland states, the idea of a vegetarian Ram may sell, but Bengalis would sacrifice little for their fish-eating Saraswati and meat-eating Kali.
Money, media & mandate
The dubious electoral bonds scheme has benefitted BJP unlike any other. Today, in terms of finance, it stands several heads above the rest. And, money is power. BJP has engaged in a vulgar distribution of money with the booth president of each booth receiving Rs 2 lakh in cash. Further, state BJP president Dilip Ghosh's assistant was caught with Rs 1 crore cash in Asansol railway station while Ghatal candidate Bharti Ghosh was caught with over Rs 1 lakh. Funnily, the supporters who today rally with BJP largely do not belong to the state. They have been brought from outside with apt training in inciting violence and absolutely no love for the state's heritage. Case in point – Tajinder Singh Bagga, who was caught during the Vidyasagar violence and had jumped to fame in 2011 after brutalising lawyer Prashant Bhushan's office and slapping him in the name of 'nationalism'. That's not all, the chowkidars of our nation, including Sunil Deodhar and Hemanta Biswa Sarma, have booked numerous rooms at the luxurious five-star Taj Bengal to escape the heat of this poll season and perhaps guard their citizens with greater efficiency.
Media, the other propeller of BJP's wings, has also had its fair share of the Bengal cake. Several BJP sympathising journalists have been flown in from Delhi to write 'ground reports' that are in the least grounded. Rarely stepping out of their comfort, the journalists enjoy BJP's luxury while publishing well-edited reports to further distort the narrative on national media.
The attack has not evaded bureaucracy either. Former police commissioner Rajeev Kumar, already harassed by BJP, was transferred to the Home Ministry by Election Commission immediately after violence following Amit Shah's rally on May 14. Further, former police commissioner Anuj Sharma, who served in the intermediary period after Kumar's term ended earlier this year, was also transferred at the beginning of the elections and replaced by Dr Rajesh Kumar, former Officer on Special Duty to then UPA minister of railways from TMC and now poster boy of BJP in Bengal, Mukul Roy.
Narendra Modi has emphasised with disdain that Mamata Banerjee shields goons, no doubt her party and parties across India harness politicians who aren't particularly known for their clean slates. But, acting on its propaganda of manufacturing towering lies, BJP continues to accuse Mamata of 'goondaraj' while quietly purchasing her most aggressive leaders from the sidelines. Arjun Singh, Shankhudeb Panda, Anupam Hazra, Saumitra Khan are only a few examples of Mamata's most passionate 'goons' who are now respected 'bhadraloks' adorning a saffron scarf.
The tales of lies, harassment and horse-trading are exhausting. This week Vidyasagar's bust fell – but let us only lament and learn. Bengal mustn't succumb to communal forces that are beneath the dignity of emancipation envisaged in this state of Renaissance, intellectual ignition and active dissent.
Amit Shah claimed that BJP will win 23 seats in Bengal – people of the state, including party workers, are apprehensive. In the absence of ground support, Shah has perhaps rightfully reposed his faith on the ever-so-elusive EVM.
(The views expressed are personal)