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Of mini-mutinies and shifting sands — The many strands of a polarised Bengal campaign

As the BJP makes inroads into West Bengal, the incumbent Trinamool Congress government is pushing back, even as an experiment in Muslim politics is under way. Shiv Sahay Singh and Sudipta Datta report on the many strands of a polarised Bengal campaign.

In Bengal, where two phases of a long eight-phase election are yet to be held, the Trinamool’s entire campaign is built around Banerjee. “Didi, didi aar ke, Bangla nijer meye keyi chaay (Didi, who else? Bengal wants its own daughter)” is the party’s resounding slogan. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which has quickly emerged to become the primary opposition to the ruling party, is trying to push the idea of “ashol paribartan (real change)” in its campaign. And the Samyukta Morcha, comprising the Left, Congress, and newly floated Indian Secular Front (ISF), has tried to shake things up by challenging both the main contenders. The contest has been marked by numerous defections, taunts, communal statements, violence, and aggressive campaigning even as the number of COVID-19 cases rises alarmingly in Bengal.

Fear of violence

Across the river, in Purba Medinipur district, all eyes are on the electoral contest at Nandigram where Banerjee is taking on Trinamool-turned-BJP rival Suvendu Adhikari. An injury to the Chief Minister on March 10 has restricted her movement, forcing her on a wheelchair for the rest of the campaign.

For several women in Nandigram who were witness to the violent land agitation of 2007-08, the high-voltage contest has rekindled fears of violence after results are declared on May 2. “Suvendu looked after us on behalf of Didi. And now we have been asked to pick one,” says the elderly Narmada Sith, who was tortured during the anti-land acquisition movement.

Sith’s fears are not unfounded. Despite the huge deployment of Central forces in West Bengal, the Election Commission of India has not been able to insulate the State from poll-related violence. Till April 22, several incidents of voters being threatened, clashes between political parties, and the killing of political workers have been reported. In the fourth phase of polling, at Sitalkuchi seat in north Bengal’s Cooch Behar district, Central forces opened fire killing four people. They maintain that they fired in self-defence. A primary assessment of the violence suggests that more than 20 people have lost their lives since the Model Code of Conduct was put in place and more than 30 candidates have been attacked during the poll process.

Memories of violence and “area domination” clashes are heard not only in Nandigram, but in many other parts of the State too. In Singur, an elderly farmer, Vivekananda Das, says he was beaten up by the police during the land agitation in 2006 and was only able to re-cultivate his land after 14 years, in 2020.

In the Jangalmahal region, which was gripped by mindless violence from 2008 to 2011, 30-year-old Chiranjib Maity from Jhargram stays away from the rallies conducted by Chhatradhar Mahato of the the Trinamool. Mahato led the People’s Committee Against Police Atrocities, the frontal organisation of the Communist Party of India (Maoist), before joining the Trinamool last year after spending more than 10 years in jail. Maity’s father was killed by the CPI (Maoist) before his own eyes in 2010.

Also read |  From land movement to industry, Singur’s resistance has come full circle

In Darjeeling, which witnessed a 100-day lockdown and economic blockade in 2017, during which at least 11 persons lost their lives, the elections present an opportunity for the people to express their political preferences. While there are broad-based State-level issues dominating the Assembly polls, West Bengal remains a story of many revolutions and mutinies, big and small, and they will determine the outcome of the polls, say observers.

Delivery of welfare schemes

For the Trinamool, the biggest poll plank is the delivery of welfare schemes. Banerjee claims that her government has launched 70 welfare schemes. Some of them like Kanyashree (which provides a one-time grant of ₹25,000 for a girl child who studies till Class 12) and Rupashree (which provides a one-time handout of ₹25,000 for a girl’s marriage for economically stressed families) are targeted towards girls.

In densely populated North and South 24 Parganas (64 seats, of which the ruling Trinamool won 56 in 2016), the party is banking on such schemes to see it through. But though the Trinamool chief is popular, there is resentment against the party. “Didi is good. But very few people can say the same of local Trinamool workers,” says Bulti Das of Champahati in South 24 Parganas, who was given some seed money for poultry farming. Former bureaucrat Dilip Ghosh explains that though the Trinamool has done a lot of good work, such as giving rice at ₹2 a kg, it has not allowed people to voice their concerns. Recalling the words of Santosh Rana, one of the leaders of the Naxal movement, Ghosh believes that it is the “Trinamool’s lack of democracy that has pulled the BJP to the State”.

Ghosh, who was Secretary of Panchayat and Rural Development and later Health and Family Welfare, says during the 34-year Left Front rule, there was “a sort of class alliance in rural Bengal and it was an open secret that benefits were linked to party loyalty”. With the Trinamool in power, “the MLAs and the bureaucracy appear to be more powerful than panchayat functionaries. Like in the later part of the Left regime, the Trinamool has also given an impression that you need to be with the party to get benefits,” he says.

A Professor who has followed the rise of the Trinamool points out that control of local administrative bodies is vital to the party’s electoral success. “The Trinamool’s narrative of welfare transfers may not work as a section of its leaders at the grassroots level were involved in corruption, taking ‘cut money’ for disbursement of schemes. In case of some schemes like honorarium to imams and muezzins, the BJP accused the Trinamool of appeasement politics,” he says.

According to Ardhendu Sen, former Chief Secretary of West Bengal, some of the development schemes of the Trinamool government have been well implemented, “but the party has destroyed the panchayats”. He says, “Whatever the people get today is what Mamata wants to give. The food situation has improved, but not health as she publicises. As for Kanyashree, I looked at whether the school dropout rate is going down, but there is no comprehensive evidence of that. Her reign has been a mixed bag.” After the 2019 Lok Sabha election, the Trinamool government embarked on some “course correction”, launching outreach programmes like Duare Sarkar (government at the doorstop), Paray Paray Samadhan (resolving issues in the neighbourhood) and Swasthya Sathi (a health insurance scheme where the medical card is handed over to the oldest woman member of the family).

Also read | Hunger situation in West Bengal critical, finds survey

Blow to democracy

For bureaucrats, the biggest difference between the Left and Trinamool governments is that the latter seems to have stopped taking into account inputs from the ground. “Under the Left regime, there was some semblance of consultation with the people. Now, if you ask for something, leaders get annoyed,” says Sen.

The 2018 panchayat elections dealt a blow to grassroots democracy and the three-tier panchayat network, say voters and leaders. Not only were Opposition candidates not allowed to file nomination papers but even dissidents within the ruling party were not allowed to contest, say Left and Congress leaders. The Trinamool won 34% of the seats during that election, about 20,000 without a single vote being cast. State Congress president Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury claims that on the day of polling, 70-80 people were killed. Veteran Left leaders who led their supporters to file nomination papers were assaulted. The ruling party ensured that not a single civic body was administered by the Opposition and all barring the Siliguri Municipal Corporation were run by the Trinamool.

It is this stifling of the Opposition that gave BJP oxygen in the State, say both Left and Congress leaders. Also, the Trinamool’s over-reliance on minority politics has afforded the Hindu right a political space. The BJP vote share in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls was 17%. It dropped to 10% in the 2016 Assembly polls and rose to 40% in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.

“In Bengal, people vote for a party not because of ideological affiliation but because of the perception of protection against violence. If the party they have traditionally voted for cannot protect them in the face of violence perpetrated by hoodlums close to the party in power, their allegiance is bound to shift to the one which can. While the BJP’s capacity to resist Trinamool violence has increased significantly over the last three years, it is ultimately this balance of coercion that will decide who wins rural Bengal,” says a teacher.

The BJP’s might and muscle

Taking full advantage of this rancour, the BJP has used its “might and muscle” to set foot in Bengal. It has worked assiduously on the disgruntlement on the ground and used defections as a political tool to poach leaders of the ruling party. The politics of defections started in West Bengal in 2011, when MLAs of the Congress defected to the Trinamool even though both the parties had joined hands and contested polls to defeat the Left Front government.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi arrives at a public rally in Kawakhali on the outskirts of Siliguri on April 10, 2021. | Photo Credit: AFP

In 2016, the Trinamool stormed to power for a second term with 211 seats, but the party continued to break into the rank and file of the Opposition. Of the 44 Congress MLAs who won the 2016 Assembly polls, more than 20 defected to the Trinamool, says senior Congress leader Abdul Mannan. Taking a leaf out of the Trinamool handbook, the BJP began to engineer defections before the 2019 Lok Sabha polls. Senior Trinamool leaders like Mukul Roy, Arjun Singh, Nisith Pramanik and Locket Chatterjee switched to the BJP and the party won 18 out of 42 Lok Sabha seats in the State. Once the BJP got its formula right, it began to woo more members of the Trinamool. In December 2020, one of the key Ministers of the Trinamool, Adhikari, joined the BJP. He was soon followed by Rajib Banerjee. By the time the State went to the polls, more than 30 MLAs of the Trinamool had defected to the BJP, and many were given tickets.

What is most crucial to the rise of the BJP in Bengal is that the party gained strength without participating in any prolonged people’s movement like Singur or Nandigram, say observers. It has used defections, religious polarisation using the trope of infiltration and the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, and also highlighted communal violence in some parts of the State to stake claim to power.

In many areas of rural Bengal, villagers talk about a desire for change. “Onek toh dekhlam, baam ke, didi ke, ebar dekhi notun party ke diye (We have seen the Left and Trinamool, let us try a new party),” says a young man waiting for Home Minister Amit Shah’s road show at Nandigram. A farmer in the agriculture-rich Bardhaman district is candid: “If there is a new broom, do we use the old one?” Similar sentiments are echoed in Jhargram (the BJP did very well in this erstwhile Maoist belt in the Lok Sabha elections, winning all four seats), Howrah, Hooghly and North and South 24 Parganas. To build on this, the Prime Minister and the BJP top brass including party chief J.P. Nadda, Home Minister Shah, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh and Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath besides State BJP president Dilip Ghosh held rallies and road shows. Modi held over 20 public rallies across the State.

Identity politics

The campaign has been bitter, fractious and communal. The Election Commission has taken some note of the polarisation, but not enough, says a senior Congress leader. Speaking in Bidhannagar, which went to the polls on April 17, on the city’s north-eastern fringes, Shah said “only the BJP can stop infiltration in Bengal. Communists, Congress and the Trinamool have vote banks in ‘ghuspetias (infiltrators)’.” Campaigning in Asansol, the Prime Minister raked up the 2018 riots: “Who supported the rioters? Who undertook the policy of appeasement? For whom did the police support the rioters? There is only one answer. Everyone is saying ‘because of Didi’.” The Trinamool was quick to retort that the person the BJP had blamed then for being a bystander, Jitendra Tiwari, is now with the saffron party. In Nandigram and other parts of Purbo and Paschim Medinipur, Adhikari has constantly harped on the “70:30” divide of Hindus and Muslims in Bengal. The Muslims make up 27% of the population, according to the 2011 Census.

Biswanath Chakraborty, psephologist and professor at Rabindra Bharati University, says this is a watershed election because Bengal is witnessing the rise of identity politics — not just of Hindus and Muslims, but also Dalit sections like Matuas and Rajbanshis. The BJP has focussed on getting the disaffected and neglected elements together from all walks of life to rally against the Trinamool. The Matuas are Hindu migrants from Bangladesh and the BJP has promised to implement the Citizenship (Amendment) Act if voted to power. On the ground, a section of Matuas do not want special favours and point out that they already have Aadhaar and voter cards, markers of Indian citizenship. The Matuas had backed Trinamool earlier but are now divided between the BJP and the ruling party — they have a say in at least 30 seats.

Also read | Matuas grappling with identity politics

An experiment called the ISF

With the Left vote share falling from 26.6% in 2016 to 7.5% in 2019, the Left Front felt it “had to do something” to stop all anti-incumbency votes from going to the BJP. In an attempt to remain relevant in the contest, the Left and Congress alliance joined hands with the ISF , formed by Furfura Sharif cleric Abbas Siddique. “This will help stop votes from going to the BJP, at least a part of them,” claims Mohammed Salim, Polit Bureau member of the CPI(M). “The ISF is fighting in 28 seats,” says Abbas Siddique’s brother Naushad Siddique, chairman of the ISF and a candidate in Muslim-dominated Bhangar, located about 40 km from Kolkata. In 2019, the Trinamool had led in 60 of the 74 Assembly segments in which Muslims constitute over 50% of the electorate. “The Muslim vote is likely to be divided in places where the ISF is strong,” says Chakraborty. “And that will not help the Trinamool.”

“A section of Left supporters who first went to the Trinamool is likely to have voted for the BJP in 2019 and may go with either the BJP or the Left-Congress-ISF alliance,” says Ambikesh Mahapatra, who teaches at Jadavpur University and had contested the 2016 Assembly polls with support from the Left and Congress. Things may have changed for the Congress, however, in the Muslim-majority seats of Malda and Murshidabad after the Sitalkuchi firing. “The Muslim vote may consolidate behind the Trinamool,” says a local leader.

Also read | Crucible of ISF, Bhangar reflects experiment in Muslim politics

The BJP has targeted the Trinamool government over alleged corruption, particularly using the term “cut money”. It has taken on Banerjee’s nephew Abhishek Banerjee, the ruling party’s MP from Diamond Harbour. Those who have defected from the Trinamool to the BJP often attack the ‘bhaipo’ or nephew saying he is a “tolabaj (extortionist)”. While there have been cases of local-level functionaries at panchayats being involved in taking “cut money” and the Trinamool chairperson has asked people to return the money, Abhishek Banerjee has turned out to be an easy target for the Opposition.

High turnout amidst a pandemic

Charges of mismanagement in dealing with the pandemic are a cause of concern for the ruling party. But now there is anger against the BJP too, in some sections, as Modi continued to hold large rallies where most were seen packed in close proximity without masks, even as cases have soared. The Prime Minister has cancelled his rallies for the last two phases. Banerjee has also promised to connect with the electorate virtually. On April 21, the State’s daily COVID-19 infections crossed 10,000 for the first time since the outbreak of the pandemic.

On April 22, the day of polling for the sixth phase, the Calcutta High Court came down heavily on the Election Commission saying it is only issuing circulars but not ensuring that COVID-19 protocols are implemented. Despite the surge, there has been no drop in voter percentage. In each of the six phases, more than 80% polling was registered.

The 2021 Assembly polls are no ordinary elections, say political observers. “This is the first time that the State is witnessing the rise of the BJP as well as a high-pitched campaign that started months before the poll dates were announced,” says Chakraborty. The people on the ground have picked sides and while some are willing to stick their necks out, others maintain a strategic silence.

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