The long election campaign is over, but it has dealt Bengal a political blow – of polarisation across religious and multiple other lines — that will take long to heal.
No other Prime Minister in independent India has addressed as many as 30 rallies in Bengal during the election campaign. The entire campaign seemed to have been reduced to a high-pitched battle between Narendra Modi and Mamata Banerjee. There is no doubt, the BJP tried to fetch as many seats as possible in Bengal to compensate for possible losses in northern and western India, where it had reached saturation point, milking all it could in 2014.
The BJP has tasted blood in Bengal where, even without a strong grassroots-level organisation, their vote-share has been on the rise from the last Lok Sabha to the last panchayat elections.
The saffron party needed to create a wave in Mamata’s hinterland. Narendra Modi and Amit Shah were able to do this through multiple meetings, aided by some loopholes in Mamata’s camp. In the process, the BJP divided Bengal along multiple lines, starting from religious polarisation to cultural and ethnic divisions along with a sharp political binary.
The high-pitched election campaign that started with “Speed-breaker (of development) Didi” vs “Expiry PM” culminated in the destruction of social reformer Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar’s bust.
Accusing Mamata of Muslim appeasement, it was easy for the BJP to divide Bengal along religious lines. They have done it quite successfully. This is for the first time that voters alleged on camera that Hindus were not being allowed to vote. Earlier, the fight was normally along political lines – Left vs TMC or TMC vs BJP. This was an unprecedented phenomenon when people were accusing the ruling government of preventing Hindus from voting, lest it went against Mamata Banerjee.
Throughout the campaign, Mamata was struggling to prove that she was not anti-Hindu and countering the BJP’s charge that she did not allow Durga or Saraswati Puja to take place in Bengal.
She sought refuge in the “Jai Hind” slogan after the BJP exposed her “allergy” to the “Jai Shri Ram” chant when she suddenly stopped her cavalcade in West Midnapore and chased a few activists who were chanting “Jai Shri Ram”.
Modi and Shah also made a veiled attack on the minorities when they spoke of a citizenship bill to give refuge to mostly Hindus coming from Bangladesh, or use the National Register for Citizenship in Assam to drive out Bangladeshi Muslim infiltrators. Mamata discarded the possibility of implementing either but could not be as vociferous, given that she has always been protective towards minorities in Bengal.
Large-scale political violence is a negative but common feature of Bengal politics. But it has intensified this time, as TMC and BJP supporters clashed in various parts of Bengal, unearthing tension among their supporters at the grassroots level. A BJP candidate’s threat to bring cadres from Uttar Pradesh made many raise eyebrows about the saffron party’s character.
Amit Shah’s strategy to capture the imagination of Bengali intellectuals by making the BJP look like a “Bengali party” founded by a Bengali, Syama Prasad Mookerjee, has not succeeded. Though the blame game continues over who destroyed Vidyasagar’s bust when a clash broke out between BJP and TMC supporters during Shah’s roadshow, Mamata has been able to create a political narrative that the BJP doesn’t respect Bengal. Social media was flooded with messages that showed a clear Bengali—non-Bengali divide among the people of the state.
In Jangalmahal, tribal-dense area in Bengal’s western part, parties are unsure which tribe would vote for whom and where the non-tribal votes would go. Just as unpredictable are the Matuas (a cult-following Scheduled Caste sect of refugees), as both Mamata and Modi worked hard to capture their support.
Corruption and extortion charges against local-level TMC leaders, forcefully preventing rural voters to vote during the last panchayat elections, defection of TMC workers and supporters to the BJP, lack of grassroots-level leaders to hold the fort for Mamata and a declining grip over the TMC’s organisation, which is falling apart in many pockets, have added to Mamata’s woes, while giving leverage to the BJP.
But there is no reason why the BJP should win two-digit seats from Bengal. They lack a prominent face in the state. They have not led any people’s movement there. Neither have they any grassroots-level organisation to mobilise voters to the booth on polling day. If they at all win a few seats, it would mean the people are seeking refuge in the BJP just the way they had done so in the TMC in 2009 and 2011, to escape Leftist rule. It would be a more an anti-Mamata than a pro-BJP vote, as top leaders divide Bengal along multiple lines.