The West Bengal Assembly election is now in progress. In the 68-year-old electoral history of the State, this election is going to be a very special one, marked by acrimony, corruption charges and personal attacks. For the first time, attempts are being made for seeking votes in the name of Bengali identity; something never witnessed in any earlier election of the State. True, this clarion call to Bengali identity is totally different from the chauvinistic slogans that the AASU (All Assam Students’ Union) had raised in Assam in the 1980s. But none can deny that this is somewhat alien to the true Bengali genre.
If the Trinamool Congress is trying to ride on a ‘Bengali’ juggernaut, the BJP is also dangling the carrot of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), whose critics say it is laden with communal overtones.
BJP’s Saturation Point
Even if the allegation is found to be baseless, there is no denying the fact that the CAA will drive a wedge between those whose families have been living in West Bengal since the pre-partition days and the ones who have shifted to the State from Bangladesh, particularly after 1971.
Signs of it are already visible and the BJP leadership would do well to keep in mind the social and economic fallouts of the CAA implementation in West Bengal. However, there is no possibility of an AASU-like backlash since West Bengal is still imbued with eclectic sentiments flowing from the traditions of Sri Chaitanya and Sufi saints.
The BJP’s keenness to win this year’s West Bengal Assembly election is another noteworthy feature. Perhaps, the BJP leadership has understood that the party has reached a saturation point in its traditional homeland, ie, the Indo-Gangetic Hindi heartland. In the south of the Vindhyas, its reach is tenuous. It is not in power in Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana or Tamil Nadu. Its right to govern in Karnataka has not been earned by the dint of any outright electoral victory. Saffron coloured governments in Tripura and Assam do not give the BJP the sufficient solace of becoming a truly all-India party which its number one political opponent — the Congress — can boast. A win in West Bengal, a big and populous State, will fill this gap.
The last couple of months have witnessed quite a few developments, novel by West Bengal standard. The first and foremost is the defection of quite a few TMC stalwarts to the BJP, a trend the saffron party would have done well to discourage. By and large, West Bengal has so far remained immune to this phenomenon. Prior to the 1967 election, Ajoy Mukherjee, a veteran and towering freedom fighter, left the Congress. But that was purely on ideological ground. Moreover, Ajoy Mukherjee did not cross over to any other political party. He founded his own Bangla Congress.
Two other Congress splits come to mind. In 1969, a large group of Congress people went to the Congress(R) of Indira Gandhi leaving the Congress(O) and in 1998, Mamata Banerjee left the Congress and founded her Trinamool Congress. These two splits are not on a par with the example that Ajoy Mukherjee had set. Yet those were not defections as it has been witnessed recently.
BJP’s Big Jump
BJP bigwigs know that the job ahead of them is tough. In the 2016 Assembly election, the saffron party got 10.16% votes. This is not sufficient to catapult it into power here. But in the 2019 parliamentary poll, its share of votes shot up to 40%. Rational minds would accept that the TMC government’s performance leaves much to be desired. There is scope for better performance in the arena of law enforcement, combating corruption and in the field of education. Still, this does not explain the big jump in BJP’s votes. Wide belief has it that a large number of committed Left voters had transferred their votes to the BJP.
The West Bengal Assembly election is different from all the other State legislature polls, which are also being held simultaneously. It is because the personal chemistry between Mamata and the top-level leadership of the BJP has soured to such an extent that stress on law and order during and after the poll cannot be ruled out. Name-calling between Abhishek Banerjee, Mamata’s nephew, on the one hand, and Suvendu Adhikari, a former TMC MLA and now a BJP leading light, on the other, has become almost a daily affair. That the BJP is ready to stake everything in this election is borne out by frequent visits of Narendra Modi, the Prime Minister, and JP Nadda, the BJP president, to the State.
West Bengal has seen many high stakes elections. In 1967 and 1969, there occurred verbal clashes between the two groups of Left parties led by the CPI and CPM respectively. But those never violated decorum. The year 1972 was different in character. This year’s election witnessed allegations of rigging against the Congress. The CPM boycotted the State legislature. Still, there was very little verbal abuse against each other. Elections during the 33-years-long Left Front rule were non-descript in character. But the 2021 election holds out a possibility of a severe strain on the social fabric of West Bengal.
West Bengal is a sensitive state. It has a history of political violence. So all the contestants should show restraint in their public utterances. Sadly this is missing now.
(The author is a senior journalist and commentator specialising in politics and international affairs)
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