The rise of the BJP in West Bengal

The most vitriolic exchanges this election season have perhaps been between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee. The fierce contest in West Bengal is reflected in the voter turnout, which is the highest in the country in this election so far.Indeed, just eight years after Ms. Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress (TMC) brought the Left Front government’s 34 years of uninterrupted rule to a dramatic end, a road journey through West Bengal makes it evident that there is a new rising star here, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). In most constituencies, it is a direct fight between the TMC and the BJP, while in a handful, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) or the Congress is still in contention.No organisation, a lot of strengthThis is remarkable for the BJP, which is still a work in progress in the State. The party does not have much of an organisation in West Bengal, nor sufficient candidates from its own ideological pool. For many constituencies, it has had to seek out disgruntled persons from other parties to be its nominees. Across the State, the party’s offices are just coming up. In South 24 Parganas, for instance, a recently bought three-storey building overlooking a pond smells of fresh paint. The cubicles are being readied. Saffron-coloured chairs are stacked on shiny floors. One wall is painted saffron, and against it, fibre glass busts of Bharatiya Jana Sangh (BJS) founder Syama Prasad Mookerjee and Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) ideologue Deen Dayal Upadhyaya flank a statue of Bharat Mata.But what the BJP does have in plenty in West Bengal is money. This is a new element in West Bengal politics, where long years of Left rule ensured — and encouraged — financial austerity. The party also has a growing army of musclemen, a staple for successful political parties in the State for at least half a century. “The BJP has no shongothon (organisation) but it has the shokti (strength) to take on the Trinamool,” says a former Left supporter. “The Left parties still have a shongothon but no shokti. So, those who want to end Trinamool rule have to vote for the BJP. Only the BJP can protect their votes.” The Left Front’s steady decline and the Congress’s near annihilation has ensured that those disappointed with the TMC-promoted culture of violence as well as the State government’s inability to tolerate dissent can look to the BJP now. If anger had been gradually building up against the TMC, it became apparent in the 2018 Panchayat elections. For the first time, non-ruling party candidates found themselves barred from even filing nominations in 34% of the seats. Not surprisingly, the BJP emerged second, even though it was distant from the TMC.The BJP’s entry into the State is not sudden, even if its 2014 victory in the general election widened its appeal in the State. Local RSS activists stress that RSS founder, K.B. Hedgewar, studied medicine in Calcutta, and that his early inspiration came from the State. They also stress that Syama Prasad Mookerjee was born in Calcutta. Senior RSS activist Dhanpat Ram Agarwal talks of attending a shakha in the early 1960s in Siliguri where he grew up. Conversations reveal that Hindu right-wing organisations have been working in West Bengal for more than six decades. They worked first with Marwari traders and migrants from eastern Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, in Kolkata’s Burrabazar, in the State capital’s industrial hinterland where the jute mills were situated, and in north Bengal. By the late 1960s, the RSS began to insist that its meetings be conducted in Bengali.If long years of Left rule pushed the Hindutva agenda underground, Ms. Banerjee’s overt wooing of Muslims, who constitute 28% of the population, through ill-advised measures such as providing a monthly stipend to imams, most of whom are now Trinamool activists, awakened a sleeping giant. For the RSS-BJP combine that has been trying to sell the difference between Bangladeshi Hindus (“migrants”) and Muslims (“infiltrators”), especially in the border districts, and the dangers of what they call a “demographic imbalance that can affect social harmony”, this was a perfect moment for take-off.It took Ms. Banerjee time to see that her party was being branded by the BJP. She had already been financing puja committees. Now she began to patronise Ram Navami processions and Hanuman Jayanti. One TMC candidate was found posing on a poster that had a flying Hanuman, and another was photographed campaigning with workers holding ‘Jai Sri Ram’ banners. A young TMC worker told me that he now had “Hindutva inside him”, indicating that he had made an ideological crossover.A belated realisationMeanwhile, many Left supporters, brought up on years of bloody battles with the TMC and encouraged by their leaders who are still targeting Ms. Banerjee rather than the BJP, are openly saying that in this election they will vote for the BJP to rid the State of the TMC. Belatedly, some CPI(M) senior leaders have realised the ideological short-sightedness of a campaign that has described the TMC and the BJP as two sides of the same coin. Former Tripura Chief Minister Manik Sarkar, who lost last year’s Assembly election to the BJP, said recently: “To gain freedom from the TMC, don’t make the mistake of choosing the BJP. It will be a blunder.” Former West Bengal Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya told the CPI(M) mouthpiece Ganasakti, “There is no use in leaping from a TMC frying pan into the BJP’s fire. In some places, the danger is already present. Our task is to bring back the people from this self-destructive mode.” But the warnings have come too late.Ms. Banerjee, fighting possibly the toughest battle of her political career, remains popular in rural Bengal, where people continue to make a distinction between her and her workers. Many of her welfare schemes have worked, and the people are grateful. Muslims stand rock solid behind her. But the danger to her rule from the BJP is real and present. Ms. Banerjee realises it and continues to fight hard.Smita Gupta is Senior Fellow, The Hindu Centre for Politics and Public Policy