In Amdanga village, about 100 km from Kolkata, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee took on Prime Minister Narendra Modi. “You may elect anyone, but don’t vote for fascist Modi,” she told the audience assembled from this Lok Sabha constituency of Barrackpore. Her supporters cheered in response.
The 2019 general elections will be a decisive moment for Mamata’s political journey, and the challenges are stacking up on many fronts. The Bharatiya Janata Party has gone all out to confront her in her homeground. Addressing rallies in the state, Modi has accused her of nepotism, corruption, minority appeasement, and using strong-arm tactics in politics. The PM also warned of the potential break-up of the Trinamool Congress in the near future.
As a result, the polls in West Bengal have turned out to be a head-on battle between Mamata and Modi, leaving the Left and the Congress as spectators.
Why Basirhat is a prime BJP target
The BJP’s target is to win 23 out of 42 seats in West Bengal. In one of the seats, Basirhat located at the Indo-Bangladesh border, the party is expected to make a breakthrough. The politics of Modi and BJP chief Amit Shah are largely based on religious polarisation—and Basirhat is a fertile ground for it.
Basirhat came into the limelight after communal violence broke out in 2017, when a student was accused of posting an explicit cartoon of Prophet Muhammad on social media. It became clear at the time that this seat would become a barometer of the polls in the state. Basirhat has a Muslim population of about 10 lakh. The combination of illegal immigration from Bangladesh and the smuggling of cows across the border finds resonance with Hindus here. This is psychologically crucial for the BJP to make inroads.
“There is a mood for change and it’s going to be a tough competition,” primary school teachers Dhiman Rai and Sujoy Das tell Newslaundry in a local market in Basirhat. These words are prophetic, given that votes this year are likely to be split between the BJP and the TMC.
Basirhat has 15 lakh voters. In 2014, the TMC’s Idris Ali won the seat with 4.92 lakh votes. The BJP polled 2.33 lakh votes and the Communist Party of India polled 3.82 lakh. This year, Mamata has replaced Ali with Bangla actress Nusrat Jahan. And despite the CPI’s margin of victory over the BJP in 2014, the current general elections see the CPI struggling to keep its vote base intact.
Bitanu Chatterjee, a senior journalist and editor of the news website The Bengal Story says, “There are a few voters in Bengal who are against the TMC and would like to see Mamata out of power. These people have been voting for various parties or coalitions against Mamata. This time, all these voters can strengthen the BJP.”
But is an inclination for the BJP enough to secure its victory? Basirhat’s Muslim population is likely to back the TMC.
At the BJP office in Basirhat, which is housed in a building adjoining the CPI office, senior BJP leader Raman Sarkar complains about the “strong-arm tactics” of TMC workers. “They openly brandish arms. They kill people and beat them. They aren’t scared of anyone. Those who don’t support them are threatened with physical harm and the rape of their women.”
Sarkar says the BJP is contesting in the state using the smuggling of cows and illegal immigration from Bangladesh which happens, he says, under the patronage of the TMC. He says BJP leaders believe it’s the “responsibility” of Muslims here to display their patriotism. “We don’t have a problem with Muslims who love India and say ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai’. But illegal immigration and cow smuggling are important issues, and we are raising them.” He claims cow smugglers in Basirhat receive protection from the police.
TMC leaders have termed this allegations to be “desperation” on the BJP’s part and a “conspiracy”. Yet critics of Mamata claim the politics she’s practised over the years have prepared a fertile ground for the emergence of the BJP and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh in West Bengal.
Minority fear and a shrinking secular space
In Berhampore seat, Adhir Ranjan Chaudhary is the Congress’s sitting MP and their candidate for the upcoming polls. He calls Mamata the “biggest promoter” of the BJP. If the BJP tastes success in West Bengal, he says, Narendra Modi should thank Didi.
“If the BJP comes back to power in Bengal, this is due to Mamata,” Chaudhary tells Newslaundry. “She finished off the secular space by marginalising the Left and the Congress after coming to power. This allowed the BJP to spread its wings.”
But even as they blame Mamata for their downfall, the Left and the Congress forget that politics is a game of possibilities. When she defeated the Left, Mamata tried to consolidate her position over the last eight years. When Modi began his politics of polarisation in the Centre, Mamata did the same at the state level, hoping to attract Muslim votes. This further pushed the Left and the Congress into the margins.
Unlike the 2016 Assembly polls, the Congress and the Left are not contesting together this time. This has resulted in a four-cornered contest in most seats in West Bengal—and the BJP is likely to benefit from the division in the opposition’s votes.
In the Diamond Harbour seat, the Communist Party of India (Marxist)’s Dr Fuad Halim is pitting against the TMC’s Abhishek Banerjee, who’s also Mamata’s nephew. Dr Halim is popular as a “people’s doctor” who treats the poor free of cost. He alleges that the TMC and BJP are actually helping each other during this election. Visiting several areas of Diamond Harbour, Newslaundry discovered that a lot of the “secular votes” that usually go towards the CPI(M) and Congress are sliding towards the TMC, as there’s a strong feeling that only Mamata can stop the Modi juggernaut.
This is confirmed by Mohammad Izhar and Waris Ali, who both work as tailors in Diamond Harbour. They claim that people earlier voted for the Left Front, Congress and TMC, but this year, the Muslim community won’t allow its vote bank to be divided.
Uday Basu, coordinating editor of The Statesman in Kolkata, says this strategy is “tactical voting” by the Muslim community. Basu says this kind of polarisation will completely decimate the Left and the Congress in West Bengal, especially in areas near the international border. And Modi, Amit Shah and Mamata know this.
During the last polls, the BJP lost the Alipurduar seat to the TMC by a slim margin. As a result, Amit Shah arrived in Alipurduar during the beginning of 2019’s campaign, raising issues like “allowances of Imams” and “the imposition of Urdu in schools”. Shah had asserted that the BJP would “send back all the infiltrators” if they were voted to power. “The Narendra Modi government is coming back,” he had announced. “We’ll implement the National Register of Citizens in Bengal. We’ll identify each and every infiltrator and send them back.” He added: “However, Hindu, Buddhist and Sikh immigrants have nothing to fear.”
These statements—and declarations on the same lines by Modi and other BJP leaders—has furthered the atmosphere of insecurity for Muslims in the state. Its impact is obvious in districts like Aliduarpur, Basirhat, Malada, Mushidabad, Balurghatar and Raiganj.
Mamata’s been countering it in her speeches, saying things like, “You won’t even find the ‘N’ of ‘NRC’ in Bengal.” She’s also told her party workers to take this message to every home. Aftauddin Ahmad, the TMC councillor from Matiaburj in Diamond Harbour, tells Newslaundry he’s been cautioning voters in his area. “We’re making people understand that here is a man, Narendra Modi, who is going to send us to Bangladesh. We have to defeat him and send him back to Gujarat.”
Nepotism fuelled rebellion in the TMC ranks
In the 2011 Assembly polls, the BJP mustered only four per cent vote share and no MLAs. In the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, it won two Lok Sabha seats—Darjeeling and Asansol—and increased its vote share to 17 per cent, largely thanks to 2014’s Modi wave. In 2016, the BJP opened its account during the Assembly polls, winning three seats. However this was also when Mamata Banerjee’s popularity hits its peak, so the BJP’s vote share slid to 10 per cent.
But the party’s inroads into West Bengal had just begun. Their progress was compounded when former Union minister and Mamata’s closest confidante Mukul Roy joined the party in November 2017, amid growing dissension in the TMC.
At the time, Roy had accused Mamata of no longer running a political party. “It has turned into a private limited company.” The TMC hit back, calling Roy the “managing director” of the aforementioned company, but the damage was done. What Roy was referring to was Mamata’s promotion of her nephew Abhishek Banerjee as the TMC’s political heir. Roy and other TMC leaders felt they were being cut to size, resulting in rumours of discord in the TMC ranks.
In a rally at Srirampur, PM Modi said 40 TMC legislators are in touch with the BJP. Roy tells Newslaundry: “Prime Minister Modi is a stalwart. We are much smaller leaders who do politics in West Bengal. I’m telling you that not 40 but about 125 MLAs of the TMC are in touch with me.”
One of them might have been Arjun Singh, the TMC MLA from Bhatpara who joined the BJP in March this year, before which he reportedly had a “long meeting” with Mukul Roy. The BJP has fielded Singh as its candidate in Barrackpore, where he’ll take on the TMC’s sitting MP Dinesh Trivedi. Singh says, “Mamata is a tyrant. She was treating us like slaves. No one wants to remain in her party anymore.”
Though the TMC has explained Singh’s jumping ship by saying his “self-respect” became an issue only after he was denied a party ticket, it’s undisputed that several TMC MLAs are in touch with Roy. This isn’t good news for Mamata Banerjee.
Political analyst Uday Basu says “everyone in Bengal” knows the BJP wants to split the TMC. Even so, he found PM Modi’s declaration that 40 TMC MLAs were in touch with the BJP to be surprising. “The announcement by the PM regarding this publicly was quite unexpected. This is part of his strategy to create chaos in Mamata’s camp and win the coming Assembly polls.”
The TMC’s welfare schemes may only take them so far
Corruption is playing a large role in political rhetoric; both Mamata and Modi are slinging accusations at each other. Mamata has used Rahul Gandhi’s “chowkidar chor hai” extensively in the state, even as her own government is deeply mired in corruption charges and scandals.
Bheema Bali, a shopkeeper in Sodpur, says, “Mamata’s supporters and opponents are both levelling corruption charges. This sloganeering will definitely have an impact. Mamata’s image has been dented. And people who didn’t know about Modi’s Rafale Deal are now aware of it.”
Geographically, though the BJP’s garnering support in cities and smaller towns, Mamata’s real strength lies in the rural areas. Even as her government faces corruption charges, more than two dozen state government welfare schemes have played an important role in connecting the poor in rural areas with the TMC. These schemes include the Kanyashree Prakalpa (cash transfer for girls’ education and not getting married before the age of 18), Subujh Saathi (bicycles for school students), Khadyashree (rations), Gatidhara (subsidies on vehicle loans), and Swasthya Saathi (health scheme).
In Nahati, 50 km from Kolkata, 40-year-old Keya Das runs a roadside shop and is the sole breadwinner of a family of five. She’s also a beneficiary of the TMC government’s welfare schemes. “Didi is very kind-hearted,” she says. “She gives a lot to the poor. She should become prime minister.”
Nusrat Jahan, the TMC candidate for Basirhat, says, “Didi has implemented schemes for people which start from the birth of the child, and extend upto getting careers and getting married.”
But TMC critics will tell you that Mamata’s real strength doesn’t lie in her government’s schemes: it’s in the highhandedness of her cadres and blatant misuse of the police. One example is the massive violence that marred the Panchayat polls last year. The TMC won one-third of the seats uncontested.
Mukul Roy says, “Our party lost polls in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh last year but not a single party worker was killed. But in the local bodies’ polls in West Bengal, more than 100 people were killed. Mamata is murdering democracy here. Around 34 per cent of people were not allowed to fulfill the nominations in the Panchayat polls last year. Massive rigging happened in polling and counting.”
Given the high-octave campaigning and numerous allegations and counter-allegations, the 2019 polls in West Bengal are likely to be as important as the ongoing polls in Uttar Pradesh. Anirban Banerjee, a political analyst and lawyer in the Calcutta High Court, says Mamata wouldn’t have expected to face such a tough challenge from the BJP. He says after the TMC defeated the Left and the Congress, Mamata would have wanted to use the BJP to keep them in check.
He says: “The TMC took the BJP lightly, while the Sangh Parivar’s organisations continued to spread their footprints in the Northeast and West Bengal. Then she suddenly realised that the BJP is fighting for first position, not second. In such a situation, it’s becoming increasingly difficult for the TMC to face the well-organised network of the BJP.”