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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 14, New Delhi, March 20, 2021

Red, Green and Saffron — The Changing Colours in the Political Landscape of West Bengal | Priyanca Mathur

Friday 19 March 2021


by Priyanca Mathur *

With all 291 candidates for the 2021 West Bengal State Legislative Elections announced, the ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC) party, headed by its firebrand incumbent Chief Minister, Mamata Banerjee aka ‘Didi’, is seeking to retain the 294 seat Assembly for the third term. In doing so it faces a fierce challenge put up the Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP). West Bengal, which was run by the Congress Party and the Left Front for decades witnessed its watershed moment in 2011 when the red state turned green as the TMC overthrew a three-decade-old communist rule. The next shock came during the Lok Sabha Elections of 2014 when the BJP opened its scorecard in the state by winning its solitary first seat and saw its vote share increase from 6.1 percent in 2009 to 16.8 per cent. This was further consolidated in 2019 when the TMC seat tally came down from 34 to 22 and the BJP rose strongly from single digit 2 to double-digit 18. Thus the saffron colour made its imprint in the state, where the Congress party and Left had been traditional enemies but ironically today stand in the electoral war arena as allies to counter the TMC and the BJP - the latter two, even more ironically have been coalition partners in the past at the Centre and the State.

Bengal as Birthplace of Hindu Nationalism

West Bengal became a political laboratory for the saffron camp since 2013 when the BJP and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) became increasingly vocal in portraying Mamata Banerjee’s alleged appeasement of Muslims as import of Islamic fundamentalism from Bangladesh and dubbed her as ‘Jihadi Didi’. Besides all BJP leaders at every public event this election season have reiterated that Hindu cultural nationalism or ‘Hindutva’ first sprouted in undivided Bengal of the nineteenth century; that the coinage of the ‘Bande Mataram’ slogan and the iconic image of ‘Bharat Mata’ originated in Bengal and then spread to the rest of India; and that it was the Bengali politician, Shyama Prasad Mukherjee, who was the founder of the Bhartiya Jana Sangha (BJS) which was the precursor to the BJP. [1]

The agenda was to whip up anti-incumbency on the saffron ideological line, with slogans like ‘Jai Shri Ram’ and the one used the Bangladesh Liberation War, ‘Joy Bangla’, re-emerging. The ally was the RSS, which had been never been allowed to rise during the Left Front regime, but now whose organisational machinery was spreading state-wide on a ‘dharam-yudh’(war of righteousness), increasing its ‘shakhas’ (branches), ‘milans’ (weekly meetings) and ‘mandalis’ (monthly gatherings). All to counter Didi’s increasing patronage to Muslim Madrasas, which allegedly was compromising national security. At the grassroots the RSS propagated the idea of Bengal as ‘a homeland for the Bengali Hindu’ and 20th June, the day in 1947 when the undivided Bengal Assembly had voted to divide Bengal on religious lines, as ‘Poschimbongo Divas’ (West Bengal Day). The saffron brushstrokes were spreading wide and deep. Painting over it in green, Mamata, in rebuttal, called the saffron party as an ‘outsider’ that was inimical to and ‘clueless about Bengal’. [2]

Tactics in Politics

Red, green or saffron, all parties have used the same political tools of strengthening grassroot cadre-base and converting local leaders to garner votes and win elections. In December, 2020 Congress leader Digvijay Singh had remarked that the way ‘animals were sold earlier in mandis (markets), nowadays MLAs are being sold’ on the alleged ‘horse-trading’ happening in poll bound West Bengal. Years ago, TMC too had played on the deep dissatisfaction against the Left Rule and brought old Left cadres into their party wing. The BJP did the same. Party and ideological loyalty had no meaning as nearly every day some TMC/Congress/Left politician was resigning and shifting over to the BJP. In fact, this election Mamata will be fighting her own former protegy, Sudhendu Adhikary, who has switched over from the TMC to the BJP, in her erstwhile victory zone Nandigram. However, as protests erupted when the BJP began announcing its list of electoral candidates, that the new saffronised leaders are pawns in a political game became evident.

This state Legislative Assembly Election will be a test of whether the political strategist ‘PK’ Prashant Kishore, and his ‘Team I-PAC (Indian Political Action Committee)’ magic works in the state or whether Amit Shah still remains the king in his vote garnering and election-winning strategies. Under PK’s advice Mamata opened a ‘Programme Implementation and Grievance Monitoring Cell and a ‘Didike Bolo (Tell Didi)’ campaign which allowed some steam to be let off in the simmering pressure cooker of the state under TMC rule. Meanwhile Shah pushed to deepen BJP’s organisational reach, riding on the shoulders of the RSS and rallying locals to join the party as ‘panna pracharaks’ (in-charge of one page of the voter’s list).

Poriborton and Khela Hobe

Since its inroad in West Bengal in 1980, most of the BJP candidates lost their deposits in the Lok Sabha Elections of 1984, 1989, 1991, 1996, 2009 and till June 2014 the party neither had a single MLA nor did it have power in a single civic body or panchayati samiti. In 2004, TMC had only one seat in the Lok Sabha, a decade later BJP won its first seat in West Bengal. However, while TMC may have never had pan-India ambitions, the agenda of the saffron parties for a ‘true poriborton’ (change) of a ‘Trinamool-Mukt’ Bengal is clear.

Mamata leading ‘michils’ (processions) and addressing rallies in a wheelchair with a plastered leg, after getting injured in her constituency Nandigram, may have revived her image as the Bengali Joan of Arc, who had withstood assaults by Marxist goons, prominently in 1989 when she was hit on the head with a stick at the Hazra Crossing of Calcutta. It remains to be seen if mere slogans and posturing as the wounded tigress helps Didi this time to fight anti-incumbency and a legacy of corruption scandals and minority appeasement. In her own parlance, ‘Khela Hobe’ — The game is on.

Dr. Mathur is Associate Professor in Politics and Public Policy at JAIN University, Bengaluru, India.

[1See Bhattacharya, Snigdhendu, (2020) Mission Bengal: A Saffron Experiment, Harper Collins.

[2See Daniyal, Shoaib (2019) ‘In Bengal speak Bengali: Squeezed by BJP’s Hindutva, Mamata Banerjee grasps at Bengali Nationalism,, June 16.

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