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Mainstream, VOL LVII No 34 New Delhi August 10, 2019

Polarisation plus Anti-incumbency: A Full-scale View of BJP’s Rise in Bengal

Sunday 11 August 2019


by Ayan Guha

With the rise of the BJP the politics of West Bengal is experiencing a paradigm shift. The BJP has made spectacular inroads into West Bengal by winning 18 seats and doubling its vote-share from 17 per cent in 2014 to over 40 per cent in the recently concluded general elections. The ruling Trinamul Congress (TMC) could manage to win only 22 seats. The TMC managed to retain its dominance in and around Kolkata and most parts of South Bengal. But in three regions of the State—North Bengal, Junglemahal (tribal dominated western part of West Bengal) and the Matua belt of South Bengal—the BJP achieved remarkable electoral success. These regions witnessed an incredible saffron sweep. Since the publication of election results a great deal of analysis has been attempted of the reasons behind such massive saffron surge. It is widely argued that religious polarisation brought about by hitherto unseen Hindu consolidation propelled extraordinary upswing of the BJP’s political fortunes in the State.

It appears quite obvious that the Muslims overwhelmingly voted against the BJP. According to the Hindu-CSDS Lokniti post-poll survey, only four per cent Muslims voted for the BJP while 70 per cent Muslims voted for the TMC. This implies that the Muslims mainly voted for the TMC. Those Muslims who did not vote for the BJP mainly voted for the candidates of non-BJP parties, mostly for the Congress and also to some extent for the Left parties. It is evident from the vote-share of the Congress that its candidate received some amount of Muslim support in parts of Muslim-dominated North Bengal and central Bengal. Because of its traditional dominance in these areas it possibly appeared as the strongest contender of the BJP to many Muslims. Thus, it is clear that Muslim consolidation happened against the BJP. It is also quite certain that the BJP garnered much greater support from the Hindus compared to other parties. According to the Hindu-CSDS Lokniti post-poll survey, 60 per cent Hindus voted for the BJP. This suggests the considerable extent of Hindu consolidation in favour of the BJP.

Hindu consolidation was quite sharp in Muslim- dominated areas of North Bengal and Matua- dominated region of South Bengal. Constituencies which fall within these areas share borders with Bangladesh. The promise of the BJP to prevent illegal infiltration from Bangladesh seems to have brought about consolidation of Hindu votes to its advantage in these areas. On the other hand, the BJP’s strategy of Hindu consolidation through the promised enactment of the controversial Citizenship Amendment Bill, 2016 mobilised the support behind it of the Matuas, a numerically important Hindu religious sect in Nadia and North 24-Parganas districts. A large number of members of the community, who migrated from Bangladesh to India after March 25, 1971, are deprived of citizenship because of an amendment to the Citizenship Act in 2003. The proposed Citizen-ship Bill promises to confer citizenship upon refugees belonging to all major religious faiths of India except the Muslims. Therefore, it has been dubbed as discriminatory towards the Muslims. But it has been welcomed by the Matuas as it will benefit many members of their community. This possibly created religious polarisation at the ground level. The Bill is based upon the carefully crafted distinction between refugee and infiltrator.

This distinction provided the BJP the political latitude to legitimise the status of Hindu migrants from Bangladesh such as the Matuas as persecuted refugees while delegitimising the cross-border migration of minorities as infiltration. This refugee-infiltrator distinction as well as the TMC’s vociferous opposition to the Bill certainly created a fertile ground for Hindu consolidation in favour of the BJP in Matua-dominated constituencies and other border constituencies. However, such Hindu consolidation did not happen uniformly across the State. A constituency-wise analysis of demographic composition and vote-share points out that Hindu consolidation happened quite neatly in some parts of the State, but not so sharply in other areas. Despite the fact that the Hindu support for the BJP was more than the TMC in almost all constituencies of the State, the TMC in large parts of the State managed to secure the support of a sizeable number of Hindu voters ruling out clear-cut Hindu consolidation. In parts of North Bengal (Jalpaiguri, Alipurduar and Darjeeling) and Junglemahal (Bankura, Bishnupur, Purulia, Medinipur and Jhargram), where the Muslim concentration is low, the TMC, despite being defeated, obtained significant vote-shares. This implies that a large section of the Hindus also voted in favour of the TMC, which rules out any neat and large scale Hindu consolidation. The same can be said about large parts of South Bengal where the TMC was able to retain its dominance.

There are quite a few south Bengal constituencies where the Muslims do not have sizeable presence such as Arambagh, Serampur, Tamluk. Kanthi and Ghatal. The TMC could not have won these seats unless a significant segment of the Hindu population voted for it. The same was the case in most of the other constituencies of South Bengal where the Muslims are present in sizeable number. Constituencies like Diamond Harbour, Jadavpur, Joynagar, Mathurapur, Uluberia, Birbhum, Bolpur have around 30 per cent Muslim population while constituencies such as Kolkata Dakshin, Kolkata Uttar, Howrah and Barasat comprise of near about 20 per cent Muslim population. The TMC not only managed to win all these constituencies but obtained significant vote-shares. In these constituencies its vote-share hovered around 50 per cent. In some constituencies such as Diamond Harbour and Joynagar its vote-share touched even 56 per cent. It is simply not possible to obtain such high vote-shares in these constituencies without the support of a sizeable section of the Hindus. Still there is some gap between the Hindu vote- share of the BJP and that of the TMC. But the gap is not so large as to suggest Hindu consolidation. Further, the vote-share of the TMC even increased in constituencies in and around Kolkata like Kolkata Uttar, Kolkata Dakshin, Barasat, Jadavpur and Dumdum compared to the 2014 general elections. This increase indicates that there were factors other than Hindu consolidation which were also at play. Most interpretations of the electoral verdict have paid scant attention to regional variation of Hindu consolidation and therefore also failed to understand the role of various other factors which were also crucial in shaping the electoral verdict particularly in areas where Hindu consolidation was less prominent.

Thus, it appears that large scale Hindu consolidation did not take place in many parts of the State where various others factors influenced electoral behaviour of the people. It is possible to identify some of these area-specific factors. For example, in that part of North Bengal where religious polarisation did not play much role is known for tea plantation. Four constituencies of Jalpaiguri, Alipurduar, Darjeeling and Coochbehar accommodate most of North Bengal’s tea gardens. Tea plantation is the most important source of livelihood for the local people of this area. Close to five lakh direct and indirect workers and their family members depend on tea gardens for their livelihood. Currently many tea gardens are closed and those which are operational are paying workers much less than the minimum wage. Lack of government initiatives for revival of closed tea gardens and non-implementation of minimum wages have fuelled resentment against the TMC Government in this area. These issues were repeatedly raised by the BJP in its election campaign and also by the Bharatiya Majdoor Sangha in this area. The BJP also provided ticket to John Barla, a tribal leader from the tea garden from Alipurduar constituency. Barla won by a huge margin. The BJP also won quite comfor-tably the Darjeeling, Jalpaiguri and Coochbehar constituencies. Thus, the inability of the State Government to effectively deal with the problems faced by tea garden workers seems to have helped the electoral fortunes of the BJP.

As per various ground reports from Jungle-mahal, corruption at the grassroots that hampered effective delivery of development measures played a major role in the rising political fortunes of the BJP. This traditionally underdeveloped region was promised special development initiatives by the TMC Government after it had come to power. This raised a great deal of expectations. The government also took a number of well-targeted development initiatives like Khadya Sathi (distribution of rice at Rs 2 per kg) and Sabuj Sathi (distribution of bicycles to students). But as per various ground reports, corruption at the local level has prevented effective delivery. Recently a preli-minary draft report of Pratichi Trust and Asiatic Society has pointed out that in Bengal almost one out of three persons belonging to tribal communities is facing food scarcity. This hints that there are problems in the delivery of schemes like Khadya Sathi. Lack of effective implementation seems to have turned the people’s expectations into grievances paving the way for the BJP’s inroads which first became visible in the 2018 Panchayat polls when the party won a significant number of Panchayat seats in this region.

In large parts of south Bengal the issue of Bengali asmita seems to have played some role in influencing the voters. While the BJP put up an impressive performance in the first six rounds of polling, its fortunes nosedived in the seventh or last round where it failed to win even a single seat. In the seventh round polling took place in nine constituencies in and around Kolkata. The TMC comprehensively won all the nine seats and it even increased its vote-share in five out of these nine seats. In this context, the interesting point to note is that the seventh round of polling took place after the desecration of Vidyasagar’s statue during BJP President Amit Shah’s rally in Kolkata. The emotive nature of the issue was used by the TMC chief, Ms Mamata Banerjee, to brand the BJP as a party of the outsiders, which is out of sync with Bengali culture and heritage. She vociferously lashed out at the BJP for disrespecting and insulting the feelings and sensibilities of the Bengalis and ran a massive campaign against the BJP branding it as an anti-Bengali party. The election results point out that Mamata Banerjee’s Bengali card effectively countered the BJP’s Hindu card in large parts of south Bengal. The Bengali card worked more favourably for the party particularly in Kolkata. All the five constituencies (Kolkata Uttar, Kolkata Dakshin, Barasat, Jadavpur and Dumdum), where it increased its vote-share, fall within the area of Greater Kolkata. This also suggests that the bhadraloks are still wary of the BJP and remain largely unaffected by the so-called politics of polarisation.

The 2019 general elections mark the emer-gence of the BJP as a powerful political force in West Bengal. Hindu consolidation was a major factor that facilitated the BJP’s rise in West Bengal. But it did not affect all parts of the State in equal measure with some regions remaining largely immune from large-scale Hindu consoli-dation. There were many region-specific factors which also influenced the electoral outcome. Many of these factors contributed to anti-incumbency against the ruling TMC Government in West Bengal. Thus, anti-incumbency as well as Hindu mobilisation paved the way for the BJP’s recent inroads into Bengal. But, at this point the party is still dependent on an unstable social coalition. The BJP has gained primarily because of the sudden and massive shift of Left voters. But the slogan age Ram pore bam (first Ram later Left) indicates that this may well be a tactical shift rather than an ideological shift borne out of the immediate necessity of resisting political violence. Furthermore, the bhadraloks, the most powerful social constituency in Bengal, still appear to be apprehensive of the party. For a longer haul it needs to assuage the apprehen-sions of bhadraloks who have social and cultural influence disproportionate to their demographic weight. The absence of any dogmatic core vote- bank in Bengal gives it the ideological flexibility to reach out to the bhadraloks by positioning itself more consistently as a Right-of-Centre party. But this may also entail putting brakes on religious polarisation, which do not appear to be a likely possibility at present. Religious polarisation, instead of dying down after the elections, is getting more intense as a political war has erupted over the Jai Shri Ram slogan. The resistance by the TMC to the Jai Shri Ram sloganmay further strengthen the majority community’s feeling of victimhood leading to much larger Hindu consolidation. In the coming days the State is likely to witness a fierce political rivalry leading to further communal divide.

The author is an Assistant Professor of Political Science, Hamdard Institute of Legal Studies and Research, Jamia Hamdard, New Delhi.

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