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Bengal votes: BJP, TMC will spin Vidyasagar episode to suit their needs even as EC decides to end poll campaign early

Editor's note: This is a multi-part series of reports from West Bengal's smaller towns and cities. It examines how young urban voters view elections 2019, and what they expect from the political process. Read more articles from the series here

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The fight or authentic Bengali-ness has come down to the head of Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar.

The 19th-Century reformer, or rather his bust, lost its head on Tuesday in clashes between BJP and Trinamool Congress supporters as Amit Shah’s road show rolled through Kolkata. The clash and the violence has both sides crying foul.

Statue beheading is not unknown in Bengal. Naxalites had decapitated the same Vidyasagar once. Recently, after Lenin fell in Tripura, a Syama Prasad Mukherjee bust was vandalised in Kolkata. But this is in the heat of the last phase of a bitter Lok Sabha election.

The BJP has accused Trinamool Congress of trying to strangle democracy and appealed to the Election Commission to ban Mamata Banerjee from campaigning in the last phase of the elections.

"Mamata Didi's goons were frustrated by the crowds at the roadshow and tried to cause a stampede," alleged Amit Shah.

 Bengal votes: BJP, TMC will spin Vidyasagar episode to suit their needs even as EC decides to end poll campaign early

Mamata Banerjee at Vidyasagar College where a statue of Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar was smashed on Tuesday. PTI

Mamata Banerjee, meanwhile has said, "I don’t have words to condemn the incident. I'm myself ashamed and I apologise... that as people of Bengal, we cannot respect Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar because of these BJP goons.

"She has assumed the position of the grieving Mother Bengal cradling the head of Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar on her lap. The strategy is clear. The BJP wants to use the incident to portray Trinamool Congress as lawless and anti-democratic. Trinamool wants to use it to portray the BJP as lumpen outsiders who do not understand Bengali pride.

Both sides are trying to pin the violence on the other. Swapan Dasgupta, a Rajya Sabha MP from the BJP tweeted that the gates of the Vidyasagar College (where the incident took place) were closed and the BJP supporters were protesting outside. "TMC activists were inside when the bust of Vidyasagar was smashed. TMC is Bengal’s Taliban," he said.

Divya Spandana of the Congress retorted: "So Didi was right, people from outside of Bengal were brought in to create a ruckus and no wonder they vandalised the statue of Vidyasagar — all brawn no brains."

Despite having its roots with Shyama Prasad Mookerjee, the BJP has always suffered a Bengali problem in the state. It was regarded as a north India party, a Hindi belt party, or as Bengalis snootily put it something "non-Bengali".

It has been trying valiantly to change that perception. Dilip Ghosh, a Bengali was appointed the state head. The BJP assiduously wooed Bengali celebrities to join them with mixed results since Trinamool Congress was way ahead of them in that game. This year yesteryear Bengali movie stars like Locket Chatterjee and Joy Banerjee have stood for election alongside Kalyan Chaubey, a footballer who has played for both of Kolkata’s legendary clubs — East Bengal and Mohun Bagan.

Rattled by the sharp rise of the BJP in the recent years to fill the vacuum in the opposition space, the Trinamool Congress has been hammering hard at trying to present the saffron party as a party of outsiders.

At about the same time as Amit Shah’s convoy was traversing through north Kolkata, Mamata Banerjee was addressing a packed rally in south Kolkata. She spent about as much time touting her government’s many schemes as in rubbishing the BJP’s attempt to Bengali-cise itself.

TMC and BJP party workers clashed in Kolkata on Tuesday during Amit Shah rally. PTI

TMC and BJP party workers clashed in Kolkata on Tuesday during Amit Shah rally. PTI

“Narendra Modi sends Durga Pujo greetings on Mahasasthi,” said Didi. “But he sends a picture of Ma Kali. Does he understand Bengal?” To score Bengali brownie points she sneered at the BJP for alleging that Saraswati Puja is not allowed in Didi’s Bengal.

“We have grown up looking forward to khichuri, beguni (batter fried eggplant) and bandhakopir ghonto (cabbage curry) during Saraswati pujo. What do they know?”

A few days before that, TMC MP Derek O’Brien put out a video mocking Amit Shah for describing Birbhum as the "pavitrabhumi" where Rabindranath Tagore was born. Tagore was born in 1861 in Jorasanko in Kolkata. The university he established in Santiniketan is in Birbhum.

Mamata's basic message is that the BJP does not get Bengal. The BJP insults Bengal. Mamata and Trinamool want to counter BJP’s Hindu pride message with Bengali pride. How dare they say Bengal is a kangal state? She thunders, trying to stir up outrage. “Does (Amit Shah) known the heritage of this campus? Is he aware of the icons who studied here?” Mamata asked as she walked to Calcutta University’s campus on College Street where the violence began.

"What do they know of Bengali culture and heritage?” said Trinamool minister Subhendu Adhikari at an earlier rally in Basirhat.

“Our Shyamasangeet (devotional songs for Kali) are written by Kazi Nazrul Islam. Our Rani Rashmoni refused to move a mazar from in front of the Dakshineswar Kali Temple she established. This is the culture of Bengal,” he added.

This attempt to pin the BJP down as a trouble-making outside force has been a strategy of Trinamool Congress throughout this election. And now that Vidyasagar’s head has landed in her lap, Didi will use it to drive the point home as forcefully as she can.

“How little you know about Bengal, its rich history, its culture. Bengal will never forgive for what you did today,” tweeted O’Brien.

At another rally in Kolkata, when she heard the news of the vandalism, Didi declared: “They brought miscreants on hire from Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Rajasthan and Jharkhand, specifically to go on the rampage here and destroy heritage in Bengal... I will not spare them. This is my vow.”

BJP leaders protesting against the West Bengal govt. PTI

BJP leaders protesting against the West Bengal govt. PTI

A few days earlier Mamata had confronted Jai Shri Ram chanting protesters who were hauled to the police station. That was a blunder. It allowed the BJP to go after her as the chief minister who will not allow Hindus to chant the name of Ram in their state. It’s a reputation she can ill-afford but in rally after rally BJP leaders chant Jai Shri Ram in every rally to bait her and fire up their base.

"The fact is, Mamata believes in religious populism," says Maidul Islam, an assistant professor of political science at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences in Kolkata. "There is no separation of religion and politics here. She believes in public display of religion. Look at the way even chhat puja is celebrated in Mamata’s Bengal.”

A few years ago Mamata started a parade of the best Durga images down the famous Red Road boulevard in the centre of the city. The chief minister herself goes to watch it. "Red Road was used for namaaz during Eid,” says Islam. "By staging a Durga carnival right there, Mamata is making a point,” he adds.

In fact, at her rally in Kolkata she blasted Shah and Modi for claiming that Durga puja is not allowed in Bengal anymore. “I invited them to the Red Road,” she said, adding, "They can come do some Rabindrink dance. Or even their dandiya, I don’t mind."

The EC has announced its decision to end the poll campaign early, setting a deadline for 10 pm on 15 May. Now Didi will take out a protest march on the same route as Amit Shah’s road show. But while both sides try to spin this violence for their own end, the question remains – who cast the first stone?

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Updated Date: May 15, 2019 22:17:39 IST