BJP's inroads in Bengal, trifurcation of votes means Mamata Banerjee may not get desired result from Muslim vote bank

Growing up with a brother six years older and twice my size was not easy. While he could be helpful when he wanted to be, more often than not, he drove me to my wits end. One of his most annoying habits was mimicking me and doing exactly what I would ask him not to. The more annoyed I got, the more he did just that.

The reports coming in West Bengal these days take me back to this part of my childhood. Only today, it's an irritated Mamata Banerjee versus irksome BJP workers and supporters chanting "Jai Shri Ram", trying to provoke a reaction out of her. So far, they have been successful in every attempt, with the Chief Minister of West Bengal even stopping her convoy during a visit to North 24 Paraganas district to yell at a group of men shouting the slogan.

"What do you think of yourself? You will come from other states, stay here and abuse us? I will not tolerate this. How dare you all abuse me? All of your names and details will be noted down," Mamata was heard saying in a video widely shared on social media.

 BJPs inroads in Bengal, trifurcation of votes means Mamata Banerjee may not get desired result from Muslim vote bank

File photo of West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee. PTI

Now one might wonder what it is about "Jai Shri Ram" that gets her blood boiling hot enough for her to have the West Bengal Police detain those shouting the slogan.

Although Mamata's Trinamool Congress won 22 of the 42 seats in West Bengal in the Lok Sabha elections, it was a virtual defeat for her party, enough to be considered a drubbing by the BJP, which improved its tally from two to 18 seats in the eastern state. This, according to political analysts, was a result of the Hindu votes in the state moving to the BJP's kitty, with the TMC retaining its Muslim support.

"The trend of polarised voting is clear. In Muslim-dominated Assembly constituencies, Trinamool got an overwhelming majority due to consolidation of Muslim votes. There is another side to this consolidation, which benefited the BJP — they got the lead in 23 segments where Hindus seemed to have voted almost en masse for the saffron party's candidates," The Telegraph quoted political scientist and Rabindra Bharati University faculty member Biswanath Chakraborty as saying.

Let's clarify here that this is not to say Mamata and her TMC are anti-Hindu.

That religious polarisation would more likely than not determine the outcome of the polls in West Bengal became clear during campaigning, with BJP big-hitters Narendra Modi and Amit Shah bringing up issues like the National Register of Citizens, infiltration from Bangladesh and TMC's "Muslim appeasement" policy repeatedly at rallies. The Modi-Shah duo made their agenda abundantly clear, making sure to bring up Mamata's "pro-Muslim" decisions, such as her move to try to prohibit immersion of Durga idols the day Vijaya Dashami coincided with Muharram.

Besides trying to ban Durga idol immersions keeping Muharram processions in mind, her support for Bangladeshi immigrants was another point the BJP made sure to raise at election rallies this year. Her support for Bangladeshi immigrants and her targeting Modi for declaring he would send them all back to the neighbouring country goes back to the BJP-TMC campaign ahead of the 2014 Lok Sabha elections.

While her reasons for making such decisions may have been noble — we may never know — it gave the BJP fodder for its campaign and allowed it to gather its target vote bank of Bengali Hindus. The results of the Lok Sabha elections made plenty clear that there is dissatisfaction in the state with Mamata's style of governance and policies.

However, a deeper point to note would be the indication that years of efforts to consolidate Muslim votes for the TMC, with its "appeasement policies" as the BJP calls it, may not work for her party in the 2021 West Bengal Assembly elections.

In the 2016 Assembly polls, the TMC won from 85 minority-dominated Assembly segments. The Left Front and the Congress, which fought the elections together that year, were ahead in 39. The BJP had bagged just one. In the Lok Sabha polls this year, the Congress tally dropped to nine Assembly segments, whereas the Left failed to open an account in any.

This points to the fact that a significant majority of those who had voted for the Left and Congress earlier had now opted for either the TMC or the BJP. But looking at the shrunken size of the Trinamool's seat share and the dramatic rise in the BJP's — from just two in 2014 to 18 in 2019 — it is clear that the saffron party was the bigger beneficiary of this chunk of votes.

A file image of Prime Minister Narendra Modi with BJP chief Amit Shah. AFP

A file image of Prime Minister Narendra Modi with BJP chief Amit Shah. AFP

There is also the matter of the BJP further consolidating its Hindu vote bank over the next two years leading up to the Assembly elections. Much of the BJP's gains in West Bengal have been attributed to the Left and the Congress being pushed to the fringes of West Bengal politics and the saffron party eating into their votes. The BJP is likely to cash in on this sentiment and further strengthen its base in the state in the run-up to the polls. That this fete is no longer a tough task for the party — which once had negligible presence in Bengal and continues to lack organisational structure in the state — speaks volumes about the threat it now poses to the TMC.

Moreover, attempts by the saffron unit itself to draw Muslims cannot be ruled out either. Ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP launched a drive to enrol Muslims into its fold and also fielded minority candidates from four seats. This, along with the desire for inclusion among members of the community, are two factors that could also lead Mamata to lose some of her trusted voters to the rival side.

It would not be wrong for the Trinamool Congress to fear this sudden spike in support for the BJP. It wouldn't be a stretch either to assume that Mamata's reactions to provocation by BJP workers and supporters could partly be due to this fear. Her efforts to hold on to Muslim votes may not yield the desired results in the 2021 Assembly polls as there is the risk of these votes getting split with the Congress and Left.

In April, at a rally in Muslim-majority Malda, Mamata had declared that she would not allow the BJP to play a "Hindu-Muslim game in West Bengal". In June, she emotionally said: "Some accuse me of Muslim appeasement. My question to them is whether loving Hindus means you have to hate Muslims. I respect and love all communities and religion. This country belongs to everybody."

Over the course of the election campaign, the chief minister was neither successful in spoiling the BJP's Hindutva game, nor could she truly dispel the image of appeasing the state's near 30 percent population of Muslims entirely. With the support of even this section of voters uncertain for various reasons, Mamata and her TMC have their work cut out for them to keep the flock together ahead of the 2021 Assembly polls.

Updated Date: Jun 03, 2019 16:10:42 IST