To understand what’s happening in West Bengal, how Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee is committing a series of errors and why she has some causes for worry in the 2021 Assembly polls, let’s start with the findings of the CSDS-Lokniti post-poll survey for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections that have been published in The Hindu newspaper. In this eastern state, where the BJP has upset all calculations by bagging 18 out of 42 seats — just four seats behind the ruling Trinamool Congress — data points clearly to a consolidation of Hindu votes behind the saffron outfit. At the national level, the BJP bagged an all-time high of 37.4 percent of popular votes, up from 31 percent in 2014.
The figure of 37.4 percent has been swelled due to 44 percent support from Hindu voters — the highest that the BJP has received — up from 36 percent Hindu votes in 2014. If the BJP’s allies are taken into consideration, then the Hindu vote figure crosses the halfway mark and stands at 51 percent. Conversely, minority support has either dwindled for the BJP or stayed the same. The other interesting figure that the data throws up is that the BJP under Narendra Modi and Amit Shah has been able to cut across caste and community divides to engineer the Hindu consolidation. Accordingly, it received 10 percent more backing from Dalit voters and seven percent more support from tribal voters, resulting in a unification that trumped caste and identity politics.
In West Bengal, where Muslims form around 30 percent of the total population, this polarisation has been more acute. While the ruling TMC has bagged the lion’s share of the Muslim votes at 70 percent (up from 40 percent in 2014), the BJP’s vote share among the Hindus went up from 21 percent in 2014 to 57 percent this year. In other words, the BJP’s allegations against Mamata Banerjee of Muslim appeasement are clearly finding a lot of takers. This sharp polarisation would have worked for the TMC had the Hindu votes been fractured among the BJP, the Left and the Congress. But with the last two almost giving up their ghosts and keeping the field open for BJP to take over the Opposition’s mantle, the Hindu consolidation has ramped up the BJP’s seat count from two in 2014 to 18 in this year.
In this context, let us now see how Banerjee has been reacting. The obvious polarisation would not have escaped her attention, but her conduct since the emergence of the BJP as the principal Opposition in the state has been most strange. She has frequently lost her cool at the very mention of the "Jai Shri Ram" slogan, stopping her motorcades several times in the recent past to chase the locals for raising the slogan, threatening them with dire consequences, calling them “outsiders” or using even more derogatory terms. There have been reports that people have even been arrested for sloganeering.
Banerjee’s reaction has resulted in an innocuous slogan getting transformed into a rallying cry and a note of defiance against the TMC rule. Video clips have gone viral on social media and offered the BJP a chance to consolidate its gains. The saffron unit has grabbed the chance with both hands. Its local unit in Bengal has decided to send 10 lakh "Jai Shri Ram" postcards to her residence to “placate her”. Banerjee, who had been harbouring national ambitions, finds herself being boxed in such a corner that even ordinary youths from other parts of the country are planning to send her more such postcards. Some sadhus in Varanasi are apparently planning to send copies of Shri Ramcharitmanas to the West Bengal chief minister.
These examples indicate that Banerjee's impulsive actions have reduced her stature in national and even local politics and she is getting trapped in her own image of a sulking leader who cannot accept defeat. She is commanding the waves to recede so that she may reclaim her lost ground, but nature has its own laws.
Her image of being a street fighter, that had been an asset during her meteoric rise as a politician, is now working against her. For instance, she has reportedly barged into a BJP office at Naihati area of North 24 Parganas district and “recaptured” it by painting the party symbol on it. These incidents do not paint her as an indefatigable fighter any more, but a leader who is fast losing grip over her party and reality. These acts not only denigrate the dignity and solemnity of her high office, but also have a deleterious effect on the nature of local politics that is already quite volatile.
What’s more, it is increasingly evident that Banerjee has perhaps drawn all the wrong conclusions from the Lok Sabha election result. She has always refuted charges of “Muslim appeasement” against her by saying that she loves all religions and wants to take everyone along. Post the election debacle, that mask seems to be slipping. During a recent media interaction at her residence on Saturday where she announced her intention to attend an iftar party organised by the Kolkata Municipal Corporation, the West Bengal chief minister reacted to charges of her “favouring the Muslim community” by saying, “I appease Muslims and will do it 100 times as there is no harm in taking kicks from a cow that gives you milk.”
Her remark, where she ostensibly compared members of a minority community with milch cows, was obviously not well received. Ibrahim Siddique, a senior cleric of Furfura Shariff in Hooghly district, was quoted by the media as saying: “She (Mamata) compared Muslims with cows and this will bring her fall. Having bagged many seats in the minority-dominated constituencies, she does not need us till another election comes in the state…With a dramatic rise of the BJP in Bengal, the Trinamool will be ruined soon. Her remarks about Muslim appeasement are unfortunate and humiliating.”
If Banerjee is trying to pitch herself as a “secular” leader who does not believe in “divisive politics of religion,” then her remarks are incompatible with her posturing. On the other hand, her words make it clear that not only is she agreeable with the polarisation paradigm, she is trying even more to gain from it by consolidating her own support base. It remains to be seen if this is a sound strategy to resist the BJP’s rise.
What may worry Banerjee even more is that the BJP — which swept West Bengal’s north and the western tribal heartland — but failed to register any gains in the TMC stronghold of southern Bengal, Kolkata and areas adjacent to the metropolis, might be now inching closer.
Just a few days after it won an unprecedented 18 seats in Bengal, the BJP’s local unit has taken control of a civic body, its first in the state, in Bhatpara which lies 33 kilometres away from Kolkata. According to a report in The Indian Express, Arjun Singh’s nephew Saurabh Singh was elected as the new chairman of the Bhatpara civic body after the BJP won 26 votes in a confidence motion in the 35-councillor body.
Arjun Singh, who has been the chairman of this civic body since 2010, had defeated TMC MP Dinesh Trivedi during the Lok Sabha polls in Bhatpara that falls under the Barrackpore Lok Sabha constituency.
Singh’s victory and the subsequent developments send a warning signal to Banerjee that she cannot take for granted the party’s ability to retain the traditional bastions. While she remains the leader to beat when it comes to state-level politics, because the BJP is yet to throw against her a candidate who may rival her in popularity and mass appeal in Bengal, Banerjee’s repeated missteps are not helping her own cause.
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Updated Date: Jun 05, 2019 21:44:29 IST