Narendra Modi should thank Mamata Banerjee, her pro-Muslim agenda fuels BJP's rise in West Bengal
Mamata Banerjee is more responsible than she can afford to admit in creating the conditions for the BJP to emerge as the only alternative to Trinamool Congress
Kolkata: Actions that carry multiple connotations are necessary to be designed along the perceptions of the popular vote. Every politician does it. Complex as this may be, it is surprisingly efficient in reaching out to the target audience. Except, when messages of one political rival undergo a transference and become valuable content for the other political party.
The best examples are the ones that enrage Donald Trump the most, provoking him to accuse the media of dividing the popular vote by twisting his words and subverting his position, be it on the Charlottesville violence, travel ban or the Obamacare to name a few, even though there were some people who supported him. Likewise, almost everything that Narendra Modi says is subjected to the same sort of revision by his critics and political opposition.
However, the miasma of distrust that such inversions spread have extended to the peripheries, for example, Mamata Banerjee’s message to maintain West Bengal’s reputation of peacefully coexisting communities during the Durga Puja-Muharram period has been turned into one more wound on the body of Hindu sentiment. It’s just her luck that the first of the several days of Durga Puja immersions coincides with Muharram. It’s bad luck that the immersion crowd and the Muharram crowd are both likely to be highly charged and so difficult to handle. It’s worse luck that in West Bengal, the roads are the spaces for staging both observances.
In that sense, what would have been normal in other times in West Bengal — holding the immersions back for a day to allow the Muharram processions to proceed without incident — has become another grudge against the minority, triggering, in the process, a heightened awareness and increased tension between the communities, thus widening the polarisation and deepening the divisions.
It is routine for immersions to be postponed for a day if the Hindu belief indicates that a yatra or departure is inauspicious. Whether Muharram has, ever in the past, postponed the first day of immersions is not the issue, but that the grievance adds to the growing count of reasons for communal resentment is.
Alterations to the landscape of communal sensitivities have been Banerjee's particular contribution to West Bengal politics. And it began long before her signature donning of the white chador tucked behind her ears like Muslim women. She freely infused their consciousness at a time when she sought to emphasise her difference with the irreligious communists. By attaching herself and encouraging the Trinamool Congress leadership to be closely associated with Hindu celebrations and iftaar parties, Banerjee underscored both proximity and difference.
Between 2006 and 2011, the signals became more overt and aggressive, because she was in hot pursuit of the Muslim vote in West Bengal. The Sachar Committee Report of 2006 was handy because it uncovered the inequalities between the Muslim minority and the Hindu majority on socioeconomic indicators as well as education. It helped various organisations including the orthodox Muslim ones in West Bengal to map their grievances. It created the conditions for Banerjee to insert herself as the champion and represent the cause of injustice.
With over 90 seats where the Muslim vote could shift the balance at stake, the Trinamool Congress befriended various sections of Muslim opinion and its leadership including the Peerzada of Furfura, Toha Siddiqui, and Nurur Rehman Barkati, the imam of the Tipu Sultan Mosque, and later the boss of the Jamaat-e-Ulema-Hind, Siddiqullah Chowdhury. After her spectacular 2011 victory, Banerjee made good on her promises of support, providing a stipend to imams and even muezzins, strengthening the West Bengal Minorities Development and Finance Commission, offering to recognise more madrassas and joining lavish iftaar celebrations.
The reaction that it triggered in West Bengal — where the memory of dispossession among families that fled East Pakistan after Partition in 1947 and later after 1971's Liberation War is a pain-filled inheritance — was sufficient to kick-off the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh's till then weak incursions into the political space.
The success of the Modi-Amit Shah partnership in capturing the public imagination impacted vote shares in West Bengal. While the overwhelming majority of popular vote stayed with Banerjee, the BJP’s share went up in 2014 to 17.5 percent and then dipped in 2016 to just over 10 percent and has now jumped by a factor of three to over 30 percent in recent municipal elections.
The numbers highlight the shifts and undercurrents in West Bengal’s volatile terrain. The BJP, in the popular imagination, though not in terms of the popular vote, is emerging as the alternative and the challenger to Trinamool Congress. For this, Banerjee is perhaps more responsible than she can afford to admit. In polarising politics along sentimental divides, Banerjee created the conditions for the BJP to move from the wings onto the centrestage. And in decimating the internally haemorrhaging secular Opposition through orchestrated violence against the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Front, Banerjee made sure that the BJP would emerge as the only alternative.
After 2014, by winning two Lok Sabha seats, there was only one way to go for the BJP — onwards and upwards in West Bengal’s political ratings. Every pitch the party made; every message that Modi communicated strengthened its appeal in West Bengal. The strategy is squeezing Banerjee into an ever smaller space, compelling her to depend more heavily on groups and interests that brand her in ways that benefit the BJP’s Hindutva pitch.
If she is forced to maintain a deafening silence on the Supreme Court verdict on instant triple talaq to appease her Muslim support, it signals to the wavering voter that she is not a reliable leader. Because she is perceived by increasing numbers of popular voters to have tilted too far on one side to be a responsible leader who can maintain a balance between two communities, she has effectively handed the BJP a political arsenal with which it can polarise and profit.
Embarrassed by the Saradha-Rose Valley-Narada scams, and uneasy about who among her 'in-group' in the Trinamool Congress would be found out next as tainted, Banerjee has turned into a lesser leader than she was in 2011. The knife’s edge she walks requires her to ensure that Modi does not turn vindictive and that she can repossess the middle and re-establish herself as an acceptable secular leader. To do so, the Trinamool Congress leader has signalled that she is an important member of the league of 17 anti-BJP parties at the Centre. She has been cosying up to the Congress on the one hand and offering herself as a campaigner on the other.
To retrieve the capricious popular vote Banerjee needs to reinvent herself. At this point, whatever she does is likely to benefit the BJP in terms of vote shares. Her dominance of the political space and her alienation of dangerously large numbers of voters has made it easier for the emergence of the BJP as a single challenger.
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