BJP's Bengal play

Book cover of Mission Bengal: A Saffron Experiment
In the mid-1990s, the Sangh Parivar took on three socio-political projects to expand its footprints in Bihar, Odisha and West Bengal. All three have reached critical stages.

The objective is to have majority governments of its political arm, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), in the three states by the time the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) celebrates its centenary in 2025.

The projects involved the RSS strengthening its cadres in these states and spurring its satellite organisations to expand the scope of their work there.

On its part, the BJP allied with parties in the three states. Chief Ministers Nitish Kumar of Bihar, Naveen Patnaik of Odisha and Mamata Banerjee of West Bengal were ministers in the Atal Bihari Vajpayee governments of 1998-1999, and 1999-2004.

Their parties were/are allies of the BJP, both at the Centre and in respective states, helping the latter gain vital footholds. Now, a 74-year-old Mr Patnaik, battling speculation that he is unwell, is searching for a successor. 

Mr Kumar, who is 69, has not groomed one. At 65, Ms Banerjee is preparing to fight the electoral battle of her life.

In didi”.

As Ms Banerjee resorted to invoking Bengali sub-nationalism to counter the increasing RSS-BJP influence, the Sangh Parivar held a series of events from 2018 onwards on how Bengal was the birthplace of “Bharatiya nationalism” with Bankim Chandra having composed Bharat Mata created by Abanindranath Tagore. The author has provided an engrossing account of the rise of Hindu nationalism in 19th century Bengal, as also of Muslim separatism.

The book tracks the BJP’s meteoric rise in Bengal politics, from 2013 when it was a fringe political party — it did not have a single MLA, did not run a single civic body nor control a single panchayat in the state — to 2019, when it won nearly half the 42 Lok Sabha seats. 

This has coincided with the decline of the Congress and the Left. Ms Banerjee’s party and her government have also helped. At least since 2015-16, the Sangh Parivar has exploited the alleged “‘Muslim appeasement” by the TMC government when Ms Banerjee ordered, with the intent to prevent increasing communal clashes, postponing the immersion of Durga Puja idols to allow for Muharram processions.

The violence that TMC cadres have perpetrated on the Congress and Left workers since 2011 has led to a large-scale exodus of Left workers to join the BJP for protection.

Interestingly, the wheel has come full circle for Ms Banerjee. In 2003, she had described RSS leaders as “true patriots” and sought RSS help in ending “red terror” in Bengal.

Now, she hopes the Congress-Communist Party of India (Marxist) pre-poll alliance for the 2021 Assembly elections will split at least 10 to 12 per cent of the anti-incumbency vote against her 10-year rule.

Mission Bengal: A Saffron Experiment
Author: Snigdhendu Bhattacharya
Publisher: Harper Collins
Pages: 269
Price: Rs 599

In the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, the TMC was surprised to lose as many seats as it did to the BJP despite increasing its vote share to 43.3 per cent from 40 per cent. The BJP increased its vote share from 16.8 per cent in 2014 to 40.25 per cent in 2019.

Its analysis showed the traditional Left and Congress vote consolidated, and went to the BJP. It also discovered that the BJP, thanks to years of RSS work among backward communities of Bengal, has made deep inroads among the Dalits. The Scheduled Castes comprise 23.5 per cent and Schedule Tribes 5.8 per cent of Bengal’s population.

The shock of 2019 Lok Sabha made Ms Banerjee rope in election strategist Prashant Kishor, strengthen social welfare schemes, , put in place grievance redressal mechanisms and reorganise her party’s farmers’ SC-ST-OBC cells.

A turning point for the TMC was the botched National Register of Citizens (NRC) exercise in Assam. That 1.9 million people were excluded from the final NRC, mostly Hindus, triggered fears of a repeat in Bengal. The BJP lost all three Assembly bypolls that took place on November 25, 2019.

Even Dalit communities such as the Namashudras, where the RSS has significant influence , felt threatened. They were upset with the BJP when they found that the majority of the Hindus excluded in Assam’s NRC list are Namashudras.

According to the author, given the infighting within the BJP, it may not present a chief ministerial candidate against Ms Banerjee, and would seek votes in the name of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Mr  Bhattacharya writes the 2021 Assembly polls will be a close contest primarily since there is significant anti-incumbency against Ms Banerjee. One wonders if the Left parties, once her archrivals, will turn out to be her saviour.

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