For the first time, West Bengal may be casting votes on religious lines

For the first time in the history of independent India, West Bengal is expected to have voted largely on religious lines during the past six phases of the ongoing general elections and may maintain the same stance for the final phase of elections slated on Sunday.

The alleged discontent with the state’s chief minister Mamata Banerjee’s appeasement policies with the minorities especially the Muslims, is believed to have played a part.
Runa Sen, a homemaker from one of the older rich families from Kolkata North, notes that even at the time Kolkata (then Calcutta) witnessed the ‘Week of the Long Knives’, when the country was partitioned in the name of religion, Kolkata and the state at large, didn’t vote on religious lines in the ensuing election of 1952. 

Elections used to be on the lines of development, policies and ideologies between a moderate Congress and the communist-socialist Left Front. But times have changed now. It’s come to a point where Muslim immigration from Bangladesh has become a core issue and how political leaders are giving ground to Muslims particularly from Bangladesh for votes,” she notes.

Incidentally, in its quest to bag seats, the TMC roped in popular Bangladeshi actor Ferdous Ahmed, who is popular in rural Muslim-dominated belts of West Bengal, to seek votes in Raiganj, a Muslim-dominated constituency. The party repeated the same thing by bringing in Ghazi Abdul Noor, another Bangladeshi actor, who attended a political rally in Dum Dum. Both were told by the Centre to leave India.

Such instances haven’t been taken lightly by a majority of traditional Bengali Hindu families of North Kolkata.

During a poll campaign in Kalimpong, when BJP president Amit Shah vowed to oust the illegal Muslim immigrants from this state while give citizenship to Hindu and Buddhist migrants, the attendees had cheered with joy and the ripples of appreciation were also felt in the metropolis.

Political observers like Biswanath Chakraborty note that the BJP has been very successful in this state in polarising the population and over the years, there have been numerous instances of religious riots across the state.

Lok Sabha Election Results 2014
Party  Vote Share Vote Share Change Seats Won Seats Change
Trinamool Congress  39.05% +8.13% 34 +15
CPI (M)  29.71% N/A 2 -13
17.02% +10.88% 2 +1
Congress  9.58% -3.85% 4 -2
He notes that to gain political favour with the Muslims, who account for 28 per cent of the state’s population, Banerjee in the past offered several dollops to them, like setting up of Haj houses for pilgrims and a new campus for Aliah University, besides sanctioning some 400 madrasa hostels and scholarships for Muslim students. 

But the most controversial move, which angered a large section of Hindus and projected the BJP as the saviour, was the Imam and Muezzin allowance of Rs 2,500 and Rs 1,500. respectively, which the chief minister proposed in April 2012. Although it was struck down by the Calcutta High Court after the then BJP state general secretary Asim Sarkar challenged it, Banerjee maintained she will provide all assistance to the Muslims.

For a debt-ridden state like West Bengal, this allowance would have potentially led to an outflow of Rs 126 crore annually.

“This hadn’t gone well with the Hindus, who asked why Hindu priests were denied such allowance and if at all, in a secular country like India, this was feasible. Polarisation actually started gaining momentum since then and not just now as it is being projected. Under all circumstances, polarisation is a reality now in this otherwise pseudo-secular state”, Chakraborty said.

Moreover, Banerjee’s recital of Islamic verses and her association with Muslim festivals like Eid were also frowned upon from a section of the orthodox Hindus.

A Bihari migrant driver, Tarakeshwar Shaw, who is a voter in the Kolkata North constituency asked, “How can the chief minister, herself being a pundit Brahmin, recite Islamic verses or associate herself closely with Muslims”.

On the other hand, the TMC as well as Banerjee herself vehemently, have been projecting the chief minister as a devotee of goddess Kali – one of the most popular Hindu deities in West Bengal.
West Bengal Assembly Election Results 2016
Party  Vote Share Vote Share Change Seats Won Seats Change
Trinamool Congress  44.91% +6% 211 +27
Left Front 26.39% -14.91% 32 -29
BJP 10.16% +5.56% 3 +2
Congress 12.25% +3.15% 44 +3

While a majority of the Muslims, via various rights and religious forums pledged their support for Banerjee, Shaw and many other Bengali and non-Bengali Hindus of limited financial means openly admit their support for the BJP. Shaw claimed that during the erstwhile Left Front rule, state policies and schemes weren’t directed at appeasements of particular religions.

Meanwhile, as discontent grew, the BJP gained momentum in the state. During the 2014 general elections, the BJP had a 17 per cent vote share which was an 11.86 per cent increase over the 2009 general elections, while in the 2016 Assembly elections it won three seats with a vote share to 10.16 per cent. Furthermore, in the 2018 Panchayat polls, it tapped 5,779 seats thereby becoming the main opposition party in West Bengal.

BJP’s state vice president, Chandra Kumar Bose, who is contesting from the Kolkata South constituency, believes that in this year’s polls, its vote share will increase by 38-40 per cent.

He is of the opinion that even though the TMC or other parties like the Left Front and the Congress will get the Muslim vote, if at least 65 per cent of the Hindus vote in favour of the BJP, the party can easily bag a satisfactory number of seats. 

According to Bose, BJP is growing its presence among the Bengali Hindus which account for 48 per cent of the total vote base from this state and the party is okay with fighting this election without Muslim support.

Bose pointed how the anger and frustration of Hindus forced Banerjee to react with her rhetoric changing to recitation of Sanskrit shlokas, Chandi Paath and other Hindu religious verses during her poll campaign, along with touting her government’s work in temple restoration and new projects; which otherwise was previously missing. 

Panchayat Election Results 2018 at Gram Panchayat Level
Party  Seats won Vote Share 
Trinamool Congress  38,118 78.4%
Left Front 1,713 3.4%
BJP 5,779 11.9%
Congress  1,066 2.2%

“In the 2017 Durga Puja, her order of restricting idol immersion during the Muharram celebration was struck down by the Calcutta High Court. This was a setback for her,” Bose added.

The state’s BJP president, Dilip Ghosh had then alleged that besides curbing religious rights during Bengali Hindu festivals, Banerjee was also attempting introduction of Urdu-Arabic words in Bengali language.

However, the alleged desecration of Vidyasagar’s statue during BJP president Amit Shah’s rally, which the TMC has projected to be a “Bhojpuri” and “Dhokla” invasion on West Bengal’s culture may help her gain some favour with the middle-class and educated Bengalis in the last phase of polls.

But as Chakraborty cautions, that it may have been too late for Banerjee to appease a section of Bengali Hindus who now view the BJP as their saviour. 

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