New Delhi: BJP National President Amit Shah addresses a press conference at the party headquarters in New Delhi, Friday, Dec 14, 2018. (PTI Photo/Arun Sharma) (PTI12_14_2018_000036B)
A red herring has just been drawn across the political scene in West Bengal. The state BJP President Dilip Ghosh has said that if there was any Bengali who could become Prime Minister in the future it was arch rival Trinamool Congress leader Mamata Banerjee. Conveying birthday greetings, he wished her a long life. He recalled two close misses in the past — how Jyoti Basu’s party prevented him from becoming Prime Minister and Pranab Mukherjee made it to President, but not Prime Minister.
The next day Ghosh predictably backtracked, saying his remarks had been made in jest and looked at a very distant future. However, they were too elaborate to be set aside lightly. Ghosh did a precise Nitin Gadkari act of saying something, causing a flutter and then promptly denying it. Gadkari is now widely considered to have been floated by the RSS as a more benign and acceptable second option to Narendra Modi if the BJP fails to get an absolute majority on its own in the coming general elections and has to live in alliance with other parties.
BJP’s President Amit Shah is taking a direct interest in West Bengal for which he has set a target of winning at least half the 42 Lok Sabha seats. This is part of his aim of a BJP resurgence in the east and Northeast. This is an insurance policy against losing some seats in the Hindi belt where it will be difficult to repeat the 2014 sweep. There is speculation that Shah may be considering a change in the West Bengal BJP leadership as he may not be confident that Ghosh will be able to lead the party from two seats to 22. Ghosh, seeing that his position is shaky, may be indirectly threatening to walk over to the Trinamool Congress (TMC) if he is removed from the leadership post.
While all this may be outright speculation — he may indeed have shot his mouth and West Bengal BJP leaders are not known to be circumspect and cautious in what they say — what is the political reality on the ground?
In the last state wide panchayat elections in 2018, the TMC emerged way ahead of the BJP which came a respectable but distant second. It was ditto in 2017 when the TMC won all the seven municipal elections. Across the state the Congress and the Left parties were almost wiped out, the fall being particularly dramatic for the latter, previously in power.
The scenario ahead for the 2019 elections is a direct contest by default between the TMC and the BJP, with the former emerging way ahead. A question mark hangs over whether there will be a revival in the Congress after its recent victory in assembly elections. The Left parties remain down in the dumps. Also, chances of a seat adjustment or alliance between the three (the TMC, Congress and Left parties) are not in sight.
Contrary to the situation across the country where the BJP is on the defensive for failing to deliver on vikas, the key issue in West Bengal while electing the next national government will not be a formation’s ability to deliver on development but the extent of communal polarisation that will have taken place by the time polling day comes around. Muslims make up a good quarter (27.1%) of the state’s population and in districts where the proportion is higher than the average, the communal factor can become electorally important.
Right now analysts give the BJP no more than eight seats and the BJP’s desire to hold rath yatras across the state is seen as a straightforward device to stir up communal feelings. These yatras inevitably lead to communal clashes in areas where they pass through and that heightens communal polarisation.
In cultural terms, large sections of the Bengali bhadralok, the educated middle class and cultural elite, have been stunned by the rise of communal sentiments in the state ever since the BJP has been on the ascendant across the country. The bhadralok believed that over three decades of Left rule had laid to rest the historically deeply-entrenched communal feelings that had laid the foundations for the partition of Bengal along with Independence. However, the communal feeling dies hard.
It is now quite common in middle class social conversation for people to express fears over being swamped by illegal migration from Bangladesh and voice open animosity towards Muslims. It is ironic that Banerjee, who felled the Left, is trying her best to safeguard what is perhaps its best legacy — making secular feelings take root among the people of West Bengal. It has been a revelation as to how deeply-entrenched communal feelings have been among a section, albeit a minority, of the educated Hindu middle class.
The secondary position of State-led development as an issue in West Bengal for the general elections is best highlighted by the tribal-dominated district of Purulia. It, along with some other districts, had been home to the Maoist rebellion which Banerjee curbed, with appreciation even from the Centre. After the security forces action the West Bengal government undertook serious development work. However, tribals’ disenchantment with the Left has led them into the arms of not the TMC, but the BJP. Disillusionment with State-led development in a State which tried to put it in place over three decades seems strong indeed.
Subir Roy is a senior journalist and author. Views are personal.For more Opinion pieces, click here.