In November 2015, if I remember correctly, on landing at Kolkata airport I was greeted by a strange sight. A placard of a bowing Mamata Banerjee dressed like a Muslim lady with head covered and offering ‘adab’ to visitors welcomed visitors as they arrived in the city.
Never seen anything of this kind before, I quizzed a senior minister of Mamata’s cabinet as I walked in to meet him in Nabanna (the secretariat complex) next day. Without batting an eyelid, the minister whom I knew for a long time said: “Sir, 40 percent Muslim … what else to do.”
Seeing my consternation, he went on to explain how Muslims in Bengal participated in Durga Puja celebrations and were very much like Hindus. He rang a bell to usher in a Muslim secretary who also repeated his minister’s assertion.
Official figures of West Bengal show that Muslims are 27 percent of the population but whatever be the truth, Mamata continued to assiduously court them. The very next year—in 2016—the high court had to step in when Mamata decreed that Muharram processions would get precedence over Durga Puja idol immersion processions –that fell on the same day.
When I visited a cousin in downtown Howrah across the Hooghly and opposite Kolkata, and asked him about a neighborhood high school where his three generations had studied his reply shocked me. He said (in a language I have never heard him speak in): “It has for all practical purposes become a Madarassa.”
Mamata’s image was at its nadir. Then her advisors drove sense into her. “You can be pro Muslim but should not be seen as a Muslim representative,” they told her. Mamata complied with the advice and made subtle changes in her policies. No more open promotion of Muslims.
The BJP has been eyeing West Bengal since 2002 but had no clue how to break into the state that was then with the Left front. Then Modi was the chief minister of Gujarat and a conversation that I had with him showed that his party knew little about the Left front had such a hold over the state. Nearly two decades later, Modi and Amit Shah have debuted into West Bengal without the benefit of any sage counsel.
BJP’s West Bengal in charge Kailash Vijayvargia of Indore knew little about the ground realities and thus could not guide the overconfident duo of Shah and Modi.
The electorate took little time to decipher that the duo were not only speaking in Hindi but in a style that did not make much impact in Bengal. “The style and the language did not work in Bengal. It was alien,” says Samir Chanda, a college teacher.
There were no effective second-rung leaders to make up for this: all of them were turncoats from Trinamool Congress (TMC) who had joined the BJP. Not only were they turncoats but most of them had corruption charges against them. “They were hardly likely to excite the voters and most of them did not,” says Chanda.
However, the choice of the north Indian slogan of Jai Shriram and its continuing chant did the BJP in. Bengalis say that Jai Shriram is a slogan from north India and never used in Bengal.
In Bengal, Mata Durga is the most revered God and if they wanted to have an impact in the state they should have chosen a slogan like Jai Durgamai Ki, point out locals.
Interestingly, Jai Shriram was chosen as the BJP slogan to counter Mamata Banerjee, who had a few months ago got off her vehicle to berate some onlookers who were shouting Jai Shriram. The BJP also tried to promote not only this slogan but also festivals for Lord Rama. This did them in.
“In Bengal, Lord Rama is seen as a maryada purush and not as a God. And trying to promote Rama as a God and his festivals did not move the electorate and showed a culture distinct from that in Bengal,” an analyst told me.
Mamata already had the Muslim vote in her kitty from her pandering to them a few years ago. This did not desert her even though folks like Assaduddin Owaisi from Hyderabad debuted to cut into Mamata’s votes.Along with the Muslim votes, now the Hindu votes also fell into her kitty. With this, Mamata had a smooth run to the winning post although the ruling BJP threw a lot of challenges in her way and also projected very loudly how they would hit the bulls eyes with 200 seats.