Elections 2019: The 'poriborton' Mamata Banerjee didn't promise
The mercurial leader of the Trinamool Congress, by seeming to appeal to Muslims, brought to BJP West Bengal, a state it never really had any standing in until now
One of the most stunning performances of the BJP in the just concluded general elections was in West Bengal, where it won 18 of the 42 parliamentary seats, up from a tally of two and rattling the regime of the Mamata Banerjee-led Trinamool Congress.
Many reasons have been proffered for the saffron surge, ranging from anti-incumbency to the focused blitzkrieg campaign launched by the party bigwigs including Prime Minister Narendra Modi and party president Amit Shah in the state. But, to put it in perspective, a brief history lesson is in order.
"Damn ingrates," muttered the young comrade as we sipped lukewarm tea at a small stall on the banks of the Nagri river.
Islampur, West Dinajpur, West Bengal on an early winter morning in January 1997. Across the waters was Bangladesh.
Half an hour earlier, a small boat had crossed the muddy waters and docked on the Indian side. The youngster, who had a sheaf of papers including blank ration cards duly stamped and signed, was waiting impatiently as a family of eight or nine, including a couple of toddlers, tumbled warily out of the rickety craft. "What's your name?" he demanded to know from each, before filling out the cards and handing it to them. Formalities over, he huddled with the elders as the women and children squatted nearby, guarding a few bundles which apparently comprised all their worldly belongings.
"See that large tree over there?" the comrade finally said, pointing. "Three fourths of an acre around it is yours. Make sure you vote for the Left front... or else..." he warned before dismissing the newly minted Indian citizens.
I was visiting my brother who ran a small farm there, and had come out for an early morning walk along the river when I spotted the boat coming in. I reached just as the paperwork was being completed, and watched as the family gathered its belongings and started the trudge towards their new home. "Panchayat elections next month," the young man said as we walked towards the tea shop, as if that explained everything. "I have given out that same piece of land to three families over the past two years," he went on. "A few months, and they are gone, either to Kolkata or beyond. We do everything for them, and this is how they repay us," he growled. "Each elections, we have to process another large lot to fill up the voters' lists, to ensure that the Left Front wins."
The CPI(M)-led Left Front had overwhelmingly won a record seven consecutive assembly elections in Bengal since 1977. Hundreds of thousands of cadres whose livelihoods depended on the party remaining in power ensured that any challenger was quickly bought out or brought down. The other player in the state, the Congress party, was too busy fighting within itself to present a credible opposition. Strangely, the state where the BJP was born, in the form of the Jan Sangh, the political arm of the RSS founded by Shyama Prasad Mookerjee in 1951, had no representation in the state at all until the last general elections, when it won two seats.
Most of these elections were an insult to democracy, with blatant booth capturing and ballot box stuffing, apart from the large voting population imported regularly from Bangladesh. The extortion and violence by the cadres, driven by the Left mantra of "work less, pay more," ensured that businesses, big and small, fled the state. It seemed like nothing could stop the Red Juggernaut from continuing indefinitely in power. Ironically, the Muslim migrants that the party was accused of appeasing continued to remain poor and impoverished across the state.
Enter Mamata Banerjee, a shrill, feisty, mercurial Congress leader who had served as Union minister before breaking away and forming the Trinamool Congress in West Bengal in 1997. The party soon became the main opposition in the state, slowly but surely eroding the Left stranglehold.
Her support to the BJP-led NDA government in 1999 led to her being appointed the country's first woman Railway Minister. Her combative politics, the trademark blue sari and chappals, austere lifestyle and her promise of 'poriborton,' or change, caught the imagination of a state stifled under the Leftist rule. But, it was her strident opposition to a Tata Motors project in Singur in 2006 forcing it to relocate the project to Gujarat, which rattled the Leftists and brought her into the limelight. When she took up arms against a Left-sponsored SEZ in Nandigram in 2007, the startled government tried to quell it with brute force, using the police to kill over 200 protestors. For the Left in Bengal, this was the beginning of the end, and noticing the tide turning, many card-carrying comrades jumped ship to join the Trinamool, further undermining the decaying regime.
The Trinamool won 19 of the 42 Parliamentary seats in the state in the 2009 elections, and Mamata became Railway minister once again following her support to Congress-led UPA government.
Two years later, the Trinamool Congress swept the West Bengal assembly elections of 2011, winning 184 of the 294 seats, and ending 34 years of Left rule. The tally went up to 187 after the party won a byelection and two Congress MLAs defected to the Trinamool. The party did even better in the 2016 elections, winning 213 seats. There were, however, disquieting and growing reports of the old Left techniques of voter intimidation and ballot fraud being used to sway the results. Which was not surprising given that most of the Trinamool cadres were part of the Left regime.
But, despite her best efforts, change, or pariborton, continued to elude the state. Investors remained wary of her temper tantrums and unexpected decisions, while detractors, egged on by the RSS, kept pointing to her increasing appeasement of Muslims, who continued to flow into the state from Bangladesh, changing the demography dramatically, particularly along the border.
In March 2014, at Bagdogra airport en route to Sikkim, I was startled to see a full page newspaper advertisement which had the chief minister showering her good wishes on all Muslim students taking the higher secondary examination that year.
In May that year, the BJP came to power with an absolute majority at the Centre. The battle lines were probably drawn around that time, with increasing reports of Hindus in Bengal being discriminated against
In 2017, when Mamata tried to reschedule the Durga Puja immersions because it clashed with Moharram, even the traditional Bengali Bhadralok was appalled. The tide was turning, and the BJP (and the RSS) lost no time in capitalising on it. Several Trinamool leaders and followers have already started shifting allegiance to the right. So apparently have the voters who traditionally voted for the left, which failed to win a single seat this time.
Also, the younger generation in Bengal, plagued by the lack of opportunites and jobs, appears to have bought into the BJP narrative of the Trinamool appeasing the minorities, and has shown its displeasure. The us and them narrative so vigorously pushed by the saffron combine has clearly permeated into the state, though it is way too early to write off Mamata and her Trinamool just yet.
But one thing appears evident: Traditionally, Bengalis see Lord Ram as a revered mythological figure, but not a God. If the increasingly loud shouts of Jai Shri Ram across the state today is anything to go by, there's clearly been a "poriborton."
The author is a foreign and strategic affairs analyst
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