In West Bengal, this is the time of Kal Baishakhi, thunderstorms that punctuate the passage from spring to a pitiless summer.
What is happening politically in the state is not much different. The last few days have been stormy, but underneath the noise lies the portent of a more profound, long-term change.
For the first time, the state is witnessing serious rise of the BJP, which has been a fringe force. The party’s PM candidate Narendra Modi has sensed a great opportunity.
Ruling Trinamool Congress’ (TMC) fiery leader Mamata Banerjee has decimated rivals. If the Left, which ruled for 34 years, is hobbling, the Congress is on its knees. There is a huge vacuum in the opposition space.
The BJP, propelled by Modi’s popularity, wants to fill it. It may not win too many seats in the Lok Sabha polls, but it has bigger ambitions: To become Bengal’s biggest opposition party before the municipal polls and 2016 assembly elections.
Not for nothing has Modi, 2014 elections’ busiest campaigner, held eight packed rallies here. Wherever you travel, he is the centre of conversation…at ‘addas’, wedding receptions, offices.
The organisation is spreading like duckweed. Primary membership has increased from 90,000 in 2010 to more than 4 lakh now. There has been a 74,000 jump in youth membership in May.
Highest jumps have been in Kolkata, Nadia, Burdwan, Birbhum, Hooghly, South 24 Paraganas, Medinipur and Barasat. Even in tribal-dominated Jangalmahal comprising three districts (Bankura, West Medinipur and Purulia), 19 new party offices have come up and membership has increased three-fold this year.
Modi seems to have found five hot buttons in Bengal.
First, the state’s thirst for the elusive ‘progoti’, or progress, after ‘poriborton’, Mamata’s now-legendary call for change.
Second, a series of brutal and highly publicised rapes like the ones in Park Street and Kamduni, and Mamata’s verbal attacks, not on the rapists but those alleging rape, has shaken many.
Third, Mamata Banerjee is facing corruption charges for the first time in her otherwise remarkably clean political career, and not facing them well. As a senior Kolkata journalist puts it: “Her attacking play is outstanding. But on the defensive, she is trying to hit every ball, not leaving any.”
Fourth, the growing perception that Mamata has appeased Muslims with R2,500 allowance for imams, putting larger-than-life billboards of praying with her head covered, or freely allowing illegal Bangladeshi immigrants to settle here and using them as votebank.
Five, Modi has found in Mamata’s emotive, reactive politics a great opportunity. He taunts, she or her party reacts with “shaitaan”, “Butcher of Gujarat”, “donkey”. Modi has perfected the art of turning personal attacks on him into his strength.
From all this, the party is significantly gaining.
“BJP was known here as the party of non-Bengalis. But the Modi wave has taken it far beyond that, especially among the youth. The response to our campaigns is overwhelming,” says Siddharth Nath Singh, the party’s in-charge for Bengal and grandson of India’s second PM Lal Bahadur Shastri. “Mamata had not accounted for the Modi factor.”
Singh looks the party’s long-term future in a state with 42 LS seats — third highest after UP and Maharashtra — with much optimism. He says there has been a near-hysterical response to every Modi rally in the state.
Also, when you speak to people from different sections, you notice an interesting pattern. They are making a crucial distinction this time between voting for a government at the Centre and electing a state government. Many feel Mamata, despite her formidable popularity in the state, may have a much smaller dog in the fight at the Centre and so their vote may be wasted on the TMC.
The BJP, however, wants to convert the Modi mania to get a stronger foothold in state politics.
“While BJP nationwide has been stronger in urban areas, in Bengal, paradoxically, it had presence in rural panchayats but was weak in the cities. This election has changed that,” says BJP state secretary Ritesh Tiwari.
Even TMC spokesperson Derek O’Brien says the difference of vote share between CPM and BJP will be in single digit this time. “But TMC isn’t worried because BJP has no organisation in Bengal, no block-level presence.”
The challenges before the BJP are enormous. Its state organisation has been rickety. Even a rapid membership drive may not give it control over most villages. Six or eight people who control each village, says O’Brien, and it is not easy to build a parallel structure, village after village.
Moreover, most in Bengal feel deeply thankful to Mamata and love her for ending more than three decades of Left rule. It will be very difficult to wean them from her.
Modi may bring in votes in LS, but to make a mark in panchayat, municipal or assembly elections, it needs a strong Bengali state leader, one who will not be swept under Mamata’s towering presence. It will also help the party shed the ‘non-Bengali party’ tag.
Among the new crop of Bengali ex-officers and celebrities the BJP has fielded, insiders praise Babul Supriyo as a hard field worker, amiable but aggressive organisation man. But will he match up to Mamata? Right now, he is not even close.
Also, although early Hindu nationalism can be traced to Bengal — Bankimchandra chronicled it, Aurobindo Ghosh and other were ideologues and took part, Shyamaprasad Mukherjee exported — its people view BJP-RSS’s ‘Hindu, Hindi, Hindustan’ heartland nationalism with suspicion, even disdain. Interestingly, Modi, in his north Kolkata speech on May 7, invoked Aurobindo and his arrest by the British from a Maniktala hideout.
Mamata came to power breaking the CPM’s mighty village-level organisation with two fierce movements — Singur and Nandigram. Village after village fell to her for fear of losing land.
The BJP and RSS are spreading. Modi, not a man to say things loosely, has asked Bangladeshis to leave after May 16. A communal flare-up may pose the biggest challenge yet to Mamata’s hold over rural and semi-urban Bengal, where there is resentment over measures like the imam-bhata and fears about the allegedly growing Bangladeshi population.
In five districts the Muslim population ranges from 33% to 63%.
On the other side, alarm over the organisation-building by BJP and RSS has already triggered the inflow of money, people and arms from across the border in places like Sunderbans, say political insiders.
Just behind the current storm in Bengal politics may lie darker clouds.