In Bengal, battle for Matua vote heats up
The calm that surrounds Thakurbari, the pilgrimage site for the Matua community, a scheduled caste group, in West Bengal’s Bongaon, masks the power struggle at play here.
Part of the 24 North Parganas, Bongaon sub division, like the other Matua strongholds of Nadia, Coochbehar, Dinajpur and Burdwan, among others, is a battle ground for the Matua votes and at the centre of a struggle for control between the ruling Trinamool Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
The Matua population is estimated at 50 million, of which about 30 million are in West Bengal alone and 15 million are listed as voters. Tracing their roots to 19th century undivided Bengal, they are considered to have the power to swing elections in as many as 30 assembly seats and can have a significant impact on another 50. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who is leaving for a two-day visit to Bangladesh on March 26, is also scheduled to pay respect to a sacred shrine of the Matua sect founder — Harichand Thakur — in Orakandi.
The political and electoral tussle
Since the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, both the BJP and the Trinamool Congress (TMC) have outdone each other to woo the Matuas ahead of elections. In 2019, the BJP managed to get a foothold in TMC bastion 24 North Parganas. “In North Parganas, there are over 33 assembly constituencies and the TMC won 27 in 2016. In 2019 Lok Sabha polls, it lost 12 assembly segments to the BJP... This happened because of the support of Matuas,” said a BJP leader. The leader added that the party wrested control of Barrackpore and Bongaon Lok Sabha seats, after getting the support of the Matuas on the basis of the promise of a Citizenship (Amendment) Act or CAA, which promised citizenship to Hindus, Sikhs, Parsis, Buddhists and Jains coming from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan.
In February, Union home minister Amit Shah assured that delay in implementation of the CAA was only due to the pandemic and the BJP would not renege on its promise to give the Matuas their due — Indian nationality certificate.
The TMC has also been on an overdrive to appease the voters. Ahead of the 2019 elections, chief minister Mamata Banerjee announced an allocation of ₹10 crore for the Matua development board and university.
Citizenship and votes
The quest to control the Matua vote, however, largely hinges on the issue of identity and rights. While the BJP is keen to ensure that the discourse stays on the issue of the Matuas being neglected till the CAA came to their rescue, the TMC is questioning how those who already have election cards be sold the idea of an identity they already have.
Paritosh Saha, a TMC candidate from Bagdhah assembly constituency in Bongaon that has over 40% Matua votes, said: “We are telling people that they are already citizens of this country and don’t need any certificate.”
The sentiment is echoed by a resident of village Helencha in Bagdhah, Bikas Biswas, also the working secretary of the All India Matua Samaj. “What will they (BJP) give me? I already have the PAN card, election ID and Aadhaar.” A BJP MLA from the area, Dullal Bar, countered: “The TMC talks about empowering the Matuas. But how many community leaders find important positions in the party or the government?...”
The intra-community dynamics
While most political watchers consider the Matuas as a monolith that tends to follow the instructions of their leaders, Biswajit Chakravarty, an academic at the Rabindra Bharati University in Kolkata, said: “There is a tendency to overestimate their role in shaping electoral outcome. Most parties think they heed the call of their leaders on voting. But my findings show that they are divided too.”
A few community elders agree that there are deep divisions in the once tightly knit structure and admitted that with fissures within the community and the Thakur clan, it is unlikely that any party will benefit from the consolidated Matua vote.