TMC in a fix over rise of BJP’s aggressive Hindutva in Bengal
The saffron camp’s aggressive push for its Hindutva agenda in Bengal and its ‘success’ in the Kanthi Dakshin by-elections, has got the state’s ruling party, Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress, confused and desperately looking for a combat plan.
In the by-elections held amid high-voltage war of words between Trinamool and BJP over the saffron camp’s unprecedented display of swords, machetes, axes and scythes during Ram Navami processions, Trinamool increased its share of votes and the winning margin from the 2016 result. But the rise of BJP’s share of votes from 9% to 31% -- mostly at the cost of the Left’s vote bank – indicated consolidation of opposition votes in favour of BJP.
Four days after the bypoll result, several senior Trinamool Congress refused to go on record but admitted that the party was yet to formulate a strategy to combat the new language of BJP. While TMC leaders are confident of pocketing consolidated Muslim votes, a sharp split in majority Hindu votes could spell doom for them.
According to the 2011 census, Bengal has 27% Muslim population.
“We are still assessing the situation. BJP’s aggressive push for the cow belt culture has triggered opposition from those who put their Bengali identity ahead of religious one, and we believe they are the majority. However, we cannot afford to isolate non-Bengali Hindus, though they dominate the electoral equations in only a handful of the state’s 294 Assembly seats,” said senior Trinamool Congress minister, who requested anonymity.
According to the 2001 census, Hindi-speaking people comprise about 7% of the state’s population and are mostly concentrated in the urban, industrial belts in Burdwan, Howrah, North 24-Parganas, West Midnapore and Hooghly districts. Bengalis comprise about 85% of the state’s population.
Senior Trinamool MP Sougata Roy, a former professor of physics, had no hesitation in saying, “Our party will reach out to people for protecting Bengal’s distinct culture from BJP’s plan of dominating it with the culture imported from the Hindi heartland.”
According to political analyst Ranabir Samaddar, Trinamool Congress looks confused about deriving a combat strategy, from both political and administrative perspective. They are not sure whether to try to hijack BJP’s issue by enthusiastically celebrating the same religious festivals and BJP, or to stress on the distinctiveness on Bengal’s cultural traditions, he remarked.
“Mamata Banerjee is running the state more through the administration and less through her party’s organisation. In combating the situation, too, Mamata Banerjee will look to depend more on the administration. In this case, however, they seem yet unsure about where to draw the line for administrative interference in celebration of religious festivals,” Samaddar said.
“Police action against display of weapons in saffron camp’s programmes may help BJP play victim and earn sympathy of the Hindus, whereas lack of police action could lead to deterioration of the law and order situation, something that she least wants,” he added.
Trinamool’s initial response to BJP’s aggressive celebration of Ram Navami was to accuse it of hijacking a religious festival and claim that Ram Navami did not belong to BJP alone. Trinamool leaders in various districts including Birbhum, Howrah, West Midnapore and West Burdwan were seen competing with the saffron camp in organising Ram Navami and Hanuman Jayanti.
“Prominent intellectuals have pointed out in the state’s media that the saffron camp was trying to vitiate Bengal’s distinct culture. Our leader started doubting whether competing with BJP would end up legitimising BJP’s agenda of influencing the Bengalis with Hindi heartland’s culture,” a Trinamool Congress MP told HT.
Ever since the first Ram Navami procession, Bengali intellectuals as Jnanpith award winning poet Shankha Ghosh, purana expert Nrisingha Prasad Bhaduri, historian Goutam Bhadra and former bureaucrat Jawhar Sircar, who is presently heading the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, have expressed concerns over Bengal’s distinct culture being at stake. In a few public meetings, Mamata Banerjee stressed on the distinctiveness of Bengali culture as different from that of the Hindi heartland.
“We, Bengalis celebrate Bijoya Dasami with sindoor-khela (women smearing vermillion on each other), and not by display of swrods,” she recently said in response to BJP state wing chief Dilip Ghosh’s declaration that they would bring out sword rallies on Bijoya Dasami. In a comment that smacked of dismissiveness, she has also referred to BJP as ‘Ram-ra’ or ‘the Ram people’ several times.
The celebration of Bengali New Year (on April 15) witnessed more involvement from Trinamool Congress leaders than in earlier years. Those who led the processions include state power minister Sovandeb Chatterjee, food minister Jyotipriya Mallick and MLAs Sujit Basu and Prabir Ghosal. Interestingly, BJP leaders were not seen in any Poila Baishakh procession.
“This is our response to BJP. They took out rallies with swords on Ram Navami. We have taken out this Naba Barsha procession with flowers and sweets. To protect Bengali culture, we will fight with culture,” Mallick said.
According to political scientist Amal Mukhopadhyay, former principal of Presidency College, Mamata Banerjee took minority appeasement as a safe way to keep the Left away from power but never assessed to what extent it could influence the sentiments of the Hindus.
“Now that BJP is going all-out with its agenda of securing the interests of the Hindus, Trinamool looks utterly confused. They are not sure whether to appeal to the linguistic identity of Bengali Hindus - who have always taken pride in Bengal’s so-called cultural superiority - or reach out to people from all communities,” Mukhopadhyay said.
Some experts trace the problem back to Mamata Banerjee’s association with BJP during the first NDA government, which the party believed cost them dear in the 2004 Lok Sabha and 2006 Assembly elections. The party, however, gained oxygen through its anti-land acquisition struggles in Singur, Nandigram and Bhangar - the last two having sizable Muslim population - and the 2008 panchayat elections showed clear signs of cracks in the Left’s Muslim vote bank.
The more the Left tried to remind the Muslims of Mamata’s past association with BJP, the more she overtly tried to appease the Muslims. While the 2011 Assembly elections clearly showed that Trinamool managed to bag majority of the Muslim votes, BJP found it an opportune moment to prioritise consolidation of Hindus against minority-appeasement. Their initiative got a shot in the arm in 2016 after senior RSS pracharak Dilip Ghosh was made BJP’s state unit president.
Former Naxalite leader Ashim Chatterjee, however, thinks the increase in BJP’s popularity has more to do with the opposition voters’ loss of trust in the Left and the Congress, and the two parties’ failure in protecting supporters from Trinamool’s aggression. “Trinamool should first stop harassing Left and Congress activists so that they do not turn up to BJP in search of political shelter,” he said.
Trinamool, too, is concerned with this trend. “However, if we go soft on the Left and the Congress, there is more chance of opposition voters turning to BJP,” a senior minister told HT.