West Bengal Election 2021: The Bharatiya Janata Party’s emergence as a powerful force in West Bengal has been one of the most notable aspects in this election. A win or not, the BJP, in its quest for Bengal, has set the stage for further expansion. Mamata Banerjee, who stormed to power ending the 34-year-rule of the Left, saw ground slipping beneath her feet in the Lok Sabha elections in 2019, when the saffron party marked its arrival by winning 18 of 42 seats with 40.7 percent vote share – it was huge!
So what explains the BJP’s rise in 2021? Reasons are many but in a nutshell, people’s anger against Mamata Banerjee and her party leaders is converting into BJP votes, says Deep Halder, author of two books on Bengal — Blood Island: An Oral History of the Marichjhapi Massacre, and BENGAL 2021: An Election Diary.
“This is about syndicate raj, cut-money, joblessness — these things have made people fed up. Then there is Muslim appeasement and illegal infiltration.” Halder says today, if one is constructing a house, he/she will have to go through TMC people. This is something that Dinesh Trivedi, former TMC leader, had also talked about immediately after quitting the Trinamool Congress. Trivedi had said that he felt ‘suffocated’ as he could not do anything for his people despite being an MP. He had said that he was getting calls from his constituency that local TMC leaders were demanding money for letting one to construct a house. Even a TMC MP could not protect its people from the ‘syndicate raj’ and ‘cut-money gang’ of the TMC.
Halder says that things under Mamata’s rule had reached a tipping point and the BJP has emerged as a strong political force, finding political expression in the assembly election. “In 2016, there was no alternative. The BJP was not so strong organisationally.” But things changed after the BJP won 18 seats in 2019. The exodus of TMC heavyweights like Mukul Roy and Suvendu Adhikari have been the biggest losses for Mamata. “The BJP became strong, and people saw an alternative to the TMC in the state,” Halder explains.
Halder says that when he was researching for his book, one thing that kept coming was the loot of Amphan relief fund money. “Aap Amphan ka paisa maar loge…aap Amphan ka paisa kaise maar sakte ho (you will siphon-off Amphan relief fund money, how can you take away Amphan money,” the author says recalling his conversation with people in South 24 Parganas. He says that even though Amphan did not affect all the regions, the anger over corruption in it could be felt in the large parts of the state. “To me that was the tipping point,” says Halder.
Was religion never the discourse in Bengal and was it happening only because of the BJP? Halder, who grew up in Kolkata in the 80s, says that the Left far too long denied religiosity. “Left’s land reform — Operation Barga — was quite successful. Then it brought this concept of class enemy. Sidestepping caste and religion, the Left also told the poor people that landowners were their enemy. The Left projected landowners as enemies in villages and factory owners in the cities. The Left told the poor that they were not being given minimum wages. They shut factories over small issues. They invented the concept of class enemy. The people in villages and migrant workers in the cities felt that the Left was with them, and therefore they supported.”
“But godlessness of the Left and pitching Hindu religiosity as backwardness never went. Kolkata’s ‘talk circuit’ made Durga Puja a carnival, and they were also okay with azaan being played in pandals — but this was a thought process of just a section of people of the city. This is not like that Left has suddenly become Right. The RSS has been working in Bengal for years. Hindu religiosity was always there but people of Kolkata never talked about that. And due to Left’s class enemy concept, jobs started disappearing, businesses stopped coming in Bengal. As the Left politics started declining, that Hindu religiosity started finding expression,” says the author.
So what is the biggest change in Bengal? Now, Bengal is speaking, says Halder. “Discourse happening outside Kolkata is coming out. Bengal has 294 seats, of these just 11 are in Kolkata. But so far only Kolkata decided what will be the discourse. But that’s not how it should be. Now, the discourse of the entire Bengal is coming up, rightly so.” He says Bengal is demanding jobs, improvement in law and order situation, freedom from Muslim appeasement, they don’t want infiltration, village economy is already stressed, if people from outside get settled here economic crisis may happen — these are the things people are talking about. “People are now talking beyond the simple binaries of secular vs communalism and Left vs Right,” Halder adds.
“If you ask me what is the biggest change in one line, I would say entire Bengal is speaking – that might not be liked by everyone. We have this Khan Market gang in Delhi, in Kolkata it is the intellectual class (Bengali Bhadralok) that decided the narrative. If you come from outside, they will show you Park Street, Victoria Memorial — but that is not Bengal. That Bengal is speaking up is the change. Kolkata’s Bhadralok circle is not deciding anymore,.” Halder says. So what would be the reasons if Mamata loses? The rise of Abhishek Banerjee, says Halder, of course, with all other reasons combined. “First the corruption, syndicate raj, cut-money, Amphan money loot, Muslim appeasement. But the final nail in the coffin was — rise of Abhishek Banerjee. He became de-facto number two. It angered many senior leaders within the party and organisation weakened,” says the author.
Halder also disagrees that the castes and religion divide never existed in Bengal. It was there always but was not used in politics as the Left ruled here for so long. In fact, Halder recently recalled his conversation — during the research of his first book on Marichjhapi massacre — with Dalit writer Manoranjan Byapari, now TMC candidate, who told him that the Left could do what it did in Marichjhapi because they were Namasudras, placed at the lowest strata of the society. Bypari also told Halder that caste-hatred had led to the Marichjhapi massacre, in which some 10,000 Hindu Dalits who had come from Bangladesh were killed during the Left’s rule in 1979.
So, it is not that caste and religion never existed in Bengal. “It’s a beautiful lie,” says Halder.