In the fevered imagination of the Sangh parivar, West Bengal is a low-hanging ripe fruit ready for plucking.
Not a bus was burnt, not a morcha was organised, nobody donned colourful headgear to prevent viewers from watching Padmaavat in West Bengal. Albeit, some students of Jadavpur University sat on a dharna on the road to protest the violence and rampage unleashed by the Shree Rajput Karni Sena, but that is a quirk of quintessential Kolkata.
The peaceful, obstruction-free start of the screening confirmed chief minister Mamata Banerjee’s declaration at the recently-concluded Bengal Global Business Summit that “we love tolerance”, which was a jibe meant to heavily underscore the difference between her state and Sangh parivar aka Bharatiya Janata Party–ruled states. The truth is that in West Bengal, Padmavati is a favourite story, one of the most thrilling tales in the immensely popular Raj Kahini collection written by Abanindranath Tagore. Curiosity and sentiment pulled people to the multiplexes and Banerjee got to take the credit.
Revisions and inventions have, therefore, become part of the alleged race between the Sangh parivar and Banerjee to keep the popular imagination fed. Thus, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s new explanation: demolition of the Babri Masjid was not against Islam, it was a blow against a structure that embodied enslavement and subjugation. In Kolkata, for a memorial meeting to honour two kar sevaks from West Bengal who died in the Babri Masjid demolition in 1992, general secretary Suresh Bhaiyaji Joshi insisted that religion had nothing to do with it.
The political reconstruction of popular tales is part of the strategy to capture the public imagination by hook or by crook. It is fuelling the expansion of the popular perception of a serious contest between the Trinamool Congress (TMC) as the incumbent and the BJP, backed by the Sangh parivar, as the challenger.
In the fevered imagination of the Sangh parivar, as its propaganda machine claims, West Bengal is a low-hanging ripe fruit ready for plucking. It has been working hard to make its presence felt. BJP president Amit Shah claims that “the field is completely open in Bengal”. As of now, the BJP is working overtime with smoke and mirrors to project its popularity. Its real strength is untested in a straight fight against the TMC, because it has not as yet earned the position to be so considered. To reach that position, it needs to be there numerically – in the panchayats, in the municipalities and in the state assembly. Merely notching up three wins in the 2016 state assembly elections, or worse, coming in second in seven seats or working as a spoiler in about 70 seats, does not make the BJP, as yet, the principal challenger to Banerjee.
For Banerjee, joining in the game of ‘no smoke without fire’ vis-à-vis the BJP is a politically smart move and it is convenient. She needs the BJP to keep the TMC under control. It is not a organised machinery where membership is controlled and every member is accountable to the boss. It is an unruly collective that is loyal to Banerjee and its leaders; anointed, appointed and self-proclaimed, work in unison only when the fear of being ousted compels them to do so.
By taking the BJP’s aggressive incursions into West Bengal seriously, Banerjee has solved the problem of being partly responsible for the unexpectedly fast decline of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Front. Now that she is focused on defending the state and its love for tolerance and democracy from the assault of the BJP, her past sins in unleashing widespread, brutal and sustained violence against the opposition, principally the CPI(M), in her race to establish dominance in every corner of West Bengal, have been forgotten by the public and overlooked by opinion makers.
Having succeeded in her single-point political strategy to squeeze the CPI(M) out and push it to the periphery, the political space was open to the BJP for an invasion. In 2014, it thought that the time was right. The party polled over 17% of the votes. But it was wrong in its expectations that it was all set to climb to number two and become the undisputed challenger. In the 2016 elections, its vote share sank to just over 10%.
However, the political space in West Bengal is now split into two lopsided camps. There is the BJP and there are the established parties all of whom are anti-BJP. And the competition is fiercest among the anti-BJP parties, that is, the CPI(M)-led Left Front, the Congress and the TMC. To keep the BJP contained and relatively small, the three other parties will need to find a way of preventing a multi-cornered contest in every constituency, be it at the panchayat level, the municipal elections or the general elections in 2019.
It is a piquant conundrum. It is unthinkable that either the TMC or the CPI(M) will make tactical adjustments to ensure that the winnable party succeeds. Within the West Bengal Congress, there are differences over making friends with the TMC to keep the BJP at bay. And the CPI(M) has shot itself in the foot by endorsing a political resolution in Kolkata last week in which it emphatically declared that the Congress as an election ally was untouchable. Therefore, any solution that requires adjustment to contain the BJP is likely to fail, as of now.
Also read: BJP at Zenith and CPI(M) at Nadir Yet Comrades Reject Congress Tie-Up
Barred from considering the Congress as a potential partner, uneasy about Banerjee’s intentions, the CPI(M) has no plan on what it should do to coordinate its election tactics with anti-BJP forces in West Bengal to maximise and leverage their strength to defeat the BJP. The 55 votes in the party against an electoral understanding with the Congress included some from West Bengal. There are smaller, much smaller, Left parties with which the CPI(M) can work, but that will not contain the BJP on the scale necessary to defend West Bengal from its encroachments.
The intelligent thing to do for the CPI(M), the Congress and the TMC, as the biggest and, therefore, the most responsible parties, would be to make sure that the BJP does not significantly increase its footprints across West Bengal in the forthcoming panchayat elections. Each of these parties having adopted an ekla chalo re (walk alone) position because the differences are irreconcilable, there does not seem a way forward.
There is a curious parallel between West Bengal and Tripura. Both Banerjee and Manik Sarkar (Tripura chief minister) find themselves pitted against the BJP, because in both places the opposition parties have been made ineffective through systematic decimation of the organisations to achieve maximum dominance. If the BJP makes a breakthrough in Tripura, then West Bengal’s established political parties would be warned. The lesson that would need to be learnt would affect Banerjee the most. And she must know it.
So, what will Banerjee do? And how will she handle this problem of her own making? Her ambition to become the hegemon by pursuing a politics that was originally designed by the Congress, and developed and improved by the CPI(M), has turned West Bengal into a state with two camps – anti-BJP and BJP. Any election understanding or alliances by any of the big three would necessarily have to be with a rag-tag bunch of minuscule parties with no traction beyond their front doors.
It’s a quintessentially Bengali puzzle, and on Banerjee rests the responsibility of finding a workable solution, the outlines of which are obvious. If she were to allow the CPI(M) and the Congress to retake the political ground they have been forced to evacuate by the TMC working in combination with the state apparatus, there would be a strengthening of the anti-BJP side, which would in effect squeeze the BJP out of the larger space that it occupies now and much larger arena that it plans on taking over in the future. #KhabarLive