Bengal war: Just political smarts won’t be enough

As much as other issues, parliamentary democracy in a multi-party federal State will also be on trial.

Political acumen, that special quality of mind that can manoeuvre through the intensely competitive ecosystem of elections, will be tested in the next round of elections, covering both the local bodies and the state assemblies. That is to say, Mamata Banerjee, Amit Shah-Narendra Modi, Nitish Kumar, Tejaswi Yadav and the other parties, whose capacity is to add value or cut into votes, will need to do more than posturing and repeat themselves about who they are.

The next series will be an equally challenging test of political consciousness about the wider implications and greater responsibilities of every voter who chooses to participate. From local body elections up to the state Assembly, every vote will contribute to the larger struggle that is underway, between two ideas of India, between a majoritarian State and an inclusive, secular one; between all citizens equal in all respects and some citizens less equal than the rest.

As much as other issues, parliamentary democracy in a multi-party federal State will also be on trial. The one-size-fits-all blueprint of the Bharatiya Janata Party will be tested against the many faceted politics of entrenched regional parties. Different baggages from the past will be shadows that will create discomfort for the leaders, organisations, parties and voters.

The BJP, on the contrary, has no qualms about reusing its tested formula, regardless of the consequences of causing public mischief, to draw the line between natural enemies and uneasy allies. In the heart of Kolkata, not some northeastern fringe area as in New Delhi, BJP cadres shouted — Desh ki gaddaro ko, goli maaro … ko. It was provocative and it was targeted against whoever rose to the bait. By inviting action under the Indian Penal Code, sections 505 and 153A and others too, which the West Bengal government has done against those identified as shouting this slogan, the BJP has made mischief, deliberately and with forethought.

Ever since legislating the Citizenship Amendment Act the boundary separating BJP from its foes is more sharply drawn than ever before. The limitations of a one-point strategy — majoritarian politics versus Muslim appeasement — leave less room for manoeuvrability for the BJP.

By that measure, Mamata Banerjee is the enemy; Nitish Kumar is not. In West Bengal, the BJP considers itself the only alternative to the Trinamul Congress. In Bihar, the BJP cannot afford to act tough with Nitish Kumar because it knows that it could lose a great deal if it directly charged the Janata Dal (United). Outsmarted by Nitish Kumar, when he pushed through, with the BJP’s support, resolutions against the National Register of Citizens, demanded changes to the National Population Register, and threw in a new demand for a Caste Census in 2021, the BJP knows it has to cut its losses to keep the coalition going. There is an alternative in Bihar and it could win.

The simplest reason for the use of the dogwhistle in the heart of Kolkata — goli maaro — could be BJP’s limited understanding of the culture and traditions of politics in West Bengal. It seems to have looked at the maths and come to the conclusion that if the party could gain six plus per cent votes in Delhi, where too, it was the only challenger to the Aam Aadmi Party, by blowing the dogwhistle, the BJP can expect to cover the three plus per cent distance that separates it from the Trinamool Congress in terms of vote share, as the 2019 general election results showed. Against the Trinamul Congress vote of 43.28 per cent in 2019, the BJP garnered a whopping 40.25 per cent, gaining from the total decimation of the Communist Party of India Marxist led Left Front which lost over 16 per cent votes. In 2014, the BJP’s vote share was 17 per cent. In 2016, its vote share in the state Assembly elections was 10.2 per cent. In West Bengal, BJP has succeeded in attracting voters, but not all voters are the “core” support it needs to win without resorting to dangerous and incendiary adventurism.

The BJP has used its only narrative, with its variations and additions, to trap Nitish Kumar and Mamata Banerjee to play by the rules of the communal divide game, till now. Reacting to the “goli maaro” provocation, Mamata Banerjee accused the BJP of “state sponsored, planned genocide in Delhi.” After her deafening silence since the riots in the national capital, the ferocity of the attack and the Trinamul Congress accusation in Parliament that the BJP “had blood on its hands,” is exactly as expected. Anything less would have diminished Mamata Banerjee’s appeal among Muslim voters on the one hand and Hindu voters who abhor communal politics.

The next elections, in Bihar and West Bengal will be flavoured by the larger politics of citizenship and legacy papers. It will impact the local body elections, all 110 municipalities and corporations in West Bengal’s urban locations, even though such elections tend to be very local, where familiarity about candidates varies the reaction of voters, from contempt to respect. Past local body elections in West Bengal have been bloody; the Trinamul Congress has been pilloried for leading the violence. It has contributed to voter disenchantment with the party, even though Mamata Banerjee’s personal popularity remains mostly intact.

The just released projection of Mamata Banerjee as synonymous with West Bengal is one way of outsmarting the BJP, which does not have a face that can win in West Bengal. But that is not enough. To defend West Bengal’s culture — social and political — the political establishment in the state has to find a way of strengthening the habits of communal harmony and peaceful coexistence that was put into place after 1947 by a consensus among political parties. Post-1946-riots-Kolkata established the precedent of political consensus, reflecting the everyday accommodations of communities living in close proximity, with the usual baggage of friction and fellow feeling.

As much as the voter, who will have to make a conscious choice in West Bengal to affirm the culture of fraternity, the political leadership of secular parties, especially Mamata Banerjee, comprising around 56 per cent of the votes, will need to find ways of minimising the space available for the BJP. The challenge in the cut-throat competitive politics of West Bengal is going to be very difficult.

Shikha Mukerjee is a senior journalist in Kolkata

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