In the clash of opposing imaginaries new flashpoints are emerging as signals of intensifying polarisation between what is made out to be a suppressed Hindu majority sentiment versus a socially diverse and ipso facto political appeasement of the Muslim minority that has encouraged a new assertiveness. Celebratory rallies have morphed into communal rioting and at least five deaths in West Bengal over aggressive and weaponised Ram Navami processions validate this narrative.
Underlying this imagined substance of India, over which the BJP and its Sangh Parivar and the Trinamul Congress in West Bengal, the Bahujan Samaj Party-Samajwadi Party in Uttar Pradesh, Congress in Karnataka, Telugu Desam and Telangana Rashtra Samithi in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, DMK in Tamil Nadu, RJD in Bihar is another idea, another fierce contest. That is of centralisation of power captured in the slogan of “one nation-one party” raised by Amit Shah and Narendra Modi under the guise of mainstreaming the populations of states where Opposition parties rule. The confrontation between plural politics and state leaders representing the idea of diversity is being challenged, so as to defeat it by the idea of homogeneity — political, social, religious, cultural and of course economic.
The contesting claims of what the nation shall be in political, social, religious and cultural terms is reflected in the first communal riots on Ram Navami in West Bengal. In 2018, the new calendar of communal tension points seems to have been formally unveiled. The invention of new weaponised celebrations by the BJP-Sangh Parivar began in 2016 on a small scale, expanded in 2017 with “Astra Puja” significantly timed to clash with Muharram, all of which contributed to communalisation of the political contest between the ruling TMC and the former ruling parties, the CPI(M)-led Left Front and the Congress, on the one hand, and the BJP-Sangh Parivar as the challenger, on the other.
Between the old and new the contours of politics in India is changing. Bengal is at the forefront of the confrontation. It is as much a war against divisive communal and polarising politics of the BJP variety, embodied in Mr Modi and his style of almost presidential governance and in Mr Shah and his style of all-conquering general, against the diversity of regional parties and their compulsion to be culturally, communally and politically accommodating. It is thus a clash of titans; each regional leader is a titan on his/her turf, whereas Mr Modi believes that is a role only he can play.
Mamata Banerjee should have seen this coming, given that Ram Navami celebrations organised by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, Bajrang Dal and Hindu Samhati became a political issue in 2017, and was taken a step forward with the “Astra Puja” celebrations. The rioting that erupted in West Bengal over the past week reflects the escalation of social-religious-political tensions. The rioting started from Purulia and turned into a political battle of domination in Asansol, represented by BJP MP and Union minister Babul Supriyo, which is also the stomping ground of BJP state chief Dilip Ghosh, MLA from Kharagpur. The geographical concentration of rioting in Raniganj-Asansol and Durgapur is because the BJP is turning the coal-railway-heavy industry belt into its own fiefdom.
Instead of simply disconnecting the Internet, belatedly organising a flag march in Asansol, knee-jerk reactions that are designed to turn the least enchanted into disgruntled voters and so potential BJP recruits, Ms Banerjee needed to be smarter. Merely thundering that she would not allow West Bengal’s history of communal harmony to be disrupted by the BJP-RSS-VHP, instructing her police to “strongly” deal with weapon-wielding Ram Navami processions, or declaring such processions were banned, except “those that were around for 50, 100 or even 10 years,” was appeasement tactics, wrapped in the guise of firm administrative management. The fact that Section 144 CrPC was used so sparingly to work as a preventive measure in areas that West Bengal’s police and intelligence apparatus should have known might turn into riot zones opens
Ms Banerjee to the sort of criticism from the CPI(M) and Congress that would weaken her image and give the BJP another advantage.
The wooing of disgruntled BJP leaders like Shatrughan Sinha, Yashwant Sinha and Arun Shourie, that too in New Delhi, and her conversations with regional parties and the Congress have made Ms Banerjee a dangerous and bold rival, an icon and spearhead in uniting the states against the BJP-Sangh Parivar in the run-up to the 2019 Lok Sabha polls. As Shatrughan Sinha declared his meeting with Ms Banerjee was to “save the nation”, and this was endorsed by Yashwant Sinha, the vulnerability of Ms Banerjee to every sort of attack from the BJP went up several notches.
The gathering of “federal forces”, the call for “one is to one” fights against the BJP, and the invitation to parties like the Congress with previous alliances to join in a strategy of vote consolidation imposes on Ms Banerjee the responsibility of guarding her own turf by paying far more attention to the BJP’s intentions than she has so far. Till the Ram Navami riots Ms Banerjee was being equivocal in dealing with communally-polarising politics. To fight the BJP on that front,
Ms Banerjee needs to craft a political message that woos the Hindu voter, including those who alienated by the BJP’s crudely formulated “Hindus in danger-Muslim appeasement” charge against her. This includes finding the political skills to delink the riots and communal flareups from the BJP’s justification that these are a fallout of her politics of minority appeasement.
Reviving friendships, calling in favours with regional and national parties and leaders in a whirlwind New Delhi trip is politics with a lot of optics. But it doesn’t make Mamata Banerjee an unassailable rival of the BJP nor an unchallenged leader of the federal front. The strategy of destabilisation in West Bengal requires her to focus on her front and back yards as well. With panchayat elections just weeks away, the fight to corner the BJP has just begun....