Bubbles of violence are erupting all over West Bengal; on July 6, no fewer than 10 clashes, confrontations and altercations between the Trinamul Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party occurred in almost as many districts. Sentiment is high and the BJP is working hard to keep it at boiling point, to keep the focus on its proximity to the people and highlight the growing distance and distrust of the electorate from the Trinamul Congress.
The sentiment quotient in politics has zoomed in the past five years, across the country and in Bengal. It is a tool that has no ideology, except that of the user. For the BJP’s purposes, sentiment is stirred by linking every point in its political attack strategy to a single sentiment — that the principal ruling party or even the Opposition has, in the present as in the past, betrayed the people, one way or another.
Well before and during the just-concluded elections, sentiment was stirred by the danger to the nation and the heroic efforts of Narendra Modi to safeguard it, from dangers outside its borders and from elements within, like Mamata Banerjee who opposed him. By declaring Ms Banerjee an “anti-national” for defying the Prime Minister's call for a collective push for development, as in sabka vikas, the die was cast for the current chapter of the anti-Trinamul Congress campaign, namely “cut-money”, or the percentage of funds deducted by ruling party functionaries from payouts to beneficiaries under various government schemes. Effectively, the cut-money story has turned into an extension of the “syndicate” story, used by Mr Modi and Amit Shah to discredit Ms Banerjee on the grounds that a “political syndicate rules in the land of ‘Vande Mataram’ and ‘Jana Gana Mana’”.
The track that the BJP has chosen is a well-used one; shorn of the religious wrap, it was a track laid by the Trinamul Congress as it raced to oust the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Front and the Congress in West Bengal and emerge as the big party or the supreme force. The confrontations, 10 or more in one day, is reminiscent of the pre-2011 run-up by the Trinamul Congress. The spurt in BJP's claims of deaths due to political clashes, within a matter of weeks, from 54 in May to over 200 in July, is also a photocopy of the how Ms Banerjee effectively reduced the CPI(M) to a ruthless killing machine intent on remaining in power by whatever means.
The BJP’s positioning of itself as the harbinger of change is exactly what Ms Banerjee promised, Poriborton. Jai Shri Ram as BJP’s war cry is as incoherent in West Bengal’s cultural universe as was the equally incoherent construction of Ma, Mati, Manush used to brilliant effect against the CPI(M) by the Trinamul. The big and dangerous difference is the injection of a quasi-religious sentiment by invoking “Shri Ram”. Whereas Ma, Mati, Manush was inclusive, Jai Shri Ram is definitively divisive. Ma, Mati, Manush and Poriborton covered the entire spectrum of political issues that Ms Banerjee used to mobilise and detach voters from the CPI(M). In contrast, Jai Shri Ram is specific in its appeal; it is directed at stirring the Hindu awake and shouting out his/her allegiance.
The construction of an oppressed people, cowering from the Trinamul Congress’ bully boys needing to be released from their enslavement by the protective, powerful, nationalist and assertively righteous bhakts of the Sangh Parivar is a tactical manoeuvre. If the Trinamul can fight it off, it will succeed in postponing its overthrow. If it fails, the BJP will sweep to power in West Bengal.
The only glitch in this linear progress, from Opposition to ruling party, is the BJP’s indecision on how soon it wants to occupy Writers’ Buildings or Nabanna, whichever structure it chooses as its seat of government. If it waits till the end of the Trinamul Congress’ term in office, it will be 2021 before it can hope to be in power in West Bengal. In politics, that is a long time. As much as the anti-incumbency sentiment against Ms Banerjee could climb steeply, so could the anti-incumbency feelings against the Narendra Modi government and the BJP in West Bengal.
On the other hand, the volatile appeal of the Jai Shri Ram slogan could become harder to handle. Political violence, irrespective of just how many people have died, given that the BJP’s version of the head count grows by leaps and bounds, could spiral out of control.
By the BJP’s reckoning, or least one section of it, namely Babul Supriyo, the ex-minister and Member of Parliament from Asansol, West Bengal is already in the throes of a situation that can be deemed as a breakdown of law and order, or as is in the Constitution, the situation in West Bengal is, at the moment, such that “the government of the state cannot be carried on in accordance with the provisions of this Constitution”.
The question that BJP or at least Mr Supriyo and his handlers need to answer is if indeed the situation in West Bengal is as dire as they claim, then ought not the Narendra Modi government take a decision to restore governance in accordance with the provisions of the Constitution? Instead of calculating the political risk of imposing President’s Rule, should not the BJP government at the Centre relieve West Bengal from the oppressive government of the Trinamul Congress immediately? Does the BJP need to make cynical calculations of political expediency on saving West Bengal from the Trinamul Congress? Does timing the ouster of the Trinamul Congress matter more for the BJP than giving relief to the people of West Bengal?
On this, the BJP is most explicit; Mr Supriyo and others are open in admitting that invoking President’s Rule now would politically boomerang. It would swing sympathy in favour of Ms Banerjee and the BJP would become the bad guys.
The BJP is seems is in a fix over West Bengal. It needs to calibrate its tactics to fit the sentiments of a body of voters about whose allegiance it has no real confidence. Low-level violence, that bubbles and bursts, is how the BJP seems intent on keeping its pot boiling. The danger is that at some point, the bubbles could join up and the pot could boil over. If that were to happen, the BJP needs to be sure that it can collect the spillage.
The writer is a senior journalist in Kolkata...