West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee is facing the third biggest challenge of her political career. And it has the makings of being the most difficult for her. The Bharatiya Janata Party’s strategy to upstage her involves weapons not commonly used in Bengal politics – a creeping communal polarisation and attempted imposition of a new culture.
Banerjee had a meteoric rise in politics. As a Congress activist, she rose quickly up the ranks as a youth leader. She caught Rajiv Gandhi’s eye with her organisational skills and derring-do. In a way, that proved to be her undoing. In a hierarchical party like the Congress, she found her prospects of growth blocked by the old guard. Ultimately, she formed the Trinamool Congress in 1998 – it became a national party in 2016. The next stage was running into the Left Front.
It is true that she replaced the Congress party in the state but the Left turned out to be far too powerful and politically suave for her action-oriented style of politics. The Singur and Nandigram controversies gave her the opportunity to employ her very own streetfighter style and she singlehandedly drove out the Left from the state after 34 years in power.
The BJP, however, is proving to be her most determined adversary. Under Amit Shah and Narendra Modi, the BJP has become the pre-eminent party across the country and it is using this as a platform to set the ground rules even in states where it is not in government. West Bengal is proving to be no different. Its method, which is now easily recognised in Indian politics, is the equivalent of working the sum backwards. That is it first sets a target for the number of seats to be won and then begins the strategising on how to get there.
The BJP is different from others because it doesn’t compromise, Modi and Shah’s brand of 24x7 politics does not allow them to. Importantly, and unlike the usual Sangh Parivar style of functioning playing where the waiting game is a full-fledged strategy – it worked slowly since the formation of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh in 1951 and the creation of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh in 1925 for the formation of the first rightwing pro-Hindutva government under Modi – the new BJP wants quick results convinced that its time has come.
The immediate challenge Banerjee faces is this: In the last Lok Sabha elections, the BJP won only from Darjeeling and Asansol. This time, it has been set a target of 22 seats – this is also to offset presumed losses in Uttar Pradesh where it had won 73 seats in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, apart from in Madhya Pradesh (where it won 27 of 29 Lok Sabha seats) and Rajasthan (where it won all 25 Lok Sabha seats). Having set the target, it is now fine tuning the strategy to get there. It started working on a Hindutva agenda riding on the back of Swami Vivekananda’s teaching. Rightwing elements have brought in ceremonies like the shastra pujan on Ram Navami which is alien to the state and is last believed to have been practised sporadically sometime around the 12th century.
Having established a foothold on the basis of this strategy, the BJP now plans to bring in Muslims to create divisions in Banerjee’s pocket burough. It knows that majoritarianism will not deliver in a state where the minorities comprise over 30 per cent of the electorate. The tack was used with reasonable success in local body elections when the party fielded a large number of Muslim candidates and it is natural that the BJP should be planning to field muslim candidates in the next general elections.
This should be worrying for Banerjee. Since coming to power at the centre in 2014, the new BJP has let it be known that it will use every weapon in the armoury to beat back its political opponents, including being thrifty with the truth to pull down reputations. It believes if it could usurp Left rule in Tripura, it could certainly change the discourse in West Bengal to its advantage with a combination of communal and economic issues, like Banerjee’s inability to get investments or perk up the job market.
As for her biggest political battle, the West Bengal chief minister has not stepped back from using the weapons at her disposal against the BJP – targeting BJP leaders with criminal cases, withdrawing ‘general consent’ to the CBI for carrying out investigations or letting loose her party cadres against BJP men. From the way it looks, elections in the state are unlikely to be fought over who has the better idea. It will be won by the one who can get better resources, can handle accusations better and work the public discourse better. Up against a powerful election machine, Banerjee might need the support of others in the anti-BJP bloc to push back a relentless BJP. That would be the best course for her.