<b>Ruminations:</b> Down a dangerous path
Bengal is seeing a remarkable Hindu consolidation that suggests communal sentiment was always under the surface
Communal and caste biases in Bengal have never really been dominant enough to sway election results. However, the systematic communal polarisation of the state, coinciding with the Bharatiya Janata Party’s designs for taking political power and chief minister Mamata Banerjee’s response to those efforts are now threatening to upset that record. As the recent violence in Basirhat showed, this is not a case of soft Hindutva clashing with minority appeasement. It establishes that hardline positions have been taken on both sides, almost unmindful of the dangerous consequences that this might have on a state with a nearly 30 per cent Muslim population.
What Bengal is seeing now is a remarkable Hindu consolidation. The Hindu sentiment has been a factor in social relations but it never quite manifested itself as a political force. However, there are several contributory factors why this has become so in time. The Bengali voter has been known to be volatile, often responding aggressively to injustice, presumed or otherwise. As for rousing communal sentiments among Hindus, it was always a bit of a surprise why this was not easy as Bengal has been a victim of partition just like Punjab – which has been a successful trigger for raising communal passions in north India – and people were uprooted from their homes, just like those in West Punjab. However, the manner in which Hindu consolidation is taking place in the state, suggests that communal sentiment was always under the surface.

Subsequent events, like the time limit imposed last year for immersion of Durga idols on Bijoya Dashami which was subsequently overturned by the high court, the communal clashes last year in the BJP stronghold of Kharagpur and three other towns, the controversy over the appointment of a Muslim minister as head of the Tarakeshwar Development Trust, and of course the Basirhat incident have only helped in that consolidation.
These incidents, even though they are falling into a pattern, are few. The BJP appears to be ready to play the long waiting game as they and pro Hindutva forces still have some distance to go before they can pose a serious challenge to Banerjee and her Trinamool Congress. For her part, the Bengal chief minister too has a fairly long way to travel to dispel the perception that her government has pursued minority appeasement for political gain. This has not got obfuscated in the rough and tumble of Bengal politics. Where this could hurt Banerjee is in her own support base comprising Hindus. The chief minister, unlike the Left leaders whom she replaced, is not an atheist but deeply religious. She is an ardent devotee of Goddess Kali. Her autobiography, 'My unforgettable memories', contains vivid passages describing incidents highlighting her faith. Against this backdrop, it becomes even more apparent that her brand of minority appeasement is essentially a vote catching strategy.
It requires a leader with the capacity for original thinking to change the worrisome narrative of communal polarisation that Bengal is getting increasingly obsessed with. The way out of it is easy to find. It lies in progress, in development and in finding avenues for equity. The question is, whether Banerjee is capable of finding this path.

When the Left first came to power, it initiated progressive and far-reaching land reforms, the political benefits of which it reaped for a long time. In the last few years of its rule under Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, the Left Front tried to revive businesses and even held repeated road shows to attract investment. The Tata Nano plant in Singur was an example of this. However, past experience of militant trade unionism made investors hesitant to put money into it. Banerjee herself, seeing an opportunity to come to power on the back of the Singur land acquisition controversy, began a violent movement against it, destroying prospects for the plant. What she also did was to create an anti-industry image for herself, which preceded her to office. The conversion rate from proposals to actual investments after two Bengal Global Business Summits should provide some answers to this. Banerjee would be well aware that while Bengal is the sixth largest state in terms of GDP, it is predominantly agricultural – a sector that is offering ever lower avenues for employment – and is saddled with a huge debt.
This essentially means that in order to survive, Banerjee will need to retrace her steps on two counts – she has to provide sanguinary evidence of being equally disposed towards her constituents across communal lines to kill off the challenge from militant Hindutva, and she needs to say without prevarication that Bengal needs investments and investors and she will do all it requires to ensue safe passage for men and material. On the ground, the BJP is still some distance away from making a match of its fight against Banerjee even though it has found adherents. She will need to get cracking to build on that gap.

Ananda Majumdar