POLITICS

This Bengali New Year, The BJP Has Gifted Mamata Banerjee A New Headache

The BJP is unabashedly flexing its muscles rather than crooning Rabindrasangeet.

15/04/2017 11:01 AM IST | Updated 15/04/2017 11:24 AM IST
Rupak De Chowdhuri / Reuters
Mamata Banerjee, Chief Minister of India's eastern state of West Bengal, gestures during a news conference after a meeting of her Trinamool Congress party (TMC) in Kolkata.

The Bengali new year of 1424 should feel like a happy new year for Mamata Banerjee.

She is queen of the heap in Bengal, sitting pretty at the top. She has singlehandedly decimated her arch enemy the Left Front in the state, poached their cadre and reduced the Congress to a rag-tag bunch. A much ballyhooed mahagatbandhanof the Left and Congress against her failed to dent her. Many of her opponents had thought that the coming together of Congress and the Left would at least clip her wings a little even if it did not dislodge her from the ruling perch. But Mamata trounced all the opposition and won 211 seats out of the 293 the party contested despite the coalition, the collapsed flyover, the Narada sting and the Saradha scam.

But now she's facing an unexpected agnipariksha – Ram Navami and Hanuman Jayanti. Mamata is having to defend her seat against a BJP literally up in arms against her, flashing swords and marching through the streets of Bengal. The BJP and RSS are emboldened by their performance in Uttar Pradesh and want to try and make a play for Bengal. A stream of national leaders have been visiting the state and making that intent clear.

The Ram Navami rally saw some 200 rallies all over the state, wielding swords. Hanuman Jayanti found processions clashing with police after they were denied permission. Rallies and clashes brought the town of Suri to a standstill. Chants of "Jai shri Ram" and "Jai Hanuman", not common to Bengal, were heard all over the state. A youth wing leader of the BJP, incensed by footage of police beating up people with lathis, said "When I saw the video, I only had one thought... that if anyone gets me Mamata Banerjee's head I will give them 11 lakh."

Mamata is having to defend her seat against a BJP literally up in arms against her, flashing swords and marching through the streets of Bengal.

Trinamool seems both rattled and defensive. Some ruling MLAs took out their own Hanuman Jayanti rallies and processions. Mamata issued a Ram Navami tweet and railed at the BJP for trying to appropriate those festivals. "I am not going to tolerate any muscle flexing in the name of religion," an irate Mamata complained. "Some BJP leaders who do not know the culture of Bengal are flashing swords on the streets to intimidate people." A case was filed against BJP chief Dilip Ghosh for brandishing a sword. A police officer tells the Indian Express "In such cases, one has to take prior permission from police to carry weapons longer than nine inches."

That's exactly what the BJP wants and a risky strategy for Trinamool. It allows Ghosh to plead majority victimhood."I have no regrets. What were police and administration doing when arms were brandished during Muharram processions? At that time, they didn't bother to lodge any case as it might hit the votebank of the Trinamool Congress."

Mamata has in her own way made the ground for the BJP. By thoroughly decimating the Left and the Congress, by doing her best to stamp them out of Bengal, Mamata thought she was securing her own fortunes. She was doing that but she was also creating an opposition vaccum that was ripe for the BJP which could claim to be the new broom that swept clean. On top of that, it could paint Mamata as the queen of votebank politics though that is something the BJP also does, just with different votebanks. The Muslim pandering charges have been around for a while. The famous stipends for imams and muezzins that was ruled illegal by the courts were the Trinamool government's idea.

Pacific Press via Getty Images
Hindu devotees rallied with saffron flags and shouted slogan during the rally.

The BJP has no interest in toppling Mamata right now. It knows it cannot. But it wants to be the main opposition party in Bengal and that intimidating display of swords and men with saffron bandanas on roaring motorbikes was part of that project.

Mamata can dismiss this as sound and fury signifying little electorally but she should worry because as P Chidambaram has noted the BJP's ground game and its grassroots organization is currently unmatched nationally. Speaking in Kolkata, Chidambaram said, "Today, the one thing that is clear is that the Congress party's organisational structure is no match for that of the BJP and RSS. It's not just about the rallies, it's the door-to-doors in the months leading up to the elections and ensuring that voters come out and vote on polling day." But in Bengal, he said, the BJP could not match the Trinamool's organizational structure. That also means the BJP is uniquely positioned to take on Trinamool as well in the future. Mamata can dismiss the BJP for bragging about a handful of seats in Bengal but she should worry because the BJP has a lot of room to grow in the state and the RSS/BJP organization is a natural base to build upon.

What's most fascinating about the BJP's latest push into Bengal is that the BJP is unabashedly flexing its muscles here rather than crooning Rabindrasangeet.

The Kanthi (South) by-election this week was just one by-election but it is being seen as a harbinger of things to come. Chandrima Bhattacharya of Trinamool won the seat handily but the BJP took the second spot much to its delight. Scroll reports that the BJP has even been wooing over CPM workers with inducements. Some on the Left hate Mamata more than they hate the BJP and are happier when her national ambitions are stunted. Others see their own party as mired in ego clashes and the BJP as an alternative. But more than anything else the BJP has the patina of a winner and that's attractive. Once upon a time the CPM had scoffed at the BJP's ambitions in West Bengal saying one needed a telescope to see the BJP. Now that joke is turning around and biting the CPM in the rear end.

When Narendra Modi addressed his first big rally in Bengal in 2014 he tried to woo Bengalis in ways they were familiar with. He talked about rosogolla, Swami Vivekananda and Subhas-babu and cooed "aami tomay bhalobashi." That was the soft touch. What's most fascinating about the BJP's latest push into Bengal is that the BJP is unabashedly flexing its muscles here rather than crooning Rabindrasangeet. It's marking its ground with Ram Navami and Hanuman Jayanti, festivals that were uncommon in Bengal and would have once marked the BJP as a north Indian party not understanding Bengali culture. It's risky for a party always regarded as an outsider in Bengal to flaunt Ram Navami and Hanuman Jayanti and with such aggressive fervour. That the BJP feels cocky enough to do this here shows that it is tapping into a discontent that Mamata Banerjee should be worried about.

This Bengali New Year the BJP has gifted Didi with a new headache.

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