On Tuesday, Amit Shah went on house visits in Naxalbari in West Bengal, the seat of a radical Left-wing uprising in the 60s, and had lunch at the hut of a daily labourer who paints houses for a living. Pictures of him sitting on the floor, eating out of a banana leaf plate, a common custom is Bengal, were splashed across the pages of local papers.
According to a report in the Bengali daily Pratidin, he later held a meeting in Siliguri's Indoor Stadium, where expectedly he criticised Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee for doing no developmental work and promoting religious divisiveness. The sitting MP of the constituency Naxalbari falls under, is BJP leader SS Ahluwalia. The MLA of the area belongs to the Congress.
Shah's visit to West Bengal follows two developments that had caused a lot of furore in the state. One was a Ram Navami march-cum-show of strength, where the party paraded children clad in saffron and brandishing swords, knives and other real weapons in Kharagpur. The act of having children carry arms was criticised across the state as the pictures went viral on social media. A couple of days later, locals filed an FIR against BJP Bengal chief Dilip Ghosh for leading such a rally.
"Taking out a procession with deadly weapons is illegal. We are taking appropriate legal action on police complaints filed over the issue. Law will take its own course. We are keeping a close watch on the situation," ADG (law and order) Anuj Sharma was quoted in a report on The Indian Express.
Ghosh, however, was defiant. He told The Indian Express, "The state can file as many cases as it wants to. I have no regrets. What were the police and administration doing when arms were openly brandished during Muharram processions? At that time they didn't bother to lodge any case as it might disturb the vote bank of TMC." Ironically, Shah later slammed Banerjee's government for promoting communal conflict during a speech in the state.
A few weeks prior to that, residents of Kolkata, and people with acquaintances in the city, allegedly received WhatsApp forwards demonising the two things Bengalis consider the cornerstone of their liberal narrative — fish and Rabindranath Tagore.
Actually, fish is the unifying factor in Bengal — considered above petty politics and individual differences. One of the forwards on WhatsApp claimed that fish was an avatar of a Hindu god and Hindus must unite to form a 'fish protection committee'. They urged fellow Hindus to beat up others who are seen selling and buying fish, black and blue.
One other scurrilous message on the same platform claimed that Tagore was a bootlicker of the British which earned him his Literature Nobel prize, whereas a 'nationalistic' Bankim Chandra Bandyopadhyay was not awarded one. Another forward also ridiculed poet Michael Madhusudan Datta saying that he converted to Christianity in order to marry a British woman.
While the sudden Hindutva push in a state in which the political right wing never had much of a foothold, may now seem a veritable threat to Banerjee's control over things ahead of the 2019 general elections, this strategy is not new. In fact, what we are seeing in Bengal is just a repeat of the political strategies employed in Uttar Pradesh.
Could the BJP be considering a change in the strategy they had embraced with an eye on the Bengal Assembly polls? Remember how Amit Shah, during a rally in Bengal, had stopped his speech during the azaan and said they must not give Banerjee an excuse to blast them. That strategy, clearly wasn't the best, as the BJP didn't perform spectacularly in the 2016 state polls in Bengal.
In 2016, months before Uttar Pradesh went into polls, it was widely reported that Amit Shah was having lunch with Dalits in the house of BJP leader Kaushal Kishore. Later, between two rallies, he even had lunch with a Dalit family in the state.
And similar to the WhatsApp campaign that seems to have surfaced in Bengal a couple of weeks back, the party waged what was called a 'WhatsApp battle' in Uttar Pradesh. In a telling piece, Newslaundry reported how through relentless WhatsApp messages, the party stoked the 'minority complex' among the Hindu majority.
"Humari rajniti thi ki chunav ke pehle voter ke dimag ko capture kar lo. Subeh-shaam message bhejo. Jab dekhe, humara chehra dekhe, humari baat sune (Our aim was to capture the mind of the voter. To message them night and day. Whenever they look, they should see us, hear our message)," JPS Rathore, who heads UP's BJP IT cell told Newslaundry.