In April 2017, residents of Kolkata woke up to an unfamiliar sight that many of them described as ‘disturbing’ and ‘shocking’ on social media. It was an elaborate Ram Navami procession — which was not a familiar phenomenon in the city until then— and it included children brandishing weapons as participants. The incident managed to do the unthinkable — bring the Left and the ruling Trinamool Congress together in condemnation — and was perhaps the first major spotlight on the right wing’s activities in West Bengal, where communal politics had operated on the sidelines until then.
As the photos of children wielding swords, tridents, bows and arrows started doing the rounds of social media, one name drew particular attention even amid the din of politicians hurling accusations at each other. It was that of Dilip Ghosh, the BJP’s state president, who was himself photographed in Kharagpur, his constituency in West Bengal, brandishing a sword. Though Ghosh defended both his right to do so and the decision to have children march with weapons, an FIR was lodged against him, marking the official beginning of BJP’s Hindutva push in Bengal.
Two years since then, the BJP is contesting all 42 Lok Sabha seats in the state for the first time. While its win tally so far has been in the lower single digits, this time, the party has been aggressively pushing its brand of politics and has managed to polarise some sections of the electorate in the state currently dominated by Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress.
In an interview with HuffPost India, Ghosh spoke about why the BJP was banking on ‘Jai Shri Ram’ in a state where the worship of Ram isn’t common, and why PM Narendra Modi and BJP President Amit Shah have been campaigning vigorously in the state.
Realistically, how many seats do you hope to win in West Bengal?
We have a target of minimum 23 (of 42). That target will be fulfilled.
What have you based this number on and which are the constituencies where you hope to do particularly well?
We had initially targeted 20. But in the past 6 months, things have changed a lot and we got support from the Prime Minister. Also, the things that BJP has done in the past six months, added to the results of the panchayat polls, we think Bengal wants us.
Which will be the biggest upsets?
The whole of North Bengal and Junglemahal. Nadia and Kolkata also there is a fair chance. In Kolkata, we were in the second position in the last election. We had no organisation back then.
North Bengal has 8 seats and we are expecting a positive outcome from all these seats. Alipurduar, Jalpaiguri, Coochbehar, Malda, Balurghat, Darjeeling, Raigunj.
Many of the constituencies you have just mentioned have a sizeable Muslim population. Why do you hope to do well there? In fact, in some constituencies such as Malda North and South, Muslims may be in the majority.
Initially, Congress used to get the Muslim votes in these areas. But now it will get divided between Trinamool and Congress. On the other hand, Hindu votes have consolidated. The Hindu votes have become completely polarised towards us.
Is this why you went all in with the Hindutva strategy, going all gung ho with ‘Jai Shri Ram’ in Bengal? BJP leaders haven’t been heard saying that a lot in other states.
People have embraced Jai Shri Ram. We started celebrating Ram Navami. The more other parties opposed Ram Navami, the more people were pushed towards it. Now in villages and small towns, people celebrate Ram Navami.
Bengal has what we call ‘baaro mashe tero parbon’ (13 festivals in 12 months) but the worship of Ram is not common or popular. It’s mostly a north Indian trend and popular in some other states of India. Why did you push ‘Jai Shri Ram’ in Bengal then?
Ram has now become a symbol of Hindutva, at least in Bengal. People in Bengal are now scared that our state will become Bangladesh. You know, there have been incidents (riots) in Kaliachowk, Basirhat, Asansol. So Hindus in West Bengal are going through a crisis of existence. They are scared that they will become refugees again. So they are looking for a Hindutva-based society where Hindus will be safe. This is why the Ram Navami processions became so popular. Now the Trinamool Congress has seen that and are trying to do the same thing, and now they are also doing Ram Navami celebrations. It is a moral victory for us.
Initially BJP was bringing up issues of corruption in the TMC, but during the campaign, BJP leaders including Modi and Shah did not mention it the way they spoke about Hindutva. Why is that?
Corruption is an issue. But during the last elections (assembly polls in 2016), people voted for TMC despite mentioning corruption. I think that was because we did not have proper organisation then and people did not have an option. Now we have organisation and people have option.
Why are you bringing Amit Shah and Narendra Modi to campaign so many times in Bengal? Is there a crisis in local leadership in Bengal?
This is true. We have never been in power so people don’t know our faces. Also, recognition comes after much fighting. Now people know some of the district presidents. Now there are chances of us winning, so central leaders are also giving us time.
In this election, what is it that BJP has that Trinamool can’t compete with?
I think our organisational set up, down to the booths. TMC never had this, no organisation. They don’t have it now. They are making police do their work.
What does TMC have that you don’t?
We have very less experience compared to them. We have never won an election. So people like Mukul Roy (former TMC leader who’s now with the BJP) are helping. Central leadership is also helping.
Did you not try to get Muslim votes at all? Do you not want the Muslim votes in Bengal?
See, in the past, Muslims never showed interest in BJP. But this time, we have seen Muslims come to wave at our leaders in rallies. This has happened the first time here.
But if you lead with ‘Jai Shri Ram’ and Hindutva, how do you expect to get them on your side?
‘Jai Shri Ram’ isn’t a BJP slogan, it’s a slogan for Ram Mandir. We have accepted the slogan here. But we have other slogans like ‘sabka saath, sabka vikas’ as well. Muslims could understand that.