In 1927, Kolkata (then Calcutta) witnessed a resurgence of nationalist politics. To protest the appointment by the erstwhile British government of the all-white Simon Commission, which was mandated to study constitutional reforms and the political situation in India, thousands of Kolkata students took to the streets, like those in Mumbai (then Bombay), protesting and waving ‘Go back Simon’ placards.
“This anti-Simon agitation marked the formal entry of Calcutta students to mainstream nationalism,” Suranjan Das, wrote in Calcutta: The Living City (Vol II, edited by Sukanta Chaudhuri).
Though contextually different, student life of Kolkata entered the vortex of mainstream Indian politics when on May 14 this year some students of Calcutta University noisily protested the visit and roadshow of Amit Shah and waved ‘Go back’ placards at the president of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
It was a provocative and ironical situation for a party that sought votes on the nationalist plank and banked heavily on winning a majority of Bengal’s 42 parliamentary seats. Clashes ensued between BJP cadres, students and the police, culminating in unidentified hoodlums ransacking the nearby Vidyasagar College and destroying the bust of 19th century Bengali educationist and social reformer, Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar. A revered figure in Bengali homes, in the see-saw battle of public perception about who was responsible for the desecration, BJP workers were seen and felt to be culpable. The bust was destroyed while Bengali pride lay badly injured.
This turned out to be a pivotal incident in the opposition’s pushback to the BJP in Bengal. While the BJP won 18 of the state’s 42 Lok Sabha seats, all the nine constituencies, including in Kolkata and surrounding areas, which went for polling in the last phase on May 19 after the Vidyasagar College incident, were won by the rival, Trinamool Congress (TMC).
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Of the 33 seats that went for polling till the sixth phase, the scorecard read: BJP: 18, TMC: 13. With all the nine seats from Kolkata and surrounding constituencies like Dum Dum, Barasat, Basirhat and Diamond Harbour going to the latter party, the scorecard eventually read: BJP: 18; TMC: 22 .
With two seats going to the Congress in earlier phases, it’s the late resistance shown by voters of Kolkata and its peri-urban areas that could well have pushed the BJP to the second spot in the Bengal Lok Sabha ranking. Largely perceived as a party coming from the Hindi heartland, there is near unanimity that a Bengali ethnic polarization stopped BJP from bagging a majority of the West Bengal seats.
“There was narrative building up and that reached a crescendo after the destruction of the Vidyasagar bust. For Bengalis, it was seen as a direct attack on the sanctum sanctorum,” says Garga Chatterjee, founder of Bengali rights group, Bangla Pokkho, and one who identifies himself as a Trinamool Congress supporter during debates on national television.
As part of the narrative buildup, Chatterjee cites the examples of demographic changes happening in the city with greater number of non-Bengali speakers settling down; imposition of Ram Navami celebrations with swords and weapons being brandished which is seen as “alien” to Bengali culture; and the recent flouting of environmental norms during Chhath Puja, observed mostly by the Bihari community.
“Political change has always happened in Bengal when the opposition took over this Kolkata zone and the Gangetic south Bengal, which is seen as the nub of Bangaliana (Bengaliness). It was true for both the Left and the Trinamool,” says Chatterjee. “Strangely, when the BJP rose, it is this part that held out. Unlike the Left or the TMC, which first got consent from Bengal’s core, Kolkata, in this case, the core is being surrounded and has the wisp of an invasion.”
The crude anti-Bengali sentiment that runs in the BJP can only be countered by Bangaliana
That the state’s ruling Mamata Banerjee-led TMC party—battered by allegations of corruption; nepotism; highhandedness; arrogance; violent intimidation of opponents; and flouting of democratic rights of rural citizens during the panchayat polls in 2018—latched on to the Vidyasagar College controversy and the perceived insult to Bengali pride was quickly apparent.
A day after the Vidyasagar College incident, in an interview given to Rajdeep Sardesai on India Today channel, TMC spokesperson Derek O’Brien described opponents BJP as an “anti-Bengali Hindu party”. “Ask the BJP to find one leader, not even two, who can come and give a 10-minute speech in Bengali at any rally,” O’Brien rubbed it in before handing out a warning to Amit Shah, delivered in Bengali on the English news channel.
Senior BJP leader and the party’s losing candidate from the Dum Dum constituency, Samik Bhattacharya, hints at this cultural chasm when I ask him over the phone about the acceptance and resonance of the BJP’s popular and controversial ‘Jai Shri Ram’ slogan in Bengal, where both the language, Hindi, and the god in question, Ram, are not hinged to the state.
“People who utter the slogan and those who oppose it both misunderstand the slogan in Bengal. For the former group, they shout the slogan without realizing its meaning, while the other group sees it as an expression of communal aggression and turn their heads in disgust. Unlike in north India, where it is a greeting, for Bengalis, it’s a little difficult to understand the Jai Shri Ram slogan,” says Bhattacharya.
He blamed Trinamool’s “proxy voting” and his own party’s lack of organizational strength in Kolkata and surrounding areas as the primary reason for the BJP’s 9-0 debacle in the last phase. “Of course, we took a hit after the Vidyasagar statue was destroyed, but we reversed the perception immediately through our party’s Whatsapp and social media networks. It became an issue but not big enough to dictate results.”
“The Vidyasagar College incident became an incident big enough to inflate the leads of TMC candidates but not big enough to assure victor
“The Vidyasagar College incident became an incident big enough to inflate the leads of TMC candidates but not big enough to assure victory,” reasons TMC leader and minister of Science & Technology in the West Bengal government, Bratya Basu. He candidly admits that the huge loses faced by the TMC in other parts of Bengal as a vote against local level leadership and fallout of the panchayat elections fiasco, when a lot of rural voters weren’t allowed to vote and over 30 percent of the seats were won by the TMC unopposed.
“This election wasn’t about a pro-BJP surge. People were aggrieved at us for not allowing them to vote during the panchayat elections. Then there are issues of failure of our local leadership, arrogance and getting involved in local level corruption,” says Basu.
In his Dum Dum assembly constituency, Basu says he had campaigned championing Bangaliana (Bengaliness). “The crude anti-Bengali sentiment that runs in the BJP can only be countered by Bangaliana. Along with development and secularism, Bangaliana is a factor and has to be balanced. I can’t say if this will be official Trinamool policy in the coming days.”
Veteran CPI(M) leader, Rabin Deb, narrates an anecdote that is indicative of the vast changes in Bengal and Kolkata politics over the last 15 years.
Having contested against Mamata Banerjee from the Kolkata South Lok Sabha seat in 2004, just months after Banerjee had rejoined the BJP-helmed and Atal Behari Vajpayee-led NDA government at the Centre, one day the communist leader found some people indirectly associated with the rightwing Hindu organization, RSS, at his door.
“Mamata had earlier quit the NDA government over the Tehelka magazine expose and the RSS people were angry at her and assured me of the votes of Hindi-speakers in the Kolkata South constituency,” says Deb. “But she convinced Vajpayee to campaign for her at a meeting at Deshapriya Park on May 5, 2004. After the meeting, both the RSS and the Hindi-speaking community were placated and I lost the election.”
Banerjee was the lone winner from her Trinamool Congress party during the 2004 Lok Sabha elections from the Kolkata South constituency. Known as a die-hard survivor in politics, today, again, it is the same Kolkata and its surrounding constituencies that have kept her in the game.