The seat of imperial power during British rule was Calcutta until it was shifted to Delhi in 1931. History is resonant with reverse parallels: BJP, India’s ruling power, is sure that the road to Raisina Hill starts this time from Kolkata nee Calcutta. The party’s loquacious luminaries, like Prime Minister Narendra Modi, organization chief Amit Shah and over half a dozen mantris have laid siege to the citadel of Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and her Trinamool Congress. Their objective is to win 22 out of the 42 Lok Sabha seats in West Bengal as against just two at the moment. The BJP’s trademark strategy of Polarize and Pulverize is being unleashed on Mamataland to force voters to choose between minority-positive TMC and pro-Hindutva BJP. Bengal is perhaps the only state where the fight is not primarily party versus party but between the two political leviathans, Modi and Mamata. By concentrating its firepower there, the BJP has sensed a fecund ground for sowing saffron seeds.
Concerned over the possible loss of seats in the west and the north, it had foraged for a fertile electoral environment in Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Odisha and Kerala. Extensive research indicated they were not ripe for the plucking. But it did find a granary of promise in West Bengal. With Muslims at 30 per cent of the population, the BJP estimated the state as an ideal receptacle for the divide and rule philosophy: a matrix perfected over a century ago in Calcutta. This binary belief is charging the party’s batteries as it tries to stop Didi from influencing the formation of the next Central government and kill her prime ministerial ambitions. Currently, with 32 MPs, she leads the third-largest party in the Lok Sabha.
The battle lines are well-defined. Didi is determined to prevent saffron satraps such as Amit Shah and Central ministers from paradropping on Bengal and addressing election rallies at a time and venue of their choosing, suspicious of their strategy to focus on communally sensitive areas to split the electorate. The BJP has drafted prominent figures of hardcore Hindutva in its Bengal campaign. With a combat team led by Modi-Shah comprising Rajnath Singh, Smriti Irani, Shivraj Chouhan, Biplab Deb and Yogi Adityanath, it is attempting a third partition of Bengal—this time on religious lines. Supported by a resurgent RSS cadre and workers from across India, it has planned over 100 rallies in Bengal.
For the past six months, not a day has gone by without a senior mantri or party leader being spotted in some corner or the other of West Bengal attacking the TMC government. Saffron has missed few opportunities to paint Didi black, alleging corruption and minority mollification. Late last year, the BJP decided to take out a 40-day-long Rath Yatra covering 10,000 kilometres through Bengal. Three air-conditioned raths had been ordered to carry Amit Shah and other netas to various Lok Sabha constituencies. Didi promptly imposed a blanket ban on their tour de force.
The party scuttlebutt is that the BJP has identified seats where it expects over 50 per cent chances of victory—it is no coincidence, perhaps, that they are located in communally sensitive areas such as parts of north and south Bengal and tribal-dominated Jungle Mahal, Purulia, Murshidabad, Malda, Cooch Behar and West Midnapore districts. With few minority leaders under its banner, it is betting on middle-class professionals and the trading community to deliver a grand slam in West Bengal. It has no local leaders with statewide mojo either; hence it is hoping for mass defections from TMC. It seeks to dictate the election narrative by putting the TMC on the defensive over corruption and communal distress. The inescapable irony is the BJP’s reliance on the personal image and oratory of outside leaders. It scored well in 2014, polling 16 per cent of the Bengal vote in the wake of the Modi tsunami.
With the CPM and Congress gasping for breath in an ultra-polarized election environment, the BJP is expecting to grab the space likely to be vacated by the Congress. Its lead campaigners have been briefed to target the migrant population from Bihar and other states. Therein lies the significance of Irani and Yogi. Irani has an added advantage over Yogi since she is not only a well-known face but also speaks fluent Bangla, Hindi and English. She has already made half a dozen visits to the state and addressed as many election meetings. When Shah fell ill and had to fly back to Delhi, she was the stand-in at his rallies. Expectedly, she launched a vitriolic attack on Didi, accusing her of histrionics. Mamata, the stormy petrel of secularism, refused Yogi permission to land his helicopter, as she had done previously with Shah. The maverick monk was forced to land in Jharkhand and drive down to Purulia for his public meeting. The mascot of his rhetoric of the day was Vivekananda, the sacred son of Bengal.
“Vivekananda had said, Garv se kaho hum Hindu hain. Mamata allows Muharram processions but not Durga Puja. This government creates obstacles for Saraswati Puja and Janmashthami, too,” he told a cheering crowd. Muslim mollycoddling is not the BJP’s only cause célèbre against Didi. Amit Shah is disparaging of her opposition to the Citizenship Bill. “The TMC government has done nothing for the refugees. But we will give citizenship to all Bengali Hindu refugees,” announced Shah.
Despite such provocations, Didi has so far refrained from playing the communal card. She has converted the fight into an issue of protecting federalism and democracy from a communally belligerent BJP. With her agitational tactics, she has proved to be more than a match for the BJP. She has set an example for other beleaguered non-BJP chief ministers to adopt while dealing with a bellicose Centre. Minimum Mamata equals Maximum Modi defines the BJP’s law of political physics. The magic of history has a dark side, too. Over three centuries ago, British soldiers were imprisoned in the Black Hole of Calcutta that eventually led to war, causing the fall of Bengal’s ruler. However, the BJP’s eastern strategy shows it is a captive of its own ideology. The political minimization of Mamata is essential for it to liberate Bengal from her iron grip and achieve the maximization of the prime minister’s political stature.
Follow him on Twitter @PrabhuChawla