DAILY-WAGE LABOURER Kinker Chandra Das from Kaikala village of Hooghly district in West Bengal is tight-lipped about his political affinities. The middle-aged man treats the question of whom he would vote for in the 2019 election as though it is a brutal assault on his privacy. He raises his eyebrows in disbelief. He isn’t ready to disclose whom he had voted for in the last General Election of 2014 or the Assembly polls of 2016 either. “These are my personal choices. How can someone ask about what I do or did in the polling booth?” he asks, sounding outraged.
He swiftly walks away to lift a sack of potatoes onto a utility vehicle. His fellow villager who had listened to the chat darts away too, saying, “Everyone here is afraid of talking politics.” Kaikala, like many parts of West Bengal, is filled with green paddy fields where farmers also carry out seasonal cultivation of potatoes and onions.
Interestingly, this place was home to writer Chandranath Basu (1844-1910), the man who made the word ‘Hindutva’ famous long before VD Savarkar did. In his work titled Hindutva, Basu had repeatedly used the expression as early as 1892. Savarkar is widely— but wrongly—credited with coining ‘Hindutva’ though he wrote the pamphlet Essentials Of Hindutva only as late as 1923 and it was retitled as Hindutva: Who Is a Hindu? five years later. “I am not certain that [Basu] coined the term but he certainly used it before Savarkar,” Professor Amiya Sen, who has studied Hindu revivalism of the late 19th and early 20th centuries in Bengal, tells me.
Ishan Mukherjee, assistant professor, OP Jindal Global University, wants scholars to interrogate the politics behind this attempted rediscovery of “the obscure 19th century Bengali figure”, Chandranath Basu, accompanied by a move to place him in the pantheon of Bengal’s renaissance figures, as has been attempted recently by Professor Makarand Paranjape. “First, it is quite absurd to place Basu at the same level of importance as Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay. Yes, Basu seems to be a prolific writer and his career trajectory resembles that of Bankim. But they simply do not compare in terms of either influence or literary quality. Second, it is important to ask what motivates this attempt to push back the origins of Hindutva to 19th-century Bengal. Do the right- wing propagandists think that this will increase the prestige of Hindutva as an ideology? Will greater antiquity, in their imagination, make it more venerable, especially if it can be demonstrated that it is an integral part of an authentic ‘renaissance’ tradition, that it predates [or, at least, emerges simultaneously with] secular nationalism?”
Several others I meet on my way to Singur, which falls in the same district, are ready to speak on condition of anonymity, some of them suggesting that they will re-elect Trinamool Congress (TMC) led by Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and others hinting that they prefer a party that “favours Hindus”.
With the BJP playing the Hindu victimhood card—arguing that no state government since freedom has done anything to ensure the welfare of Hindus while they were busy ‘appeasing’ Muslims—a section of voters from several parts of the state consider their Hindu religious identity a decisive ‘variable’ in the Lok Sabha polls to be held in the state starting April 11th. Historically, Bengal is one region in India where the roots of Hindutva politics run deep thanks to a raft of reasons. The state is home to various revivalist movements that overlapped with reformist ones more than a century ago.
The long-term influences of the 1905 partition of the province largely along communal lines cannot be ruled out. Add to that hostilities triggered by bloody communal riots that crippled Bengal in the run-up to the second partition of the province when the country became independent in 1947 and east Bengal became part of Pakistan. Wounds tend to fester through word of mouth and propaganda.
I meet Harvard Professor Sugata Bose at Netaji Bhavan on Kolkata’s Elgin Road in a room right outside of which lies the restored Auto Union (now Audi) car, a Wanderer. The car was used on the morning of January 16th, 1941, by his father Sisir Kumar Bose to drive Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose (Sisir’s uncle), who was then home-interned by the British, to Gomoh station in Bihar from where Netaji boarded Kalka Mail on his ‘great escape’. Politically, Bose had opposed tooth and nail both the Hindu Mahasabha and the Muslim League describing them as communal outfits and had worked towards stalling their growth. “I am extremely worried that religious divide in Bengal has accelerated [thanks to the activities of the RSS and BJP] to the way it existed around the time of India’s Partition,” says Sugata Bose, historian and Trinamool Congress MP who represents the Jadavpur Lok Sabha seat.
He can’t contest polls this time thanks to new university guidelines that disallow leave of absence for public service and, ironically, encourage academics to take up plum posts in the private sector. “I intend to remain actively engaged in public life in India,” he notes regardless. “I worry about the [state’s] social fabric,” he rues, emphasising that the politics of the state is now marked by a strong anti-minority prejudice. He is shortly joined by his mother Krishna Bose, a veteran TMC parliamentarian, and brother and London School of Economics Professor Sumantra Bose. While the mother talks about how she didn’t know about being tailed by free India’s intelligence agencies for decades after Netaji’s disappearance, Sumantra shifts his focus to Lok Sabha seats where he thinks the BJP may stand to gain thanks to their no-holds-barred campaign to pull in votes by drumming up Hindu nationalist sentiments and taking advantage of West Bengal’s religious fissures.
ACCORDING TO OFFICIAL numbers from the 2011 Census of India, the state is home to close to 25 million Muslims who account for 28 per cent of the total population. Close to 70 per cent are Hindus and the rest, ‘Others’. Over the one decade before the Census was carried out, there was a 14 per cent growth in the state’s population compared with 18 per cent a decade earlier. Some politicians have selectively used these numbers to argue that migration from across the border from Bangladesh, through porous borders, and a rapid rise in Muslim population had contributed to this growth. Others argue that the Muslim population in the state is much more than the official figure.
On his LinkedIn profile, Jisnu Basu is an ‘Engineer at Saha Institute of Nuclear Physics’. A PhD in production engineering from Jadavpur University, Basu, who is from a CPM family, is now the general secretary in charge of south Bengal for Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the mother of all Hindutva organisations, set up in 1925. His assertions, you would soon realise, find an instant echo among many voters in various parts of the state, especially in the tribal belt of the south-west and in urban centres, not to mention large swathes of north Bengal. Many of these seats were once CPM bastions.
Unassuming, yet puritanical, Basu says he became attracted to Hindutva after he began to think deeply about why communist movements across the world had begun to falter in the 1990s. What followed the introspection was a “revelation” that communism lent itself to totalitarian regimes, he insists. In Bengal, he argues, the rights of Hindus were/are being trampled upon by governments. “The RSS is interested only in safeguarding the interests of Hindus of Bengal who have faced numerous difficulties and discrimination at the hands of the state’s rulers who have often favoured others for political gains,” he says. These Hindus include those considered lowly in the caste hierarchy and had thus been used as mere vote banks by some political parties, he points out. Matuas are one such group. A Scheduled Caste, they trace their ancestry to east Bengal (now Bangladesh) and their numbers range from 17 million to 30 million, according to estimates. They are considered to be crucial swing voters in several seats. This explains why Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched his Lok Sabha campaign from the border constituency of Bangaon and met ‘Boro Ma’, the matriarch of Matuas, who are traditional TMC voters. Similar efforts are on to woo Rajbongshis, a Tribe which resides in areas that fall under the Jalpaiguri, Cooch Behar, Darjeeling, Malda and Murshidabad Lok Sabha seats.
Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee had earlier come under attack for warming up to castes in a state where the CPM had insisted that there were only two castes in the state: rich and poor. The late CPM Chief Minister Jyoti Basu had made this the ‘party line’ famous at the height of the debate on the implementation of the Mandal Commission Report in the early 1990s. Ishan Mukherjee says he finds the current trend worrying, though certainly not unexpected. He offers, “The Left Front government was successful, for a period of time, in brushing the question of religious minority rights under the carpet. Mamata Banerjee has opened the Pandora’s box by bringing back religious symbolisms into Bengal politics. The genie seems to be out of the bottle once again.”
Jisnu Basu, whom many BJP leaders in the state look up to for his organisational and mobilising skills that are expected to benefit them, however, says that he doesn’t care about the outcome of the upcoming Lok Sabha elections. “We don’t care. We work for Hindus and the most deprived ones among them, and that is it. We are not concerned with who wins and who loses,” he says, insisting that he gets calls for help from politicians to ensure that the elections are held smoothly and to ward off hooligans who are out to disrupt the process.
“That is why such people come to seek help,” Basu says while nibbling on his dinner of rice and half-fried potatoes that his mother-in-law has served him. He is referring to BJP leader Mukul Roy, considered a hands-on, clever leader who was earlier with the Trinamool Congress. Roy had come visiting Basu that evening to his home in a gated community in Kolkata’s Salt Lake with commandos in tow, who talked in hushed tones outside the apartment as Basu’s enthusiastic wife served black tea and sweets to the hangers-on.
After Roy is gone, Basu tells me about the work that the RSS has been doing silently among Hindus, especially migrants from Bangladesh who are dirt poor because of a “consistent” neglect of their woes by successive governments. “We have nothing against ordinary Muslims, especially those poor people who migrate to our country. We are only against those who are fundamentalists,” he clarifies. He says that the current dispensation is busy pampering Islamic fundamentalists from Bangladesh who have made good their escape from that country where its Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has banned their activities.
More than four years ago when I visited Simulia in Bardhaman district where some 30-40 people used a madrassa for four years to offer young women—who made up most of its students—arms training. They disappeared within hours of blasts tearing through a two-storey building 40 km away, in the Khagragarh locality of Burdwan town, and the ruling TMC had come under sharp attack for not doing enough to stop Islamists who had taken shelter in the state. Chief Minister Banerjee, for her part, hit back at the Centre for failing to curb infiltration from Bangladesh. Much to Banerjee’s embarrassment, the building used by terror suspects in Khagragarh was owned by a TMC leader, Nurul Hasan Chowdhury, who lived in the building facing that of his tenants. Banerjee, however, appealed to her party leaders to launch a counter-offensive against what she called “malicious rumours” suggesting that her party knew all along what was going on but looked the other way. “A campaign of canards and misinformation is being carried out against us in a planned way,” she had said suggesting foul play by intel agencies favouring the Centre that wanted to secure political gains in the state (‘The Terror Fields of Bengal’, November 17th, 2014).
True, the BJP has been trying to fill in the vacuum created by the near collapse of the CPM that started in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections and apparently concluded with the rout in the 2011 state polls that terminated the Left Front’s 34-year-long uninterrupted rule. In 2014, the CPM, which once presided over the destiny of the people of the state, won only as many Lok Sabha seats as the BJP: two. In the 2016 Assembly election, the CPM won 18 seats less than its ally, the Congress, which won 44. The BJP and its ally Gorkha Janmukti Morcha secured three seats each. But the BJP leadership stepped up its efforts further over the next few years, especially after it unseated the Left government of Tripura last year.
In Kerala, too, the only state where a Left government is in power, the BJP has been making all-out efforts to eat into the Hindu vote base of the Marxists and to batter them electorally. While the BJP tagged the Marxist government in Kerala as a “group of atheists” trying to appropriate temples, in West Bengal Banerjee has been described repeatedly as an “appeaser” of Muslims.
Elaborates Professor Sumantra Bose: “In the era of Trinamool hegemony that has unfolded since 2011, a massive void has opened up in the state’s opposition space. Politics in a competitive democracy abhors a vacuum. With the Congress nearly extinct and the CPM comatose, the BJP is seizing the golden opportunity. In the 2014 Lok Sabha election, Trinamool won 34 of the state’s 42 seats (81 per cent), but its vote share was only 39 per cent. In other words, 61 per cent of those who voted in 2014 did so for opposition parties, principally the Left Front (30 per cent) and BJP (17 per cent). Now, with the further drastic decline of the CPM and the irrelevance of the Congress outside a few enclaves, the field is open for the BJP to fill the vacuum.”
That West Bengal was on top of the BJP’s priorities was clear when rumours began to float of BJP President Amit Shah learning Bengali a few years ago. And it is to accomplish that mammoth mission that Shah dispatched earlier this year Arvind Menon, a former organisational secretary of the party who is considered a ‘sharp and ruthless go-getter’, to the eastern state. Menon, who has been in Delhi for some years now, tells Open that “this is the best time for the BJP in Bengal”.
Claiming that a Modi wave akin to the one that swept across India in 2014 is now buffeting West Bengal, he says, “We are not astrologers to predict the number of seats, but I can safely tell you that we will surely retain our two seats and add more [to the kitty]. And that includes [Bardhaman-Durgapur]. Purulia is also a very interesting contest. The police here are working like a B-team of the ruling party in the state, because the ruling party is scared. But we are not worried. We will do extremely well.”
He adds, “We find that young people of the state are very excited about Modi whom they see as a major hope for the future of this country.” Menon, who has been camping in the state for many months, was named co-incharge of the state by Shah in January this year.
In fact, Bengal has a long history of communal clashes and Hindu revivalism that the BJP hopes to tap in the absence of a cohesive opposition to take on the might of the TMC.
In the interim after Ram Mohan Roy and others led social reforms in Bengal in the 18th and 19th centuries and before Subhash Chandra Bose and others tried hard to neutralise radicalised elements on both sides of the Hindu-Muslim divide in the first part of the 20th century, the anti-colonial struggle in the province, as pointed out by many scholars, had a strong religious identity to it, whose efforts coincided with those of reformist forces. Foremost among those who championed the radical religious cause was Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, the author of Anandamath, who encouraged many other writers of fiction to celebrate the Hindu glory of the past.
Scholar Leonard A Gordon captures the politico-religious trends among both radical Hindus and Muslims of the time. He talks of its identity-obsessed politics through two case studies of a privileged Hindu and a Muslim, both of whom received Western education and were considered successful Indians in British India— but they both finally pursued, according to Gordon, a study into the pasts of their people. Both Romesh Chunder Dutt, ICS, and Ameer Ali, barrister, ‘wrote works of history and studied the cultural traditions of people with whom he identified’, writes Gordon in his stellar work, Bengal: The Nationalist Movement, 1876-1940. Dutt wrote of glorifying the Hindu past under the influence of Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, while Ali embodied a pan-Islamic trend that found great expression in the Pakistan movement. Dutt’s works also lapped up violence by Hindus, especially that of Shivaji, in his historical works. The idea of the ‘lost glory of Hindu India’ was paramount to his narrative.
It is therefore not for nothing that Banerjee, a tireless campaigner, decided to launch an intensive campaign in Bengal for the Lok Sabha polls with at least 84 rallies over a 40-day period from April 2nd, according to party leaders who expect the final tally of her rallies to cross 100 in a bold bid to take on the challenge from the aggressive BJP in several parts of the state. Both the BJP and the TMC face discontent from party workers over fielding turncoats to help them win from various seats. Both parties also maintain that winnability was their sole criteria for offering tickets to defectors from other parties in this election.
In Bardhaman-Durgapur, a former CPM citadel where BJP’s Arvind Menon hopes his party will win, grocer Niranjan Sahu and his wife Saraswati Devi from Sarbangha Colony say they have lost their faith in all politicians. First, they trusted the CPM, and then the TMC. Soon, they realised that most of the cadres and local leaders of the TMC were former CPM defectors. They don’t seem to feel that the slogan of poribartan that helped Banerjee post an emphatic win in the 2011 Assembly polls is anywhere near becoming a reality. Others who didn’t want to be named— it is far more typical for Bengali rural voters not to speak their mind compared to voters in other states—said they share the views of Sahu, but may vote for change.
One of them explains, “If partymen think there won’t be any change then they become more complacent and arrogant.” Some of them argue that they may be isolated or targeted for physical attacks if local party chiefs find out that they had voted against them. Rural violence has been a menace for decades in West Bengal, first between the CPM and the Congress and then between the TMC and the CPM. “This wild culture continues in varying degrees even now in hundreds of villages,” a police officer from Durgapur tells Open. He adds that the “Hindu victim card” seems to have clicked well in several parts of the district. In Durgapur, the BJP won only 4.41 per cent of the votes polled for the seat in 2009. In 2014, its vote share rose to 17.81 per cent though it came only third, behind the TMC and CPM. “Large-scale religious polarisation definitely means that the BJP will gain vote share this time,” a government official says.
Not all voters are tongue-tied though.
Chandana Bhakt, a homemaker from Singur which falls in the Hooghly Lok Sabha constituency, says her family, traditional TMC voters, will vote for the BJP this time around. She has a grouse: Hindus haven’t been treated well enough by successive governments. Such display of Hindu identity is not uncommon in private, but it is increasingly becoming a publicly voiced opinion in the state.
Sumantra Bose reasons why it took so long for Hindu nationalism to break through in West Bengal. “The early potential of Hindu nationalism in West Bengal was not realised because the opposition [anti-Congress] space in the state was steadily appropriated during the 1950s and 1960s by a much more dynamic political force: first the undivided Communist Party of India, and quite decisively from the late 1960s onwards by the Communist Party of India (Marxist). It was the communists who attracted idealistic students and youth, built a huge base among the refugee-origin population, and developed a large following among the middle-class bhadralok. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, thanks to organisers such as the legendary Harekrishna Konar, the CPM gained mass support among the peasantry as well. In mid-term Assembly elections in March 1971, the CPM emerged as West Bengal’s largest party both by vote share [33 per cent] and seats [114 of 280].”
After Partition, Bose adds, the state could have become a fertile ground for Hindu nationalism, as millions of refugees from East Pakistan poured into the state in waves. Avers Bose: “Syama Prasad Mookerjee, a prominent Hindu Mahasabha leader of Bengal since the late 1930s, was literally head-hunted by young, second-rung RSS activists to become the first national president of the Bharatiya Jan Sangh on its launch in autumn 1951. Mookerjee, who personified bhadralok communalism and was a staunch loyalist of the Raj, had served as Bengal’s finance minister during World War II in a British-backed coalition government with the similarly collaborationist Muslim League. In 1946-1947, he emerged as the leading Bengali advocate of the partition of Bengal and India.”
Mookerjee died in Kashmir in 1953, but other fine specimens of the upper-class bhadralokkept his mission alive, says Bose. “An outstanding orator of the first Lok Sabha (1952- 1957) was Nirmal Chandra Chatterjee—Somnath Chatterjee’s father—who was elected to the Lok Sabha as a Hindu Mahasabha candidate from the Hooghly constituency,” Bose adds. It was from West Bengal that Hindu Mahasabha had its early electoral luck, when Chatterjee won in the first General Election of 1952.
MILAN BANDHOPADHYAYA GIVES up his afternoon siesta as he steps out of a home, palatial by rural Bengal standards, to greet you. His shirts are unbuttoned, revealing a long heart bypass surgery mark. A low archway serves as the entrance to his ancestral haveli, where an old well and 10-inch-thick badly plastered walls give away its age. The family has had its good days. Bandhopadhyaya is a voter in the Bishnupur Lok Sabha reserved seat from where the incumbent TMC MP Saumitra Khan is now being fielded as the BJP’s candidate. In the 2009 polls, the CPM had won this seat by a huge margin though its vote share had fallen from five years earlier. The BJP had won only 4 per cent of the votes polled, but by 2014, its tally rose to 14.11 per cent in the election that TMC won the seat. Bandhopadhyaya feels that all parties are the same. “All are corrupt,” he says, adding that he feels that more people will vote for the TMC than the BJP. His 72-year-old mother who overhears the discussion pitches in to say that things were better when the CPM was in power; she now no longer gets her monthly ration and medical services are a distant dream. But she herself concedes that the CPM stands no chance this time. Bandhopadhyaya is upset with the Centre for demonetisation that has hurt his small-scale construction business. “Now I make do with a stationery shop. Things are neither too good nor too bad,” he says.
But others add that relatively low minority votes in the constituency make it appealing enough for the BJP to push for a triumph. The BJP had very early on targeted seats such as Jhargram, Medinipur, Bankura and Purulia for wins for the same reason. Like Khan, others who had won seats after leaving the TMC include former Bolpur lawmaker Anupam Hazra, who will now fight from the Jadavpur seat, Arjun Singh from Barrackpore and Nisith Pramanik from Cooch Behar.
Identifying constituencies where Muslims don’t account for a major chunk of voters may prove to be a shrewd game plan for the BJP, but Hasneeb Ansari from Bishpuria village in Hura Tehsil, Purulia, says there are several among his Hindu friends who do not want to invite communal clashes of the kind that happened in Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh. “Since they all travel to various parts of India as labourers, they know the outcome of emotional outbursts and mindless violence,” says Ansari seated on a bench flanked by grandchildren and close relatives. “Mamata Banerjee is the only answer. First there was the CPM, and now it is the TMC,” he states.
While such pro-TMC enthusiasm is still shared by many, Barunni from Baranti, a tribal village in Raghunathpur area of Purulia flush with sal trees, says the ‘culture’ of grassroots-level party workers has not changed over the decades. He has nothing against Didi who appears like God when tragedy strikes. A journalist friend remembers how she handled people’s anger just after the March 31st, 2016, flyover collapse in Kolkata’s Girish Park area. Banerjee arrived with food and water and without security to console people. Presently, people mellowed down and appreciated her gesture.
But Barunni says he is upset with local leaders of Banerjee’s party, who he says are “extremely arrogant”. Incidentally, Purulia is a region that has seen the RSS work with Tribals for long. Thanks apparently to the RSS’ long-term work, the BJP did surprisingly well in local elections in nearby Jhargram and Purulia, improving their vote share. The BJP got 40 per cent-plus gram panchayat seats (compared with 48 per cent for the TMC) in Jhargram and 33 per cent in Purulia (the TMC got 43 per cent of the seats). The BJP, meanwhile, also gained vote share in an Assembly by-election last year in the South 24 Parganas district. But then there are those voters who say that they are not impressed with the way things are in Bengal politics.
One of them from a dhobi yard near Purulia town says, “CPM cadres become TMC men and then BJP workers. They are all the same. They become worse sometimes. Ram goes to Lanka and becomes Ravan.” He adds that the Ujjwala scheme has not worked well because many poor users could not find money to refill their gas cylinders and therefore had to go back to using firewood for cooking. Meanwhile, Mriganka Mahato, the TMC’s candidate and incumbent MP from Purulia, tells Open that local bodies’ elections are fought on entirely different parameters compared to the Lok Sabha elections. “We have worked hard among people to understand why they voted against us in some areas in the polls for local bodies and have taken measures to address their concerns. So those problems that existed don’t exist now,” he claims.
I reach Jhalda around 6 pm; it suddenly becomes dark and we have to head back to Purulia town. Jhalda is notorious for being one of the areas where on December 17th, 1995, an Antonov An- 26 aircraft dropped large consignments of AK-47 rifles, hand grenades, rocket launchers and thousands of rounds of ammunition.
Basudev Gorai, 76, is a former CPM activist who remembers the incident vividly. He had travelled to those spots the next day though he couldn’t get anywhere close to seeing the arms which are now used by the state police. Gorai, who now runs a flour mill in the city, says he felt angry about such an international conspiracy against his party, which he believes was hatched at the behest of a cult organisation whose name he can’t immediately recall.
He is referring to Anand Margis, whose reported intent was to target Marxists in the state. Gorai later aligned with the TMC after it won in 2011 and has since been voting for them. He thinks the current MP, Mriganka Mahato of the TMC, is popular, but he may still vote for change. “Some parties collapse faster than others,” he says with a wicked smile, but confesses he is “trained” not to vote along religious lines. “I merely want a lot of change here. I want a lot of jobs for young people,” he says.
Sumantra Bose explains this kind of voter behaviour succinctly: “What is happening in West Bengal is not simply ‘Hindu consolidation’ behind a rising BJP. That is no doubt a big part of the churning. Opinion polls conducted in February 2019 projected the BJP vote share in the state at 35 per cent (only a few percentage points behind the TMC’s, and more than double the share the BJP polled in 2014). Since it can be reasonably assumed that the BJP has no support among the 28 per cent of the state’s electorate who are Muslims, that shows a significant consolidation of the 70 per cent-plus non-Muslim electorate behind the BJP.” But, he feels, it would be simplistic to attribute this meteoric growth of support for the BJP to the appeal of Hindutva ideology, or even to factors such as Modi’s charisma. “The main factor is the growing desire among much of the state’s population for a viable opposition (bikalpa ) to the Trinamool regime. The BJP, as the only party that can possibly fulfil this role, is the beneficiary,” he asserts.
Meanwhile, Ishan Mukherjee feels religious minorities in the state are far from being appeased. They are, on the other hand, economically disadvantaged. “Bengal has always been a deeply polarised society, fractured along communal lines. For a while the Left Front government was able to paper over these fractures. But these remained, as becomes evident from the Sachar Committee report. It is quite clear, now, that the rhetoric of class did not substantially improve the lives of religious minorities in the state, and most of them remained deeply economically deprived, leave alone questions of socio-cultural or political empowerment. Thus, [Hindutva] resurgence does not, in my opinion, capture the phenomenon in West Bengal effectively. Communal antagonism that has always simmered under the surface is now simply resurfacing in full public view.”
“I have no time to think,” guffaws Sreemati Dev Varma aka Moon Moon Sen, about what she thought of her shift from the Bankura seat, where she had defeated nine-time MP Basudeb Acharia in 2014 and earned the epithet ‘giant-slayer’, to Asansol, a constituency now held by the BJP’s Babul Supriyo, whom she refers to as a “sweet little boy”. Sipping tea at a restaurant not far from the garbage dumping ground of the coal city, she talks about the previous day’s road show in Asansol that included visits to three temples. She drew large crowds and had to shift from an electronic rickshaw to an open jeep to wade through those who had thronged to see her.
At 64, Sen looks elegant and buoyant and promises to take more care of the constituency if she is elected this time. She hopes to endear herself to the Hindi-speaking population of the constituency seen as swing voters. “Bankura and Asansol are two different regions. There I had to start from scratch, digging borewells, and so on. Here in Asansol, I would like to go to the coal mines and see what I can do for the welfare of the children of the miners,” she says. Forty-one per cent of the candidates the TMC has fielded are women, including actors such as Mimi Chakraborty (Jadavpur) and Nushrat Khan (Basirhat).
In Asansol, a small town with a bustling air-conditioned mall populated with the top Indian and global clothing brands and a colonial-era polo ground filled to the brim early morning with fitness enthusiasts, many people I speak to say they voted for Supriyo last time from the traditional CPM seat to voice their concerns in Parliament. While they are not impressed with the “performance” of the MP, they expect the BJP and Modi to do more for the seat in the future. Om Prakash Singh, a chemist from Asansol city, opposite the landmark LIC Building, ushers me to a corner to say that regional parties in Bengal tend to have a limited understanding about development. “That may change but things are like that as of now. Things have to change faster than ever before,” he stresses.
Many others speak off the record about the need for a quick change in the way they live and make money, while others remain silent. A few villagers say they will let family heads decide whom they should vote for—such people are everywhere in the Bengal countryside. Punnuchandra Bari and his wife, both daily- wage labourers from Indus village in Labpur Block, Birbhum, say they will let village elders decide whom to vote for.
Though the Pulwama terror attack and India’s aerial strikes on Pakistan are hardly a topic of discussion in areas outside urban centres, nationalism is still an attractive proposition for the youth. In the sleepy town of Santiniketan, where homes are not numbered and it can take hours to locate an address, Professor Madhusudan Ghosh who teaches Economics at the 97-year-old Visva-Bharati university here, appears befuddled as he tries to explain why more young men in the area appear to be drawn to the BJP. “I don’t see any reason for this,” he finally says, slowly, while acknowledging the trend does exist. A strapping, handsome young man I speak to at a tea shop—who refuses to give his name or be photographed for fear of his picture turning up on Facebook and getting him into trouble—explains his attraction to Prime Minister Modi succinctly: “Banda sahi hai (the man is good).”
MUSLIM VOTERS LIKE Mohammed Fazl Haq, a farmer from Serpur of Jangipur seat, from where former president and Congress veteran Pranab Mukherjee has won twice, say they will vote for any party that ensures the safety of Muslims, without clarifying which party that could be. Since the 2012 bypoll, Pranab’s son Abhijeet Mukherjee has won from this seat twice, thanks to the fact that the TMC did not field anyone from here. However, it has pitched Khalilur Rehman for the upcoming elections. The CPM, whose chances appear bleak elsewhere with the BJP hoping to make gains in traditional Left bastions, is counting on a multi-cornered fight in Jangipur. In 2016, the CPM and Congress, once arch rivals, came to an electoral understanding. But efforts to forge a similar alliance fell through this time around.
In this area, like elsewhere, a large number of trucks carrying building materials halt on the highway just before they reach police checkposts, waiting for policemen to go for lunch. Bengalis typically don’t skip lunch and most are fastidious about siesta—deserted villages with shuttered shops are a common sight post-lunch. Trucks, most of them overloaded, start off again only when they receive information that all is clear. Drivers are seen craning their necks and gesturing to vehicles coming from the opposite direction to quickly know if policemen are waiting somewhere stealthily to intercept them. Trucks can even wait for hours and then resume their journey around lunchtime with a quick flick of the ignition and the roaring of several engines—you would be forgiven for wondering if an army battalion was suddenly given orders to advance. If you are caught by the police, a truck driver tells me, they will find some small or big offence to charge you with—from badly damaged number plates to overloading. Those who carry perishable goods just hand over Rs 500 and move on. “No questions are asked. That is Jangipur for you,” he smiles.
In north Bengal, which accounts for eight of the 42 Lok Sabha seats, where the TMC is relatively weaker compared with other parts, the BJP hopes to gain on the back of RSS’ long-term activities— like in other parts of the state such as Bankura and Purulia. The Sangh, which has been working closely with Dalits and Tribals in the region, had introduced student welfare and training schemes as part of its outreach plan. Signs of such efforts producing results are more or less visible in parts of this area.
After reaching Malda via the unfairly crowded Farakka Bridge over the Ganga—where construction has restricted traffic to a single lane and trucks in long queues of several kilometres have to wait for up to three days before crossing over to either side—I speak to Dr Nateshkumar Pal, a homoeopath from Sunny Park, Malda South. He speaks out against those who have turned politics into “some kind of business by defecting from one party to another for personal enrichment”. He doesn’t directly answer whom he would vote for. The solution he offers is: “Bengal needs more representatives at the Centre.”
By the time I meet Devranjan Deb, a schoolteacher who works at Gazole in Malda North, where former Congress MP Mausam Noor, the niece of the late Congress stalwart ABA Ghani Khan Choudhury, is contesting this time on a TMC ticket, I get used to loaded statements and riddle-ridden remarks. He invites me to his home to talk politics because he feels that to do so outside would be unwise.
After speaking for more than half-an-hour, while his wife serves me sweet tea and biscuits, he refuses to reveal who he favours and simply says, “We need a stable government.” Police officers in Malda, too, say that thanks to long years of conditioning, many people don’t discuss politics openly. “It has become a habit but of course some people break it,” one of them says.
In Murshidabad and Raiganj, two Lok Sabha seats the CPM had won in the last poll, voters are still undecided, or at least profess to be. Mohamed Haif and his family are traditional CPM voters from Raiganj. “There is some love for [CPM politburo member Mohammed] Salim but this time we haven’t decided whom to vote for,” he says.
The Murshidabad MP, Badaruddoza Khan of the CPM, who had wrested the seat in 2014 from the Congress, which had won it in 2009, says he is hopeful of retaining the seat, but people Open spoke to insist they may vote for the TMC to keep the BJP at bay. Altaf Hussain, a farmer here, says he wants to vote for a secular party that can take on the might of the BJP because he is worried about the growing religious polarisation in Bengal ever since the ruling party at the Centre began making gains in the state.
Professor Ishan Mukherjee feels the past does impinge upon the future, even in a highly mediated and not-so-apparent way. “I do not see why the Hindu nationalist past will not, in fact, impinge upon the future of West Bengal. I do not believe that West Bengal marked a clear, clinical break with its past at all at any point in its modern history,” he argues.
Those pronouncements do mirror the contemporary ground reality of West Bengal as it faces a crucial electoral test. Hoping to teach corrupt politicians a lesson but fearing societal damage and religious polarisation in the process, the enigmatic Bengali voter seems stuck between a rock and a hard place.