I received a couple of cartoons on a social media platform last week.
One shows a guy hopping from the bunch of grass and two flowers (the symbol of the Trinamul Congress, the ruling party in India’s West Bengal state) to a lotus (the symbol of India’s ruling party, the Bharatiya Janata Party).
The other is a tad more direct — it shows a woman’s white-and-blue flip-flops (the ones worn by West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee) getting torn by someone stepping on them from behind. The shoe and the leg resemble the typical attire of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Didi (Mamata Banerjee’s nom de guerre) is in trouble. She’s getting hit by defections to the saffron brigade, and has to cope with an openly hostile central government.
The latest blow came from the defection of Suvendu Adhikari, former transport minister of the state, with a bunch of his loyalists, including a number of sitting members of the state legislature.
And here, dear readers, I would like to take you back in time.
The year was 1999. In journalistic parlance, I was a ‘cub reporter’ then, taking my first steps in serious political journalism. It was the year when the elections to the Lok Sabha, India’s parliament, was due. I was sent out to cover the election preparations at Contai, in West Bengal’s Midnapore district. This district, now split in two, was to later gain national headlines on account of the Nandigram movement, which hammered the first of the nails in the coffin of the Left Front’s three-decade rule in the state.
Contai was a backwater those days. The ruling Member of Parliament was Sudhir Kumar Giri of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) the leading party of the Left Front. Giri had held the seat for almost two decades, losing only once in the mid-1980s. It seemed virtually impossible that anyone could unseat him.
His challenger was Nitish Sengupta, a bureaucrat who had just retired from service as the Member Secretary of the Planning Commission of India. An erudite scholar, he was one of the initial group of intellectuals who considered Mamata Banerjee a viable political alternative to Left rule in the state. Nobody gave him much of a chance.
Enter the Adhikari family. Suvendu and his father, Sisir Adhikari (who incidentally has not yet left the Trinamul Congress and is the incumbent MP from Contai), braving the Left dominance, had quietly cultivated a base of support for the Trinamul Congress. I personally witnessed the fervour in the camp, talking to the father and son about their strategies about how they were creating a chink in the Left armour.
And their groundwork bore the first seeds of success that year — the veteran Giri lost the election to Sengupta, a political novice, based on the ground support created by the Adhikaris.
So, coming back to the present, Adhikari’s defection begs the question — why would someone, who literally built up the party from the ground up, abandon it during what seems to be its most critical juncture?
The answer is not an easy one. A myriad of factors have been working against Banerjee in West Bengal. Partly, the blame would lie at her feet. Going by the activities of the party in recent times, the new stars and celebrities, most of whom joined the party after it came to power, are now seen in the limelight.
As a result, those old-timers, who toiled to build the political base of the Trinamul during its formation years, have been feeling neglected. Having witnessed Adhikari’s work first-hand all those years ago, I can readily see why he considers himself in that category.
The other problem is the party itself. While the Trinamul Congress has held sway in West Bengal for close to a decade, it is clear that Banerjee remains the sole focal point. While her initial struggle led to a groundswell of followers, the party has failed to create a group of leaders who can lead the party in their own right. Thus no dissent is tolerated, which has weakened the party base.
Making a mark
The third issue, of course, is the rise of the BJP in the state. From a virtual nonentity a few years ago, the party shocked most political observers when it won 18 of the 42 seats in last year’s parliamentary elections, a mere hair’s breadth behind the 22 of the Trinamul Congress. Also, it garnered an astounding 40 per cent of the vote share in the state.
India’s ruling party, of course, has kept West Bengal on its sights for a long time. After all, it is the successor to the Jan Sangh, which was founded by the late Shyamaprasad Mukherjee, a son of the Bengal soil. Two decades ago, Mamata Banerjee herself helped the BJP make the first inroads into the state when she tied up with the saffron banner.
The BJP now treats West Bengal as its final frontier. A flurry of recent incidents show how it is using its rule at the Centre to openly target Banerjee’s government. The Centre has used its hold over the federal investigative agencies to launch several cases against prominent members of Didi’s party.
The phenomenon of an openly hostile federal government is something unprecedented in West Bengal’s history. During the last couple of decades of the 20th century, with the Congress in power in the Centre and the Left Front in Bengal, there was a tacit arrangement that while the Congress will not make any major push to gain power in West Bengal, the Left would also likewise not push any alliance to topple the Congress in New Delhi.
Indeed, Banerjee’s rise to prominence in state politics was on the ground of several state Congress leaders being dubbed as ‘watermelons’- with green on the outside and red (the Left’s colour) on the inside. But she does not have that advantage any longer, as the saffron brigade throws its full might to take over the state.
Swaying public opinion
Along with this, the BJP has been regularly sending its top brass in a bid to sway public opinion in its favour. The recent visit of the party’s national president JP Nadda created a major stir when his convoy was attacked. Three top police officers were summoned to the Centre, and the issue has opened up a new front in the Trinamul-BJP war.
The visit of Home Minister Amit Shah, at whose rally Suvendu joined the BJP, is the latest in this string of these high-profile visits. Shah has made all the politically correct noises in his trip — visiting memorials of Swami Vivekananda, the monk who spread the word of Hinduism on the global stage at Chicago in 1892, the village of Khudiram Bose, a youth revolutionary icon executed by the British and of course Visva Bharati, the university started by India’s first Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore. Only time will tell how far these visits and speeches manage to garner votes.
Another issue at stake will be the minorities. West Bengal has a sizeable Muslim population. With a soft border thousands of miles long, migration from Bangladesh — both legal and illegal — has been a contentious issue. There have been unverified allegations that some border villages have had a change in the demographic landscape due to this phenomenon. The BJP uses this as cannon fodder to appeal for votes.
I personally don’t think that the BJP at this moment has the level of ground strength necessary to garner the necessary number of seats to take over West Bengal. Even with its new members from the Trinamul, bringing with them a huge number of ground-level workers, getting to the magic figure of 148 (West Bengal has 294 assembly seats) would be a Herculean task.
I think while the BJP will get a sizeable number of seats, probably even past 100, but Banerjee will still manage to cling to power with some late alliance with the Congress and/or the Left.
But there are still five months left, so who knows?
I will end this piece with another personal story. A former colleague’s relative owns a petrol station on the highway near the industrial town of Durgapur, home to Steel Authority of India’s plant and close to several coal and iron mines. He has been paying ‘protection’ money to the powers that be for a long time. This was his experience in his own words —
“When the Left was in power, I used to get a call from the party functionary, seeking a mutually convenient time when he could come to collect the funds.
I kept the money ready, he would come at the appointed time, maybe have a cup of tea, and leave after a general chitchat. Now, with this regime, they come any time they feel like, mouth a flurry of expletives and leave with the money!”
It would be interesting to know what his experience would be if the BJP takes over Bengal.