Mamata Banerjee and Narendra Modi
West Bengal Chief Minister and Trinamool Congress supremo Mamata Banerjee, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Image Credit: PTI and AFP

The election dates are out, the battle lines are drawn in India. The next two months are crucial not only for the 5 states where polling will be held, with counting on May 2, but also for the trajectory of national politics which has been dominated by the BJP since 2014.

West Bengal is the big prize the BJP is eyeing, with top ministers from the centre and senior party leaders regularly visiting the state for months now. The discourse has already been fairly bitter and it’s about to get far worse.

Mamata Banerjee and her Trinamool Congress are fighting to come back after big wins in the state elections in 2011 and 2016. But this time her main adversary isn’t the Left, which dominated Bengal politics for decades. It is the Modi-Shah BJP, which has seen a dramatic rise in the state at the cost of the Left.

The meteoric rise of BJP

The BJP won just 3 seats in the last assembly election and zero seats in the one before that. It’s fortunes changed in the Lok Sabha polls where it got 17% of the votes in 2014 which shot up to over 40% of the votes in 2019.

It is a huge prestige fight for the BJP and the RSS. And with 30% of voters who are Muslim, polarisation will be at the heart of the campaign. This is why Muslim votes are so crucial for Mamata and why she isn’t happy about Asaduddin Owaisi’s All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) entering the poll fray.

Mamata Banerjee’s perceived “appeasement” of Muslims is what the BJP has banked on to strengthen its base in Bengal over the last couple of years. While Owaisi has accused her of keeping Muslims backward at the cost of her politics, political analysts point to Mamata’s pandering of her Muslim supporters as a key factor in the assertion of a Hindu identity in Bengal over the last few years.

The BJP has upped its rhetoric on Durga Puja and other Hindu religious symbols and festivals, which has partly forced Mamata Banerjee to tone down her own secular pitch in over the last year or so.

But a polarised campaign may help both the BJP and Mamata. For the BJP, polarisation is a natural campaign strategy, despite tall claims that the party wins on the development plank. It explains why UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, known as a firebrand hard Hindutva leader, is a star campaigner for the BJP, emerging as second only to Prime Minister Modi, in all key elections.

Bengal polls
A shopkeeper displays campaigning material of political parties for sale ahead of the West Bengal state legislative assembly elections in Kolkata on February 26, 2021 Image Credit: AFP

The shrill, divisive rhetoric may be good politics most of the time but it has done lasting damage to the country’s social fabric. We have seen nakedly communal rhetoric over the years. In the Bihar election of 2015, voters were told that if the BJP loses the election, fire crackers will go off in Pakistan. The neighbouring country has been a favourite enemy to rake up during election campaigning, as we saw repeatedly in polls over the last few years.

Divisive politics

In the Gujarat assembly poll of 2017, even former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was not spared, as it was suggested that he had somehow colluded with Pakistan. The rise of Hindu nationalism reached its peak in 2014 with the BJP’s massive election victory in the General Election.

The contrast with the BJP’s earlier politics under Atal Bihari Vajpayee is clearly seen. Hemmed in by a coalition, Vajpayee had to put contentious issues like Article 370, the Ram Temple and a Uniform Civil code aside. Narendra Modi, with his overwhelming majority, is not hampered by those concerns and has delivered on his ‘Hindu Hriday Samrat’ image for the BJP.

But polarisation hasn’t always worked. In the Delhi polls last year, the protesters of Shaheen Bagh were the targets of much of the hateful political rhetoric, since they were painted largely as Muslims.

In one rally, Yogi Adityanath famously spoke of Pakistan 8 times in 48 seconds. But the AAP won, though importantly, Arvind Kejriwal deliberately steered clear of contentious issues like the Citizenship Act or the Delhi Police action against students at Jamia Milia Islamia University.

In fact, it is the reluctance of party’s like the AAP to robustly stand up for India’s secular credentials which has also lead to growing polarisation in the country.

Political parties like the AAP and even the Congress, are wary of being seen as ‘pandering’ to Muslims, which is why we saw Rahul Gandhi suddenly discovering the virtues of being a devout Hindu before key elections. Which is why the Congress seemed utterly confused on Article 370. And that is why the AAP has stayed away from contentious issues like CAA.

Religious faultlines that have always existed have been brought to the fore. And if the election campaigns of recent years are anything to go by, fasten your seat belts. The next two months will be bitterly ugly. Political parties may move on. But will we?