Mamata Banerjee
West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee injured during her campaign trial at Nandigram in Purba Medinipur, Wednesday, March 10, 2021 Image Credit: PTI

Today, Nandigram was the scene of high drama as Mamata Banerjee, chief minister of West Bengal, was attacked by four men who injured her legs.

Banerjee claimed that the attackers were from Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the police did not protect her.

Just yesterday Banerjee had recited the Chandi path — which has huge resonance in Bengal where the deity “Durga” is worshipped across social barriers atop a stage in Nandigram — her new constituency.

Banerjee also said that she was a “Brahmin” (upper caste Hindu) and did not need lessons in being a Hindu from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) her biggest challenger in the upcoming state elections.

Banerjee’s public avowal of religion made the BJP livid. BJP leaders called her a “chunavi Hindu” (election Hindu) and some of India’s tame news channels, most which work as an exterior arm of the BJP, called her “heroine of Hindutva”.

Wearing religion on her sleeve

So what made Banerjee, a tough street smart leader, currently India’s only woman CM wear religion on her sleeve along with her instantly identifiable white cotton sari carelessly draped with a thin blue border and her trademark rubber chappals.

Credit it to the BJP. And, the constant bogey of minority appeasement they charge Banerjee with. As a senior BJP involved in the Bengal BJP war room told me “we had successfully claimed that Banerjee could not stand us chanting religious slogans but, her riposte is big. We can’t now question her Hindu credentials if she takes to chanting prayers before public meetings”.

To anyone who has not lived the Indian experience for the past seven years this would sound surreal — leaders weaponising religious slogans against each other. But, this the reality of India today where if you want to win elections you can’t simply be a Hindu but, have to practice your religion loudly and publicly or else be accused of being a “sicular” (corruption of secular which is underlined in the Indian Constitution).

The business of religion is now loudly majoritarian and the business of the state, whatever our avowals in the Constitution, which every elected leader swears to protect.

Banerjee’s ideology-agnostic policy adviser cum spin doctor Prashant Kishor is not one to miss a BJP trick. Kishor made his name by working on Modi’s successful 2014 run for PM.

Mamata has clearly done her maths. Muslims constitute nearly 30 per cent of West Bengal’s electorate and lower caste Hindus have similar numbers. The scheduled castes are 24 per cent and the scheduled tribes are at six per cent. These two communities may decide who will win.

The BJP has been fuelling lower Hindu castes anxieties against Muslims and is trying to ensure that the TMC suffers critical fragmentation of voters here.

Total polarisation in Bengal

In the 2019 elections nearly 70 per cent of the Muslims voted for Banerjee while majority of the lower caste Hindus — 60 per cent supported the BJP. Normally in other states the BJP tries to consolidate the Hindu vote but, in West Bengal it is trying for total polarisation.

Banerjee understands this. And, is now actively looking at trying to consolidate via a narrative of regional sub-nationalism portraying the BJP and its powerful leaders Modi and Shah as outsiders to Bengal.

The narrative worked brilliantly for Modi as CM when he campaigned on “Garvi Gujarat” (proud Gujarat) and Banerjee is similarly trying the daughter of the soil come practising Hindu story. The BJP in 2019 won five out of the ten Lok Sabha seats reserved for SCs in Bengal and both seats reserved for STs.

The Rajbanshis and the Namasudras are the largest sub-castes among Dalits in the state. The BJP entered Bengal politics with getting the Rajbanshis on board in 2014 and is spinning a story of denial of welfare measures to lower caste Hindus in favour of the Muslims by Banerjee.

To counter this currently overwhelming narrative Banerjee is now ostensibly demonstrating her practising Hindu status. Rahul Gandhi, former Congress president had done what was described as a “temple run” before the state elections in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan which the Congress won.

It later lost Madhya Pradesh when Jyotiraditya Scindia defected to the BJP. Gandhi was described by Congress leader Randeep Surjewala as a “Janeu wearing Brahmin” (sacred thread).

Banerjee with her public statement is trying a similar tactic. Senior TMC leaders say that the Muslims in Bengal understand the crisis that the Citizenship Amendment Bill (which has a religion filter) poses and are TMC voters who are not worried by Banerjee’s outreach to the Hindu voter.

For Banerjee, the Hindu vote is make or break in the long drawn out eight phase election — the longest ever state election in India’s history.

Final words to a BJP leader who laughs and says “you secular people keep worrying that the BJP will declare a Hindu Rasthra. Do we need to? Mamata Banerjee is now going to temples like Gandhi did earlier”.