Mamata's plan to counter BJP in Bengal: ‘Us vs them’

The rivalry between TMC's Mamata Banerjee and the BJP touched a new high during the 2019 general elections

So, who vandalised the statue of reformist and educationist Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar during Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) president Amit Shah's roadshow on May 14 in Kolkata? Well, no one.

Experience says no one will ever be found. Some arrests will be made, but clinching proof will be impossible to find. An enquiry commission, if constituted, will submit a report after some years. And the powers that be will allow the report to gather dust as long as it suits them.

But whoever organised the vandalism knew very well that the statue – almost forgotten and kept in a glass case inside a room in the Vidyasagar College campus – had the power to start a politically potent controversy since 2020 is Vidyasagar's second birth centenary. Although it's not known who did it, but the Trinamool Congress (TMC) quickly spotted the brownie points to be earned.

Their message: Look at the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). It's not just a political invader but is also a cultural aggressor deliberately demeaning Bengal's renaissance icons.

This narrative, in fact, started as the sixth phase of the general elections was coming to an end and was progressing towards the urban areas. Until phase six, the elections had covered the districts and the rural areas. But now, the polls were entering a different territory with different concerns.

At around this time, the TMC supremo, Mamata Banerjee, started describing Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Shah as people who were not 'educated' enough to understand Bengal in her rallies. She even booed Shah for saying that Bolpur – where Shantiniketan is located –was Rabindranath Tagore's birthplace. Tagore was born in Kolkata and settled in Bolpur much later – after he became a Nobel laureate.

Although that may be fair, Mamata herself is not above making her share of faux pas. The latest one came immediately after Vidyasagar's statue was vandalised. She reached the spot, picked up the pieces of the statue and declared that it was 200 years old. But beneath the comic veneer, a dangerous game had begun in West Bengal – a game that is likely to continue until the next Assembly polls in the state in 2021.

To go back to how things progressed in the elections, one saw the political narrative changing fast with the arrival of the polls in Kolkata and its adjacent urban and industrial areas. The TMC realised that issues such as communalism, poor governance, the Centre's 'dirty' politics and Modi's 'villainy' would hardly convince urban audiences.

Here the ground reality is different. The Bengali middle class – always indifferent to the BJP, at least in public – has slowly begun accepting the view that the state needs a change after eight years of Mamata Banerjee’s rule. The telltale signs have been visible for some time now, which both the parties are well aware of.

The Bengali 'bhadralok' finds it difficult to accept the TMC's brand of governance, an alleged mob rule and the policy of minority appeasement in the name of secularism. But the 'bhadralok', at the same time, is a cultural and linguistic supremacist. The TMC is hoping that a fight between the 'bhadralok' and the largely Hindi-speaking supporters of the BJP will make a heady formula for 2021. It’s not difficult to see who will come across as the guardians of Bengali culture in this situation.

Kolkata and its adjacent areas have a huge Hindi-speaking population, which is the BJP's natural ally. The Hindi speakers comprise largely businessmen in Kolkata and mineworkers and factory labourers in the industrial belts that stretches from Howrah district next to Kolkata to as far as Asansol in West Bardhaman district touching the borders of Jharkhand. The Hindi speakers' bonds are more cultural – such as Ram and Ayodhya -- than political. But the dividing line between the two gets very often blurred in India.

The TMC initially tried to snuggle up to the Hindi-speaking people by taking out counter-processions on the Ram Navami day. But the enthusiasm somehow fizzled out since the TMC also has to think about the 30 per cent Muslim vote bank in the state. The Hindi-speaking population, on the other hand, didn't like the TMC's critical stand against the BJP government's Balakot strike. It negated their idea of patriotism and nationalism.

Sensing positive responses from several pockets, the BJP’s immediate reaction was to strengthen its on-road presence. Hence, it organised a huge road show for Shah. But the TMC’s response to this BJP move has been complex. It seems to have hit upon what could be a winning formula.

For now, by triggering the 'us-them' controversy – courtesy a half-bust of Vidyasagar – the TMC has set the political agenda for the next two years, stoking an intense rivalry between Bengalis and non-Bengalis over culture, language and Bengali sub-nationalism. How this political narrative will progress remains to be seen post the announcement of Lok Sabha results.

(Debjyoti Chakraborty is a senior journalist)

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