BJP in Bengal maelstrom

Politics of violence

Unlike in Hindi heartland where BJP’s cadres are unchallenged, in Bengal the opponents will not shy away from violence

The BJP is not exactly a pacifist party. It believes in tough talk and strong-arm tactics. It is not unfamiliar with intimidatory tactics. But it seems quite taken aback by the intensity of political violence in West Bengal.

The Trinamool Congress of Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has made things difficult for the BJP, going by Amit Shah’s press conference in Delhi on May 15 after the violent incidents, including the despoiling of the bust of 19th century reformer and educationist Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar in the college named after him near the University of Calcutta on College Street in Kolkata. Shah made the surprising accusation that the Election Commission was not doing its job in the state.

The cadres of the BJP and the TMC clashed during Shah’s roadshow on May 14, and each side has blamed the other for the violence and the vandalising of Vidyasagar’s bust. The truth about who is guilty will remain largely unverified.

The liberals in Bengal and outside, of course, have come to the conclusion that it is the BJP stormtroopers who attacked the bust of Vidyasagar because the reformer is naturally anathema to the right-wing BJP. It is a plausible view, but it does not hold because the facts elude.

It is easier to argue that the anti-intellectual and regressive BJP would have encouraged its workers to damage the bust of Vidyasagar, and it makes sense as well. It could very well be the case that the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), the student wing of the RSS and not of the BJP, was in the forefront of Shah’s roadshow, which was in many ways a show of strength, and the ABVP stormtroopers confronted the TMC Chhatra Parishad, the student wing of Mamata’s party, and in the melee that ensued, each attacked the other.

There is a clear possibility that the ABVP students might have entered the college chasing their opponents and in the process of damaging the furniture had unintentionally attacked the Vidyasagar bust as well. But Shah has denied that the ABVP/BJP volunteers had even entered the college premises.  

There is the question whether any Bengali youth would dare attack the bust of the iconic Vidyasagar? The answer should be a clear no. But if the BJP is spearheading a reactionary Bengal, Vidyasagar as a progressive reformer could very well be the target of the right-wingers. But it seems that the BJP has not yet penetrated the Bengali psyche, individual or collective, and it has not yet worked out its politics of culture in the state.

Logically, the BJP should be supporting the unreformed Bengali establishment of the 19th century, which stood as a hurdle to the great Bengali renaissance of the 19th century led by heroes like Raja Rammohun Roy and movements like the Brahmo Samaj. The BJP would be aligning itself with the anti-Bengali renaissance, anti-Brahmo Samaj group. It seems to be the case that the BJP, under the aggressive leadership of Shah and Prime Minister Narendra Modi, are fighting a provocative battle on the streets and they do not have the intellectual wherewithal to fight the culture wars.

But the liberal observers of the Bengal political scene have a lot of explaining to do. It is an established fact that the TMC cadres do not allow political opponents to function and they indulge in violence to drive away rivals. It is a culture that Mamata did not create but inherited from the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M), which had unleashed its own reign of terror during the 33 years it was in power.

The Congress government of Siddhartha Sankar Ray and the Naxalites had infused violence into the politics of the state in the late 1960s and in the 1970s. The tradition of political violence in West Bengal has deep roots, and it would appear that the BJP is picking up the idiom of violence, which it wields in inconspicuous ways in other parts of the country, and it is only too ready to battle Mamata and her cadres in West Bengal. The BJP did not introduce the politics of violence in the state, but it is adopting the pervasive culture of violence that already exists there.

Triggering communal violence

The difference between the BJP’s tactics of violence and that of the TMC, and before the TMC that of the CPI-M, would be that the violence in Bengal had not been communal since independence. It is possible that BJP could be triggering communal violence in the state. Or, the violence between the BJP and TMC cadres could be limited to political rivalry as it is between the Marxists and the RSS workers in northern Kerala.

Given the BJP’s political onslaught on the so-called illegal Muslim migrants from Bangladesh — it is not opposed to illegal Hindu immigrants from Bangladesh — the situation could get out of hand and violent clashes between the cadres of opposing parties could turn into a Hindu-Muslim riot. And in the heat of political rivalry, the BJP may not pause to consider the ramifications.

The BJP in West Bengal has a lot to learn from the other parties in the state on the matter of indulging in violence. In other states, especially in the Hindi heartland, the cadres of the BJP and its ideological affiliates can indulge in violence without the fear of counter-violence. In West Bengal, the BJP will have to understand that the opponents are not going to shy away from violence. The entry of BJP into Bengal politics promises to make the state’s politics more vicious and more violent than before. The BJP, of course, hopes to get an upper hand, but it is going to be a nasty situation in the state.

(The writer is a senior journalist based in New Delhi)

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