Watch out, Bengal

If BJP is back in Delhi

The poll time violence in Bengal, relentlessly covered on television and debated over special programmes that often degenerated into name calling and shouting matches, has served a purpose. It has helped Prime Minister Narendra Modi draw an unfavourable comparison between violence-scarred Bengal and insurgency-ravaged Kashmir. In one of his many TV interviews, Modi said elections were more peaceful in Jammu and Kashmir than in Bengal.

“During the panchayat elections in Kashmir, violence was not reported from even one polling booth. But several people were killed during panchayat polls in Bengal; the houses of those who won were burnt down and they were forced to flee to Jharkhand and other states. Their only fault was that they won polls,” Modi said.

A week later, another TV network came up with a ‘startling disclosure’, sourced to the soft-spoken West Bengal Governor KN Tripathi — that the state chief secretary was refusing to brief him on the violence that erupted during Amit Shah’s roadshow and the desecration of the statue of the revered Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar. The TV anchor raised “serious governance concerns” in Bengal, blaming the Mamata administration for “throwing all norms to the winds.” And they could always say Mamata has refused to accept Modi as Prime Minister! 

Immediately before the mayhem on Kolkata’s College Street, a top business magnate formerly close to Bengal’s erstwhile Communist rulers but now a self-proclaimed ‘chowkidar’ circulated fake news that Gujaratis living in Bengal had been threatened with expulsion by the Bengal administration. That prompted a rather hyper news anchor of the TV channel to ask me on live TV: “You complain when Bengalis are threatened in Assam, but now you want to treat non-Bengalis similarly!” 

Within a few minutes of the College Street mayhem, the BJP delegation arrived at the Election Commission, led by Nirmala Sitharaman and Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, to demand that Mamata be “banned from campaigning because she has been highly provocative.”

The BJP has obviously been rattled by Mamata’s furious verbal duel with Modi, in which she has matched him round for round, calling him “expiry PM” to his “Speed-breaker Didi.” That seems to have undermined his 56-inch chest, strong masculine persona, an electoral asset for the BJP — what with this diminutive but extremely fit (she walked some 15 km in padyatras every day and did not climb onto jeeps) and combative Bengali woman even calling him “Modi goonda” and “Chowkidar chor” and what have you! 

As I flipped through the Hindi TV channels, I found UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath demanding President’s rule in West Bengal. The cat was finally out of the bag, as I had long suspected.

The day after the College Street mayhem, the Election Commission finally succumbed to the BJP’s pressure and ordered a stop to campaigning in Bengal a good 24 hours before the scheduled end.

Mamata, at her defiant, combative best, asked the EC to stop campaigning immediately if law and order concerns were so overriding. That was not the case because Modi babu (as she described the PM) still had “two rallies left to address in Bengal.”

Bengal has surely seen some violence, but how can any sane politician compare it with Kashmir!

In Kashmir, separatists were determined to stop polls and turnouts were so low (not even in the double digits in many places) that there was no need for them to resort to violence so long as the boycott was comprehensively enforced. In Bengal, polling was touching or crossing 80% because no side, neither Mamata nor the BJP, was willing to concede an inch.

There is no reason to applaud the violence, which unfortunately has become a defining feature of Bengal’s politics since the 1972 state polls were rigged by Congress (in which even Jyoti Basu lost his seat by 40,000 votes). The greater the competition and challenge to the ruling party, more the violence.

But why has the EC ordered repolls in only six booths in Bengal and repoll in 168 booths in BJP-ruled Tripura! Why has EC booked BJP candidates like Babul Supriyo and Locket Chatterjee for ‘obstructing’ polling! 

There has been a pattern in the poll-time violence in Bengal — select high-profile BJP candidates like singer Babul Supriyo, actress Locket Chatterjee, Trinamool ‘bahubali’ renegade Arjun Singh, former cop Bharati Ghosh or BJP state president Dilip Ghosh have gone around, media in tow, to “challenge irregularities” in booths leading to furious and violent reactions from the Trinamool grassroots cadres. The BJP poll managers, knowing the limitations of their party organisation, very smartly and in a rather calculated way provided the TV channels with the “action footage” good enough to portray Bengal in a “worse than Kashmir” light. 

The Trinamool grassroots, schooled in Bengal’s violent turf war politics in decades of struggle against the Left Front, has responded without restraint because Mamata is keen “not to yield an inch” to the BJP.

Now, if the BJP does better than expectations and comes anywhere near Amit Shah’s tall boast of wresting more than half the seats, the narrative will swing round the “brave resistance of the people of Bengal to Didi’s goondagiri.” But if the BJP tally fails to cross double digits, the blame will fall on Bengal’s “poor law and order” and a case for President’s Rule is waiting to be made.

The desecration of Vidyasagar’s statue (which Modi promises to build again) may have provided Mamata Banerjee with an unexpected political bonanza, but her bitter personal feud with Modi will only bring “bure din” (bad days) for Bengal if the saffron party is back in power in Delhi after May 23.

(The writer is a veteran BBC journalist and author)

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