Rural Bengal gives an angry look these days. The mood is palpable of grievance against the political class. In the run up to the assembly polls of 2021, some voters say being 'asha-vadi optimistic' is also perhaps being revolutionary in today's world as the north Bengal is in an era where lip service abounds and hypocrisy prevails.
Not far from Naxalbari, where peasants' protest once turned bloody, the 44-year-old Bidyut Kanti Pal says, "Politics
of Hindu-Muslim has grown stronger here over the last two years and this is why Mamata Banerjee's series of
welfare measures and dole-outs did not help much in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections".
Besides key North Bengal constituencies, the BJP's penetration was significant in the state's agriculture-rich constituencies of Hooghly and Bardhaman-Durgapur, he explains. Voters are concerned about 'infiltration' of Bangladeshis and in many corners, there is suspicion that 'local political backing' is also helping Rohingyas to sneak in. Others say the violence of 2018 panchayat elections have left people anguished and thus while Trinamool
suffered in pastoral areas, the Didi's party - however- did well in most urban constituencies.
Of the 12 seats Trinamool lost out of the 34 it had won in 2014 in the state, most were in remote and far-flung locations.
"I say logic fails as Trinamool's Kanyashree scheme is very popular. Admired by the UN and also implemented in other states, under the scheme, the state provides a one-time grant of Rs 25,000 once a girl reaches the age of 18 and
continues her studies. But when it came to voting, even womenfolk did not help Didi apparently," lamented Islampur-based Trinamool worker Roba Sen.
However, the general refrain among Muslim voters in rural Bengal too has been that they would generally stick to Didi. "However, the possible division among Muslim voters is an issue. Mamata Banerjee has set up Aliah University, a minority education institution with a budget of Rs 257 crore. But the BJP campaign seems to be powerful. Several Hindus in these pockets have shifted loyalties especially those who earlier backed the communists," she explains.
The scheme of providing financial assistance to Imams and Moazzins - numbering an estimated 63,000 plus has irked Hindus and this was well exploited by the BJP. In 2019 Lok Sabha polls, the BJP vote share in the state jumped from 17 per cent to 40.2 per cent. Ms Banerjee's party also recorded an increase from 39 per cent to 43 per cent. "This happened though, Trinamool seats came down from 34 to 22. Increase in Trinamool vote percentage meant that the Muslim community voted en masse for Didi, says a local trader Iqbal Nawaz.
Of course, such shift of Muslim votes had resulted in massive drop in CPI(M)-led Left Front vote share from 29.9 per cent to 7.5 per cent between 2014 and 2019. These mean Congress and the Leftists would be further marginalised in near future, say local political workers.
According to a Trinamool booth worker in Siliguri, here comes the challenge for his party. "Keeping Muslim base intact would be a difficult proposition for us where as the BJP has multiple machinations to work. Asaduddin Owaisi-led AIMIM and a local Muslim cleric Pirzada Abbas Siddiqui could in effect eat into Mamata's support base among Muslims," he says.
In November, a video went viral, say locals - that showed Siddiqui indulging in fear mongering - “If we do not come to power next time, they (Hindus) will rape our women in front of our eyes. You cannot do anything if you do not have power in your hands".
Common citizenry in Malda says such statements would only help the BJP in the long run. AIMIM chief Owaisi has already held a meeting in Hyderabad and made it clear that his party will contest state assembly elections in Bengal for sure. AIMIM picked up five seats in Bihar and four of them were in constituencies adjoining Mamata Banerjee's state. The saffron party leaders in Malda-Murshidabad region also say that since 2011, when the last census was carried out; the Muslim population in West Bengal grew by 1.77 percent and on the contrary, the Hindu population has reportedly declined by 1.9 per cent.
These have only given additional political ammunition to the Lotus party. Samik Bhattacharya, state BJP leader, says there is a well planned out conspiracy by Trinamool and police for 'mass infiltration' of Muslim immigrants from neighbouring Bangladesh. These leaders say Hindus have been outnumbered in Malda, Murshidabad Uttar Dinajpur districts.
In this context, political observers say the BJP has tried to ensure a deeper penetration by talking about Mamata's alleged 'disruption' of Durga puja celebrations and also organised a series of events during the last two years to celebrate 'Ram Navami' and 'Hanuman Jayanti'.
Of course, these two festivals were generally not very common socio-religious functions among Bengalis till few years ago.
A retired trade union leader says in this context, the Mamata-led party actually made some mistakes or has done very little to help itself. The Chief Minister initially dismissed these as 'North Indian festivals' and said the 'outsiders' are trying to push their 'cultural hegemony' in her state.
However, locals say at a later stage, the Trinamool leadership took corrective steps and participated in several Hindu religious festivals. Mamata Banerjee herself honoured Hindu priests and Hindu religious singers. "We will try to pay an assistance of Rs 1000 to Brahmins (priests)," she said at a public function.