In the first Assembly election of West Bengal, when the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was its principal opponent, the ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC) improved its tally to 213 seats from 211 in the outgoing Assembly, out of a total of 294. The BJP’s tally of 77, though a huge leap from the 3 seats it won in 2016, is a big letdown to its supporters and workers in the State and outside. 2021 presented the party with a historic opportunity to capture power in West Bengal, buoyed as it was by its groundbreaking performance in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, when it won 18 out of 42 seats.
Translated into Assembly segments, the BJP had won 121 of them in 2019, nearly 50 seats more than what it managed this time. The BJP’s vote share in the State has also fallen from 40.7% in 2019 to 38.01 in 2021. This downturn in the BJP’s fortunes in the State has surprised not only its supporters and workers but also the Chief Minister, who was pegging her party’s tally at around 180 in an interview to a major Bengali news channel last week. Unfortunately for the BJP, the party lost in around 100 seats with margins between 1000 and 1500 votes.
This victory of the TMC is being projected by many as the rejection of the BJP’s “communal” ideology by Bengali voters. In reality, if any party was the beneficiary of communal politics this time, it was the TMC. The Chief Minister had appealed to Muslims not to split their votes. The TMC’s monopoly of Muslim votes is a feat in itself, something that neither Congress nor the Left could achieve during their heydays in power. Historically, Congress had benefited from the votes of Muslim landlords in the countryside and the Bihari Moslems in the towns, whereas Bengal’s Moslem peasantry had traditionally voted for the Left. With her powerful communal appeal, Mamata Banerjee was able to end this class division of Muslim votes and claim them all for herself. The price of this Muslim support was wholesale Muslim appeasement.
The huge influx of Bangladeshi Moslems has increased the Muslim population to 30 per cent in West Bengal and helped radicalise their coreligionists on this side of the border as part of their global jihad. Worse, lots of businesses in West Bengal facilitate medical tourism, helping hundreds of Bangladeshis cross the border every day for treatment in Kolkata hospitals. The capital of West Bengal is now teeming with Bangladeshis, Bangladeshi eateries, and Bangladeshi hotels. Many of them come to this side of the border to do a recce, making preparations at the ground level, and then arrive at a later date without proper documents, never to go back.
Mamata Banerjee was successful in convincing voters that Bengali identity and Bengali culture were under threat from the BJP. Much more than the BJP could convince the Bengali Hindu middle class that the Hindu community was under threat from the TMC’s wholesale Muslim appeasement and unbridled Bangladeshi immigration
Once supporters of the Left, these Bangladeshi illegal immigrants have now shifted their electoral loyalty to the TMC. Not for nothing has Mamata declared her stringent opposition to the Citizenship Amendment Act and the National Population Register, assuring Bangladeshi illegals and Rohingyas that no one—meaning the central government—can throw them out of India. With the TMC returning to power, the presence of Bangladeshi illegals in West Bengal is bound to phenomenally increase.
The Bengali urban middle class and the intellectual elite—the ancestors of most of whom arrived in India from East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) in 1947, 1965, and 1971 —see nothing wrong in this. In fact, many such Bengalis look forward to a day when West Bengal and Bangladesh will be one, a sovereign state outside India. The huge popularity of Bangladeshi singers and screen artists on this side of the border testifiers to this nostalgic fondness for the erstwhile ancestral land. Added to this are the big investments made by Bangladeshis in the media and entertainment industries of West Bengal.
Extortion—known as tolabaaji in West Bengal—has been an important source of party funds and personal wealth for ruling party leaders from Congress time. The Left had done it with distinction, so has the Trinamool. Not only is the TMC flush with money, but many of its state, district, and local leaders also own businesses acquired through illegal means. Extortion and land-grabbing have flourished in the State under the TMC like never before.
In the 1990s, Mamata Banerjee, then head of the state Youth Congress, complained that Pradesh Congress leaders looked the other way when the Left Front mercilessly butchered hundreds of “grassroots” Congress workers. In protest, she launched her outfit in 1997, calling it Trinamool (grassroots) Congress. Right from its inception, the TMC was a violent political organisation, as Mamata decided to give the Left back in its own coin. The result is for everyone to see. She is using the same tactics against the BJP. Large scale violence before, during, and after elections is now endemic to the state. The current murderous campaign targeting BJP workers is part of this dubious political tradition.
Many Bengali voters perceived the BJP as a party of “outsiders”—a reference to party activists and leaders from Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Delhi who had campaigned in the State—and chose to assert their Bengali identity. Mamata Banerjee was successful in convincing voters that Bengali identity and Bengali culture were under threat from the BJP. Much more than the BJP could convince the Bengali Hindu middle class that the Hindu community was under threat from the TMC’s wholesale Muslim appeasement and unbridled Bangladeshi immigration. Coupled with the total consolidation of Muslim votes in favour of the TMC, the reasons behind the BJP’s defeat are then not far to seek.
(The writer is Assistant Professor in United States Studies School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University)