On the eve of the May 2016 West Bengal Assembly elections, Arun Jaitley shared his campaign experiences with some editors. When he attacked Mamata Bannerjee and the Left-Congress front in equal measure, the crowd’s response was tepid. When he attacked the Trinamool for 60 percent of his speech, there was some applause. But when his speech was 75 percent invective against the Trinamool, the applause was thunderous.
The editor who passed on these “findings” to me was then a key figure in the Kolkata establishment. He was amplifying something he liked to believe. So opposed to Mamata was he that he claimed some credit for helping stitch together what was patently an absurd arrangement: The Congress and the CPI-M would hold hands in Bengal, but fight each other in Kerala. They were trounced.
Jaitley’s unflattering report about Mamata’s electoral fortunes can be easily explained. His meetings, obviously organised by RSS cadres, consisted of crowds who were presumably anti-Mamata. His narrative also revealed that, in charting out a future in Bengal, the BJP saw Mamata as a much more formidable obstacle than the Congress-Left combine.
That outcome is precisely what the BJP is up against, now that Amit Shah is preparing the turf for the 2019 elections.
In this framework, how does the communal violence following Basirhat play itself out? First, it must be registered that there have been a dozen or so clashes in the state after Mamata’s re-election. It must be said to the credit of the CPI-M’s 36-year rule: Communal riots were almost non-existent. Some of what is happening now is clearly part of the BJP’s effort to create an atmosphere conducive to communal polarisation.
It is difficult to see how the BJP can profit from efforts at Hindu consolidation in a state with anywhere between 30 to 35 percent Muslim population. In the absence of a reliable census, these are the figures most parties privately cite. Promoting communalism would leave this bloc vote consolidated exactly where it is: Behind Mamata.
Considering that this very same vote stood four square behind the CPI-M for 34 years, mostly under the charismatic Chief Ministership of Jyoti Basu, its support for Mamata need not theoretically be seen as permanent.
This probably is the desperate hope the CPI-M nurses. To enhance Mamata’s vulnerabilities it has thrown its lot with the BJP: An enemy’s enemy is my friend.
Just as the self-defeating formula, CPI-M + Congress, for the May 2016 elections was credited to CPI-M General Secretary Sitaram Yechury, the strategy of attacking the Trinamool just when it is in the RSS-BJP line of fire is widely believed to be the line enunciated by former party chief, Prakash Karat.
Quite clearly the party has not yet digested the harsh reality that it was trounced by the Trinamool, that Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee was West Bengal’s Gorbachev. In the rush to reform both had lost control.
The Marxist government’s conflict with peasants in Nandigram in March 2007 set into motion a series of events which ultimately dethroned the CPI-M. Karat’s diagnosis was that the anger of Muslim peasants had been stoked by a combination of Jamiat, Trinamool and Naxalities.
Muslim peasants fearful of losing their lands for a Special Economic Zone was the basis on which CPI-ML groups worked hard to mobilise a powerful movement. Jamiat may have played a role since the peasants were Muslim. The only party in the fray to take electoral advantage was the Trinamool.
It was a masterstroke of political opportunism by Mamata. Having lost the 2006 assembly election, she turned her fortunes around using Singur and Nandigram as fulcrums.
A leader’s political durability in Kolkata can sometimes be measured by political currents in neighbouring states — Tripura, for instance.
Possibly inspired by Mamata’s rise, the President of the Congress in Tripura, Sudip Roy Burman, switched to the Trinamool. But when he saw the Modi wave sweeping across Uttar Pradesh and the TV channels, he turned up in Guwahati to promise support to the BJP’s Presidential candidate Ram Nath Kovind.
Now, Agartala is rife with rumours that six TMC MLAs are likely to join the BJP in the coming weeks. In other words, the BJP, which had no member in the assembly, will suddenly have six.
Tripura has been under CPI-M rule for the past 32 years. But the anti-CPI-M vote mostly rallied around the Congress in the past. As elsewhere in the country (West Bengal too), the Congress has reduced itself to a virtual non-entity in the state. At the grassroots, this space is being occupied by the energetic BJP cadres. Taking a holistic view, these must be seen as some of the chinks in the Trinamool armour.
(Saeed Naqvi is a commentator on political and diplomatic affairs. The views expressed are personal. He can be reached on [email protected])