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Bengal win will put Mamata in race for PM

By ARUN BHATNAGAR
April 01, 2021 12:21 IST
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The TMC expects to emerge victorious by way of a majority of minority votes and a minority of majority votes, notes Arun Bhatnagar, a retired IAS officer.

IMAGE: Trinamool Congress President Mamata Banerjee addresses an election rally in Poorba Medinipur on March 21, 2021. Photograph: Utpal Sarkar/ANI Photo
 

Will Bengali sentiment prevail, over other factors, on May 2, 2021 when votes are counted in West Bengal?

Can the political repercussions extend to the national scene three years hence?

In a letter to Lady Lokasundari Raman some time before Sir C V Raman's departure from Calcutta in 1933 (a move orchestrated by Dr Syama Prasad Mookerjee who was to become the university's youngest vice chancellor), the renowned chemist, Acharya Sir P C Ray, said: 'My blood rises to fever pitch whenever Bangla nationalism is an issue. If it is so even for me, surely you can understand what it is for all those others when they think that Bangla nationalism is being undermined.'

The forces of Bangla nationalism -- accompanied by individual rivalries -- saw the Nobel Laureate for Physics leaving the city he had begun to think of as his own.

Decades later, a bitter electoral battle rages between the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Mamata Banerjee-led Trinamool Congress that has been in office since 2011.

A once undivided Bengal has lived through the travails of two Partitions (1905 and 1947), years of Congress dominance thereafter, and the chief ministership (1977-2000) of an iconic figure of Independent India, Jyoti Basu.

The stakes in the 2021 assembly election are the highest for the BJP whose field commanders are putting in virtually everything at their disposal in Assam, Tamil Nadu and Kerala, as well.

In West Bengal, the party strives to leave little to chance; Prime Minister Narendra Modi's visit to Orakandi (Gopalganj, Dhaka division, Bangladesh) during his two-day tour of the neighbouring country will focus on the Matuas, a sizable Hindu religious sect that commands influence in at least seven assembly seats in North 24 Parganas and Nadia. At Orakandi, the birthplace of Matua gurus, Harishchandra Thakur and Guruchandra Thakur, the PM offered prayers at the temple.

The Matuas have been migrating from Orakandi to Thakurnagar in North 24 Parganas.

As it happens, the BJP has no Bengali(s) in its fold to match Mamata Banerjee's stature. Its state leadership is evolving and would be lucky to adequately counter Mamata Didi, the inductions of well-known journalists and actors, notwithstanding.

The BJP is facing eleventh hour difficulties on a few fronts, including dissensions arising out of allotment of the party ticket to 'defectors' from the TMC and elsewhere. The earlier nomination of economist Ashok Lahiri from Alipurduar has been altered.

The TMC has an advantage in terms of the backing of the Muslim segment which is crucial in about 100 seats. It is believed that despite the presence of a Muslim cleric (of Furfura Sharif, Hooghly district) in the Left-Congress combination, the community is largely behind Didi.

Coupled with the support of sections of Hindus, across castes, the TMC expects to emerge victorious by way of a majority of minority votes and a minority of majority votes.

A TMC win may check centralising tendencies.

Ironically enough, erstwhile lieutenants like Mukul Roy (who left the TMC in 2017) and Suvendu Adhikari are in the vanguard of the BJP's charge against Mamata Banerjee.

The BJP thinks that Hindu consolidation is taking place and that constituencies with over 60 per cent Hindus will see them through. In a 'now or never' chance, the party is banking on a majority of majority votes and a fragmentation of minority votes.

Even if the BJP loses in West Bengal, the Hindutva element has already established itself in the state; the Hindu-Muslim question will remain a defining feature in its politics.

Hopefully, there won't be a relapse to the inter-community tensions of, say, the 1940s.

Mamata has been left with no option but to play on the BJP's terrain. Like the Congress since the Indira Gandhi era (and more so in later years), she has to achieve a Muslim consolidation of votes, alongside Hindu nationalism. Her government's grant of allowances and housing to Brahmin priests is a step in this direction.

The fact that she has had to express Hindu allegiances is an indication of the communalisation of our politics. It exposes those politicians who are fighting the BJP to the oft-repeated charge that all secularism is, essentially, election secularism.

The contest has sharpened with the entry of Yashwant Sinha into the fray, via the TMC. He has, in his armoury, a weapon of sophisticated articulation to praise Didi and the invective to attack the top BJP leaders.

In an article in The Week in June 2019, I had noted that 'If the Congress is further decimated (or improves its tally just marginally) in 2019, the stage would have been reached to contemplate the last rites.'

One option could be to hand over the party to a regional leader who is irrevocably opposed to the BJP. The West Bengal chief minister ...... would be an obvious candidate ..... Should Sonia Gandhi and Mamata Banerjee join hands ..... an organisationally strengthened Congress could, in due course, spearhead a credible Opposition challenge....'

Nothing happened.

The Grand Old Party may yet pay a price for failing to stitch up winning alliances.

Governance and administrative record, as also the impact of welfare schemes, are relevant to election outcomes.

Should the BJP reclaim Assam, the party may, in an overall sense, be perceived to have shared the honours with other belligerents. The balance of advantage would, however, not lie with them.

The key state is Bengal where if Mamata Banerjee retains power she would become a frontrunner for the prime ministership in a non-BJP dispensation, with or without the Congress.

She is the most prominent personality opposing the saffron brigade and has declared her intention of playing a central role in national politics.

On June 23, 1757 (that is, over 260 years ago), the British East India Company -- aided by bribery, deception and treachery -- got the better of the much bigger army of Siraj-ud-Daulah, the last independent nawab and his French allies at Palashi (or Plassey), 93 miles north of Calcutta and south of Murshidabad, the then capital of Bengal.

The nawab was betrayed on the battlefield by Mir Jafar, a military general and an ancestor of the last (fourth) governor general and first president of Pakistan, Iskander Mirza (1899-1969).

The Company's victory was pivotal to the British seizing control of Bengal and, in due course, of most of the subcontinent. Seven years later, in 1764, the Company's forces defeated the combined armies of the Mughal Emperor, Shah Alam II, the nawab of Oudh, the nawab of Bengal (Mir Qasim) and the raja of Kashi at Buxar in present-day Bihar. Thereafter, Shah Alam II had to grant the 'diwani rights' (revenue administration) for the eastern provinces, including Bengal, to the Company.

The electoral outcome in West Bengal (and in other state polls, leading upto 2024) can be a pointer to the politics of the country in the future.

Arun Bhatnagar, was formerly in the Madhya Pradesh cadre of the IAS.

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