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'Modi, Shah have to start eating fish to win Bengal'

By SWARUPA DUTT
April 22, 2021 09:54 IST
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'At this moment, the Trinamool has an edge.'

IMAGE: Narendra Damodardas Modi, the Bharatiya Janata Party's leading campaigner, at an election rally in West Bengal. Photograph: Ashok Bhaumik/PTI Photo
 

The narrative between the two dominant parties in the West Bengal election -- the Trinamool Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party -- may be increasingly pedestrian, but it seemingly engages the frontbenchers in a state that ironically prides itself on its intellectual prowess.

The general perception of Bengal as one of the last bastions of secularism and liberalism in socio-religious practices has been shattered with the rise of the subaltern and slogans of Hindutva by a resurgent BJP in the state.

Maidul Islam, below, a political scientist at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences in Kolkata, discusses the rise of the BJP in Bengal, caste politics and the duality of parties in the election with Rediff.com's Swarupa Dutt.

What would the implications of the turnout figures in the election phases conducted so far on the results likely to be?

Turnout figures do not have a direct link with the results.

Instead, the important issue is which segments of the population have turned out to vote. That cannot be understood now.

Only post-poll data surveys allow for a bigger picture.

Bengal always had higher turnouts because it is a politically charged state.

With higher turnouts, various kinds of results have been witnessed in past Lok Sabha and Vidhan Sabha elections.

Higher turnouts do not always mean anti-incumbency, whether it is Bengal or elsewhere.

The opinion polls have handed a victory to Mamata Banerjee. Are the opinion polls or exit polls a more accurate prediction of the results?

Exit polls are relatively more accurate than opinion polls.

But in the recent past, several exit polls have been proved wrong not just in predicting the winner but also the margin of win.

I am not a psephologist, but as a political analyst, I can say that Bengal has a trend of 'winners take it all' with big margins in seats and with a two-third majority result in favour of the winner in the last nine assembly elections from 1977.

Why is Bengal so important for the BJP? If the BJP wins, is this the end of secular parties and secular governments in most of India?

Bengal is crucial for the BJP.

Apart from the ideological target of winning a state that had a long tradition of secular politics reigning supreme in various shades, it is a border state.

This is why the current regime at the Centre wants to win it by hook or by crook.

From a geostrategic point of view, Bangladesh is a destination for the investments of Indian companies.

The Indian State has a huge stake in Bangladesh where China is increasingly becoming more influential in the region.

At the same time, friendly relations with Bangladesh are important for the current regime at the Centre to easily connect to the North-East, another region vulnerable to Chinese aggression.

If the BJP wins, it will be a jolt to secular parties in India. But I don't see an end of secular parties with this election.

There can be an end of old forms of Congress-type secularism, which is already being witnessed.

But the possibilities of new forms of secular politics will always be open in the future because of the dominance of the BJP in Indian politics.

Can the BJP's rise in Bengal be credited to the rise of subaltern Hindutva in rural Bengal?
In fact, Mamata Banerjee, despite being a Brahmin, is in fact a subaltern politician isn't it, considering her roots, while not labour class, are humble. Would you explain this dichotomy?

Mamata's politics is catch-all politics, but largely coloured with targeting the informal sector trade, urban and rural labour, the poor and marginalised castes and of late, there has been a slant towards Bengali sub-nationalist terrain.

By catch-all politics, I mean, the Trinamool needs votes from all except the rich and powerful.

This is a classic centre-left regional populism that is in contradiction with the assertive majoritarian religious nationalism of the BJP funded by sections of corporate capital.

The BJP can only cut into the subaltern support of the Trinamool by dividing the informal sector labour along caste lines.

The middle castes like the Mahisyas -- predominant in some parts of Bengal along with those who have now incorporated within the Hindu OBC (Other Backward Classes) groups -- have become the core base of the BJP in rural and suburban Bengal.

The main challenge of the Trinamool is to get more SC (Scheduled Caste) and ST (Scheduled Tribe) votes.

After all, it was able to manage them well during the 2016 assembly election.

Is the bhadralok (the Bengali urban elite) influence in electoral decisions waning and is the war cry 'Jai Shri Ram' an answer to bhadralok politics?

Bhadrolok politics has been waning since the decline of the Left in Bengal in 2011.

The new slogan of the BJP is a transplant from the Hindi heartland.

After all, the Hindi speaking population has increased in the state in the last three decades thanks to the chronic agrarian crisis in the Hindi belt of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh and the lack of job creation in terms of labour-intensive industries in this Hindi heartland.

As a result, people from Hindi speaking regions have come down to Bengal for employment.

'Jai Shri Ram' has gained currency in Bengal among this population, not so much the middle-class Bengali-speaking Hindu.

The BJP's strategy before the polls has been to talk about tolabaaj, corruption, Centre's schemes not extended to the state etc. But after the first few phases, their narrative has been about 'khela shesh'
Modi lists reasons why the TMC has already lost. Perception politics are being played.
Does this affect morale and the way the vote will be cast in the next few phases?

The BJP's tactic is to create fear among TMC voters and supporters by drumming up a narrative that they have already won and the TMC has lost.

This is a mind game, a psychological war, created by the BJP leadership through most of the television media.

The winner and loser in this election will be known only on 2nd May.

The political discourse at rallies by Modi and Mamata... Is this a new low? The mimicking, the name-calling, the overt disrespect and heckling towards an opponent, is this a BJP phenomenon?

The general political culture of Indian politics has already become ugly in the last decade. This election is nothing new.

How has Mamata responded to the challenge of the BJP's humongous strength in the polls?

She has so far fought well and hopefully by team PK (Poll strategist Prashant Kishor) by her side, will end the campaign smoothly.

PK is a game-changer in Indian politics and in the academic field of electoral studies.

Bengali politicians need to acknowledge the skill, efficiency and professionalism of such phenomena.

This has never happened before in Bengal that an efficient and meritocratic corporate team has become the chief campaign strategist for a political party.

The polls have almost become bipolar. The Congress-Left has been pushed to third place. Rahul Gandhi held his first rally on April 14.
Has the alliance conceded defeat even before the results or is there a bigger game plan?

The Gandhis are more focused in Kerala where they have a real stake.

However, one must not underestimate the Left-Congress alliance.

Even if there is a swing of 2 per cent votes from the BJP towards the alliance, Trinamool is safe.

In the anti-TMC space, the real game (khela) is whether that will happen in this election or not.

Do you foresee a Congress-CPM+TMC alliance in case Mamata can't make the magic figure?

I am not a poll predictor.

But such a possibility cannot be ruled out given the fact that all of them are opposed to the BJP.

PK seems to be very confident that the Trinamool is going to win more than 200 seats given the fact that the BJP will not touch 100 seats.

Mamata has said she needs at least 200 seats to ensure there is no horse-trading.
In more and more states in India, an elected government is soon overthrown as MLAs are won over by the BJP, like in Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh.
In that sense, is there a sense of hopelessness for most BJP opponents before they go to the polls?

The secular parties should come together on two counts.

First, a major movement for state funding of elections.

Second, for a strong anti-defection law that can stop such malpractices.

Mamata's 'Delhi next' challenge: How realistic is it? Will the TMC always remain a regional party?

First of all, Mamata needs to convincingly win this election.

At present, the Trinamool has the potential to remain a strong regional party.

The 2024 >(Lok Sabha) elections are far away.

Before that one has to notice whether sustained political movements are being organised much like the recent farm movements in the next two years.

How will the BJP's NRC-CAA promise affect the Muslim vote? Minority appeasement, the plank on which Mamata won in 2011 especially after the Sachar Committee report, has it now come to haunt her? Muslims are also unhappy with her. What went wrong?

The NRC-CAA promise of the BJP will only consolidate the Muslim vote and the Bengal votes towards the Trinamool.

Assam and Bengal are two different states and therefore vote differently.

Some sections within the Muslim community like the ISF (Indian Secular Front, which is part of the Congress-CPI-M alliance) leadership who have high political ambitions are unhappy.

By and large, in most of India along with Bengal, Muslims vote for the party that is the strongest opponent of the BJP or that which can defeat the BJP.

This is what is known as the tactical voting behaviour of Muslims in India and Bengal should not be an exception, at least in this election.

Is Bengal the only state that does not intrinsically vote along caste lines? Jyoti Basu, once infamously responded to the Mandal Commission saying 'There were only two castes in Bengal -- rich and poor'.Along the way, Mamata has reached out to the Dalit voters, SC, ST voters. But when these communities go to vote, do they vote according to caste lines?

Generally, the voting behaviour of SC and ST groups vary from North to South India.

In Bengal, a consolidated voting pattern was not seen among the SC and ST as has been increasingly seen in the last decade.

For example, Matuas are voting as a bloc.

I don't know whether this has happened in the last seven decades.

23 per cent of the state's population is SC. The ISF and the BJP have been reaching out to Dalits as well.Modi went to Bangladesh and visited a Matua temple, for instance.
The ISF has put up Dalit and ST candidates as well in some of the seats.
What is your reading of this?

Muslim politics has been already reshaping from 2008-09 in India with increasing efforts in building solidarity between the Dalits and Muslims in some places.

This is a new political experiment that is yet to mature.

Such politics has to transform from mere symbolism to long term political alliance between Dalits and Muslims if one is committed to offering a new kind of secular politics in many parts of India against the BJP's divisive tactic of putting Dalits against Muslims.

Mamata's claim against central forces acting under the aegis of the BJP in the election. Is her claim justified?

I am not able to speak on this matter without knowing the full facts.

But the latest killings in Cooch Behar showed the utter callousness and insensitivity of central forces in handling the Bengal elections.

Violence has been an intrinsic part of Bengal elections in the last two decades because unlike the caste or community-centric violence that is rampant in most of North and western India, party-centric identity is key to violence.

Bengal is a state where everyday politics matters with huge stakes in government schemes.

The poor who is also vulnerable to violence is at the same time more dependent on parties for doles and security.

Who do you think will form the government in Bengal and why?

At this moment, the Trinamool has an edge.

From 2002 there has been a trend in many large Indian states as disparate as Gujarat, Bihar, Odisha and Madhya Pradesh that ruling parties are getting back to power with people's mandate if there is a credible chief minister whom the people trust that the incumbent government has delivered on major poll promises.

To win Bengal, it seems Modi, (Amit Anilchandra, India's home minister and the BJP's election strategist) Shah and (BJP leader and Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Ajay Mohan Bisht also known as) Yogi (Adityanath) must start eating fish besides learning proper Bengali and have a permanent address in Kolkata.

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