Battle for Bengal between “Wounded Tiger” and BJP

A wounded tiger is more dangerous,” said West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee soon after presiding over a meeting with her state officials on June 10 reviewing the situation in the wake of unabated political violence in different parts of the state. Her remark, one of the many she made to the media after the meeting at “Nabanna,” the state secretariat in Howrah, aptly summed up Mamata’s plight as she tries to cope with volatile situation arising out of the escalating clashes between workers of her party Trinamool Congress and Bharatiya Janata Party across West Bengal that have left at least 14 people dead.

Why this power struggle in a state which was the cradle of Indian Renaissance in the 19thcentury with its thinkers and writers leading the early movements for social and educational reforms and later leading the struggle for independence? Much like the north eastern states of India, West Bengal has been on the radar of BJP ever since the Left parties were voted out of power in the state in May 2011 and the saffron party returned to power in India in May 2014. Much like the north east, BJP’s deep inroads into Bengal to occupy the political void created by the disintegration of the Left and Congress has been preceded by a spadework on the ground by RSS and its affiliates which set up  a network of schools and healthcare and social and centres  across the state particularly in villages.   

The cumulative devastating effects of the man-made famine of 1943, the Partition of the Indian sub-continent in 1947 displacing millions of people on both sides of the border which amounted a major human catastrophe and the accompanied communal cauldron had left a lasting impact on the social, political, economic and moral fabric of West Bengal, making it a fertile ground for Communist ideology to flourish. The independence made little difference to the economic plight of the poor and one heard the Communist party’s slogan of “yeh azadi jhootha hai/desh ki janata bhooka hai” (this freedom is meaningless because the country’s masses are hungry). Decades of Congress party and Left rule in succession ensured Hindutva politics did not find favour with the people in West Bengal.

However, as the Left embraced the capitalist set-up and was sucked into its contradictions, it struggled to uphold its ideology before Communist Party of India (Marxist) Jyoti Basu went public in early 1980s publicly renouncing revolution as a tool of his party.  As the dream of socialism lay in tatters, the disillusionment with the Left began setting in and hastened as the Left courted with increasing passion big capitalists whom they had once reviled. The Left’s decline and eventual demise was only a question of time. 

Another major reason for the present predicament of the Left and Congress in Bengal was their ambivalent approach to each other.  In West Bengal, they were arch rivals but nationally they joined hands in the name of opposing “communal” BJP as the saffron party’s ascendancy in national politics. There was also a time when Jyoti Basu shared the dais with BJP leaders A B Vajpayee and L K Advani in a nation-wide campaign against Congress which was in power at the centre. In popular perception, the Left and Congress stood accused of political duplicity.        

Today, the situation in Bengal is turning increasingly worrisome.  Each of the seven phases of polling in the parliamentary elections in Bengal was marred by violence. The exercise ended on May 19 but post-poll violence involving Trinamool and BJP supporters shows no sign of holding off as the two parties fight inch for inch turf battle. Not a day passes when one does not get reports of clashes between the rival groups, killings and Trinamool and BJP occupying each other’s offices in several districts across the state. The two parties are accusing each other of being responsible for the unrest which has shown an upward trend after BJP’s impressive performance in the parliamentary poll winning 18 seats, just four more than Trinamool, out of a total of 42. Buoyed by the parliamentary poll results, BJP has sensed an opportunity to grab power in West Bengal assembly elections due in 2021.

Last Saturday’s violence in Bashirhat in the state’s North 24  Parganas district saw the killing of four people, one belonging to Trinamool and three to BJP and the incident contributed to the worsening of the ground situation. The federal Indian Home Ministry headed by Amit Shah, a trusted aide of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, stepped in by issuing an “advisory” saying the situation appears to be a “failure of the law enforcement machinery”. This evoked a sharp reaction from the Mamata government and party. Mamata herself termed the federal Home Ministry’s “advisory” as a “conspiracy to malign” her government. The essentially political standoff between the BJP government at the Centre and the Mamata dispensation reached the highest level when West Bengal Governor K N Tripathi briefed Modi on the situation in the state.

The ongoing violence, according to Trinamool sources, has put the state’s ruling party and the Mamata government under pressure and the longer it lingers, the more will be the pressure. West Bengal is not new to the culture of political violence. One had seen that during decades of Left rule in the state when Congress and Trinamool Congress were at the receiving end. But the big difference this time is that unlike in the past, when the Congress governments at the Centre chose to ignore or downplay the violence in Bengal by the Left because of the bonhomie between the top leaderships of Congress and the Left, BJP state unit has the full backing of the Modi government. There is assessment in Trinamool that BJP may use continued violence to gain public sentiment which is already high against the ruling party, as brought out by the election outcome. Besides, the Mamata government runs the risk of losing control over the situation and the party, Trinamool sources said.

 Even as street clashes continue, Mamata opened a new front in her fight against BJP government at the Centre by refusing to attend a meeting of the Niti Ayog (Policy Commission) headed by the Prime Minister which firms up the federal government’s financial assistance to states. Political observers admit Mamata is at her combative best as a street fighter but such a role is more suited when she is in the opposition. Combining the role of a street fighter and Chief Minister has the potential to eat into the time for governance which consequently gets affected. Secondly, the observers wonder if it is wise on her part to fight a political battle with a much bigger party like BJP on more than one front and if a bitter and adversarial relationship with the federal government helps West Bengal’s development.  

It is noteworthy that Mamata appears left alone in her against BJP. Not a single opposition leader has so far gone public expressing solidarity with her in the ongoing face-off with the saffron party. One reason could be most of the opposition parties are themselves smarting under a crushing defeat against BJP in parliamentary poll—Telugu Desam Party, Samajwadi Party, Bahujan Samaj Party, Nationalist Congress Party, Rashtriya Janata Dal and Janata Dal (Secular). This is a far cry from the run up to the elections when Mamata and TDP chief N Chandrababu Naidu were in the forefront of efforts to put up a united front against BJP. Today, Mamata is on a “ekla cholo rey” path.

It is unlikely the Modi government will use the constitutional provision of Article 356 to dismiss the Mamata government on the ground of alleged breakdown in law and order. Such a step will be a big political mistake and give away the advantage to Trinamool in the political battle as Mamatas’ party could turn around and project itself as a “martyr”. 

In fact, BJP sources say continuance of the Mamata government would only help sharpen the anti-incumbency in the build-up to 2021 assembly elections.  Towards this end, BJP has drawn up a plan to step up anti-Trinamool government agitations on a range of issues in a bid to seek the public opinion. Mamata is likely to counter BJP by embarking on a “padyatra” across the state to consolidate her support base and recover the lost ground. All in all, the stage seems set for a fierce and possibly bloody battle for Bengal in the weeks to come: a battle between a “wounded tiger” and a party looking to tame it and grab power. 

However, a good performance in parliamentary elections is no guarantee for BJP of victory in coming assembly elections because there is a history of people in other Indian states voting differently in the two polls. This was witnessed very recently in Odisha, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh.

Pallab Bhattacharya is a journalist based in India