The BJP, in contrast, has not done the hard work and failed to build a party grid of significance.
The Bharatiya Janata Party had hoped this time that West Bengal would turn out to be its Uttar Pradesh of 2014. In the 2019 edition of the polls, the party dreamt that even if its strike rate did not match the phenomenal 91 per cent in UP, at least it would go beyond being an impressive also-ran, to a party that could harness anti-incumbent sentiment and also win a significant number of seats. It hoped that the expected losses in the Hindi-speaking states would be somewhat compensated by gains in West Bengal.
Undoubtedly, ever since the Trinamul Congress stormed to power in West Bengal in 2011, Mamata Banerjee faces her sternest test. In many ways, this election will go down in history as a watershed, not just in the state but nationally too, and the stakes are unprecedentedly higher. Most people are quick to point out the violent character of elections in the state. Yet few took note that the state has a 50-year old history of the ruling party de facto seizing control of the state, especially the law-enforcement machinery. Whether one likes or not, parties need a combination of cadre network and muscle power, and the absence or weakness of either hinders victory.
This culture of competitive political violence exists from the late 1960s. The balance shifted in favour of the challenger for the first time by the Left From in 1977, when it seized political power from the incumbent Congress Party. Thereafter, the Communist parties remained entrenched till 2011 when Mamata Banerjee wrested power. It took her a decade and a half of consistent grassroots political campaigning to build an enviable party network which could challenge the Left, and once this was in place, muscle power flowed into its organisation. On both occasions, the defeat of the incumbent was possible only because of challenger’s organisational network.
The BJP, in contrast, has not done the hard work and failed to build a party grid of significance. It banks solely on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s image, with other national leaders bringing up the chorus. Their high visibility and the lack of a charismatic local leadership resulted in the organisational structure either remaining weak in areas where it was present, or not taking ground where it did not exist prior to 2014.
The situation made the BJP increasingly desperate. Speeches by the top brass indicated a realisation that the sangathan deficit and the shakti that flows towards it after its full construction, could be countered only by staging “jhamela”, the word used in the self-video circulated by a low-level BJP functionary. But then, Mamata Banerjee is no genteel foe who can be bowed into submission. For every vituperative attack, she had a retort. For every snort, she had a grunt. She and Mayawati are the political subalterns challenging the leader who once moralistically claimed to be an “outsider”, yet became the establishment overnight.
The desecration of Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar’s statue by the lumpen brigade after BJP president Amit Shah’s motorised cavalcade put them in the same club as adventurist Naxalites who almost half a century ago embarked on beheading statues of icons of the Bengal Renaissance and Bengali culture. The romantic rebels rebelled against the past as they considered these iconic characters, ranging from Raja Rammohun Roy, Vidyasagar, Ram Krishna Paramhansa, Swami Vivekananda, Rabindranath Tagore and several others, contributed to the emergence of the “bhadralok”, essentially the “enemy of the people”.
It would be easy to dismiss the vandalism at Vidyasagar College as an act of political violence where the target was “any” statue. However, one cannot but factor the enormous symbolism of Vidyasagar in the campaign directed against communalism, prejudice and discrimination, the three tenets which are integral to the Hindutva idea in some form or the other. Moreover, Mamata Banerjee is an “eyesore” for the newly-created Hanuman brigade, which the BJP has sent to bat for it on the streets of Bengal.
She, after all, stands against patriarchal stereotypes — not good looking (by market standards), single and fiercely independent, verbally offensive to the core on any given day, yet caring for her people — in many ways the real-life parallel of Ritwik Ghatak’s immortal protagonist in Meghe Dhaka Tara. The chief minister is, in many ways, the very girl that Vidyasagar wished every girl to become and thus the attack on his statue becomes an attack on his idea of the real-life character deified in Durga and Kali Pujas every year in Bengal.
Into this macabre Hindutva plot, where Ram Bhakti was introduced as a political tool, as distinct from the cultural form of the public religious ceremonies of Bengal, and where Hindu anxiety has been pumped for political gains in a culture which had rejected the ideas of Hindu nationalistic stalwarts like Syama Prasad Mookerjee and N.C. Chatterjee after a few years, the Election Commission stepped in and decided to play a role. That the referee has played a partisan role across India has been widely commented on, but its decision to curtail the campaign by a day was blatant one-sidedness. It is no coincidence that the commission acted in West Bengal only after Amit Shah accused it of being blind to what was unfolding.
The EC’s order was based on hearsay, that Trinamul leaders warned that “Central forces will leave after the elections while we will remain”. It cited the same points that its critics did while criticising the EC’s inaction on charges of violations of the Model Code of Conduct by Prime Miniser Narendra Modi and Mr Shah: “Democracy forms the basic structure of the Constitution”; and “Free and fair elections are the bedrock of all democratic institutions”. Was not the EC aware of these observations of the Supreme Court when it chose not to act after the Opposition complained? Furthermore, why did the commission not curtail the campaigning immediately? Was it to enable Mr Modi to address two planned rallies on Thursday? Whatever be the verdict on May 23, the shadow of this election in West Bengal will cast its shadow on the republic for long.