Through 2017, uneasiness and uncertainty, with the possibility of chaos hovering in the background, has stalked West Bengal.
The political climate in West Bengal, as much as in the rest of the country, has been more than usually heated over the ideology of India — is it secular or is it not so? The question has hovered over everything, exaggerating the intensity of competition by instigating an examination of identities and beliefs; be it the state elections in Uttar Pradesh or Gujarat or sponsored rituals of weapon worship in West Bengal.
Back in the days when Mamata Banerjee was the stormy petrel of Indian politics, she may have thundered as did poet Nazrul Islam – “Are you Hindu or Muslim, who dares to ask?” — and she would have replied in the poet’s words — that they are all children of the same mother — and her words would have triggered an emotional ripple, both among Bengalis and in the wider public sphere across India.
Back then, remember, Mamata Banerjee was not a jaded veteran, the successful winner of elections and a wielder of power; she was then a bright young, if impetuous and wayward, possibility.
When in 2007-08, she invented the slogan “Ma, Mati, Manush” (Mother-Land-People), it was a clever solvent that disposed of the complications of dealing with the politics of poverty, class and partisanship that defined the CPI(M)-led Left Front. At a time when parading evidence of being a Hindu and a nationalist has become an insistent motif, Mamata Banerjee, instead of sidestepping this artful Sangh Parivar-designed entrapment, is in danger of stepping right in.
Why Mamata Banerjee in 2017 was buying into the idea of religious identity as the measure of citizenship — Hindu as nationalist and Muslim as doubtful nationalist – remains a puzzle. It’s time for her to make up her mind on a few things. First, what are her rules of political engagement with the BJP at the Centre. Second, Ms Banerjee has to decide how she will tackle the BJP, which is promoting itself as the principal challenger to the Trinamul Congress in West Bengal. Third, she has to figure out which party is her biggest enemy in the state — because as of now Trinamul Congress has no allies and seems to prefer not to have a healthy Opposition.
Through 2017, uneasiness and uncertainty, with the possibility of chaos hovering in the background, has stalked West Bengal. It has been on the brink of erupting into explosive violence and instability. There have been officially acknowledged and officially ignored outbreaks of communal rioting. The demand for a separate state of Gorkhaland has produced a three-month shutdown of Darjeeling, that saw violence and destruction and damage to government property. Investigations into financial misdeeds involving high-ranking Trinamul Congress leaders, some of them perilously close to the chief minister, by the Central Bureau of Investigations have hurt the ruling establishment enough to provoke charges of “political vendetta” being pursued by the Narendra Modi government to tarnish the credibility of Mamata Banerjee. And if this weren’t enough, there has been one serious defection — by Mukul Roy, the second-ranking Trinamul leader after Ms Banerjee, to the BJP and a prairie fire of intra-party clashes that have separately and cumulatively damaged the credibility of the leadership.
Difficult as it is for Mamata Banerjee to make choices and thus increase her risk and add to her vulnerabilities, she seems to be firming up her priorities: foiling the BJP’s plans for West Bengal and using the “nation is in danger” slogan as a war cry against divisive and destructive communal politics. A two-tier strategy is perhaps ideal: it will allow her to use her “true Hindu” identity to offset the BJP’s propaganda of baiting her as an appeaser of Muslim minority claims, curiously mimicking Indira Gandhi’s manoeuvring in the 1980s. It will also allow her to juggle her role between being the nation’s saviour and protector of a national ideal — West Bengal’s remarkable political history of consensus against communal divisiveness.
As things are in West Bengal, Trinamul Congress is the “big” party; but it is a party that is distracted by its murderous internecine conflicts. Nurturing factionalism within the party was once an efficient mechanism for preventing any one leader from getting too powerful, but this has turned into a volatile and unmanageable mix. It is this organisational chaos that Mukul Roy may hope to exploit to trigger an exodus from the Trinamul Congress to the BJP, thereby instantly building bases for the Sangh Parivar where none existed. If politics was like event management, this could be a guaranteed fix for the BJP to win in West Bengal — that is, win a significant number of the 42 Lok Sabha seats in 2019 and a majority in the 2021 state Assembly elections. The BJP, however, despite its calculations and its investment in Mukul Roy, may need to look at other variables.
Do the majority of voters in West Bengal subscribe to the idea of a threatened Hindu majority, which is in danger of being overtaken by an expanding Muslim minority? Have voters given up on the political consensus on maintaining communal harmony? What is the role and responsibility of the CPI(M) and the Left Front, as also the Congress, in defending West Bengal against the Sangh Parivar’s ambitions?
It is West Bengal’s problem and Mamata Banerjee’s too that in the past 10 years, she has become the sole source of political leadership because she is the only mass leader. Her larger-than-life presence is what makes the contest between the BJP and the Trinamul Congress into a fight between Mamata Banerjee and Narendra Modi.
To prevent the BJP from scoring in West Bengal, Ms Banerjee has to take the fight to the national level. She needs to recapture public attention by projecting herself as a champion for secular and sensible politics. And she has to reinvent the enthusiasm that hoisted her from leading a small party engaging in big battles, like David and Goliath, and winning.