By: Nantoo Banerjee
The most important lesson from the results of the latest West Bengal Assembly election is that the state is not prepared to accept religion-led politics. The state would rather suffer inadequate economic development, lack of industry, large unemployment, and extortion than surrender to a political rule compromised on religion. The biggest election shock came from voters thrashing the CPM-Congress-Indian Secular Front alliance this time. Supporters severely punished the grand plan of the secularist Marxist party and Congress to tie up with Muslim fundamentalist Abbas Siddiqui’s ISF hoping that the alliance will change their fortune since at least 30 of the state’s 294 assembly constituencies have nearly 70 percent Muslim population and 70 other seats have around 50 percent Muslim electorates. They fell for general perception and cleric Siddiqui’s logic that Muslims prefer an Islamic party to so-called secular political forces. The perception was totally rejected by both secularist Hindus and Muslims, who have traditionally supported the Left and Congress in West Bengal for decades and many of whom courted secularist Trinamool Congress (TMC) during the 2011 and 2016 Assembly elections. The seemingly strong secularist supporters of the Left and Congress parties could not believe these parties will surrender their key political philosophy to a newborn radical Islamist group to wrest political power in the state. The result was devastating for the Left and Congress compared to the 2016 assembly election when the multi-party Left-Congress alliance had won 74 seats. Congress alone got 44 seats and CPM 26. They were simply routed in the 2021 election.
Interestingly, BJP, the Hindu nationalist party, made the same mistake by overselling Hindutva in a state, which generally maintained a secular identity for over 70 years. The economic well-being of the people is very important to the general public of West Bengal, but not at the cost of their secular sentiments. The repeated campaign thrust on West Bengal by top national-level BJP leaders, union ministers, led by the prime minister himself, and state chief ministers to cash in on the state’s majority Hindu sentiment by pushing ‘Jai Shri Ram’ slogan to grab power seemed to have been viewed with serious suspicion by a good majority of secular Hindus. BJP read the 2019 parliamentary election results, which gave the party as many as 18 seats out of 42, wrong. Those who voted for BJP were not suddenly enamoured by its Hindutva. They voted as most people found no improvement of their lot under TMC, which substantially surrendered its local control to ‘syndicates’, cut-money operators, unregulated chit fund promoters, and ‘tolabaji’ or extortion. BJP did try to exploit these sentiments during the last poll campaign, but its key focus on Hindutva seemed to have unnerved many of its supporters during the last Lok Sabha polls. If BJP were able to maintain its 2019 parliamentary election gains in West Bengal, it would have secured at least 125 assembly seats. BJP has clearly yielded its newfound ground to TMC in the assembly election.
Unlike those in most of the northern, western, and central parts of India, educated Hindus in the eastern state of West Bengal are more like rationalists. They follow a different culture and thought process. Their rationalist approach is based more on reason, logic, and knowledge than on strong religious belief or emotional response. This explains why Lord Shri Ram was never very popular among Bengali Hindus because of his treatment to wife Sita, who had to sacrifice her life in public to protect her threatened chastity. BJP’s poll campaign frequently using the ‘Jai Shri Ram’ slogan rarely impressed even diehard Bengali Hindus. BJP’s sudden rise in West Bengal, as recorded in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, had little to do with religion. It was all because the so-called supporters of dwindling Left parties and Congress came together to stand by BJP to protest against the highly corrupt and mafia-like operations of TMC underbellies. Unfortunately, BJP’s Hindi-heartland leaders do not quite understand these sentiments.
Religion never got much weightage in West Bengal politics despite the fact that a large portion of the state’s population entered the Indian province as refugees from former East Pakistan or East Bengal to save their life in the face of well-engineered murderous attacks from politically supported Muslim ultras before and after the partition of India in 1947. That was over seven decades ago. New generation rationalist Bengali Hindus are least interested in looking back to the past. More than religion, what matters to them are a good education, intellectual freedom, good job opportunities, and better life. It has been a matter of great disappointment that their support to Left parties for over three decades, Congress for over two decades and now TMC for a decade failed to reach anywhere near their expectations. The situation has been going from bad to worse. They supported BJP rather desperately to see their state returns to the past glory as a vibrant economic-cultural-aspirational engine. Maybe towards the end of the election campaign, the prime minister realised that merchandising the Hindutva was not catching up with the audience. His last virtual rallies in Suri, Malda, Berhampore and Bhawanipur stressed the dignity of labour, corruption-free administration, ease of living and of doing business. He said: “West Bengal elections are not just for a change in the government, I can see the rise of an aspirational and optimistic West Bengal in these polls. Be it villages or cities, I can see the yearning for a better life, better education, better employment and better option everywhere.” The realisation seemed to have come rather late.
Lastly, politically hyperactive West Bengal rarely witnessed a peaceful election. The last three elections in the state were also held in a long phased manner — six, seven, and eight phases. West Bengal was the only state where the Election Commission ordered this time to complete the campaign before time following an agitation. The state government was asked to wrap up the campaign by May 16. Now that the election is over and TMC is back in power, one hopes that retaliatory political attacks will be contained. TMC’s third consecutive state election victory makes it only the second political entity, after the Left Front, to rule West Bengal for more than two terms at a stretch. Since India’s independence, West Bengal has been governed by a total of eight chief ministers, of whom CPM’s Jyoti Basu ruled for 23 years, making him the country’s longest-serving CM. Now, Mamata Banerjee is set to become the second longest-serving CM in the state. (IPA Service)