The battle for India is being fought in truncated, impoverished and overcrowded Bengal. The outcome may well decide whether India will be “the prison house of nationalities” which was Lenin’s term for tsarist Russia or whether minorities like Gorkhas, Muslims and the north-east’s Mongoloid tribes can live in peace with Hindus in a pluralist nation.
Meanwhile, “Bengal is slowly becoming a multiple theocracy", says Satyabrata Chakraborty, a former professor of political science at Calcutta University. He was referring to various allowances for mosques and mullahs as well as state funding of the great annual festival of Durga Puja and political patronage of Chhat Puja celebrated by Bihari labourers. This emulation of the national mix of puja and politics appears to reverse Gopal Krishna Gokhale’s famous "What Bengal thinks today, India thinks tomorrow." But going several steps beyond Narendra Modi politics as puja and pujas that are political, Mamata Banerjee casts her net so wide that no voter can slip through its holes. “I am Hindu” she proudly announced when BJP propagandists tried to keep her out of Puri’s Jagannath Temple, “I am proud of all our religions.”
If despite this declaration of universalism, Nepalese settlers in Darjeeling exploded in protest it was because she tactlessly let it appear that Bengali would be taught compulsorily in hill schools. The Gorkhaland agitation is not of her making. It has been simmering since before the Morley-Minto reforms were presented in 1909 and Ms Banerjee suspects the Centre’s hidden hand in its sudden and violent revival. It’s tempting to dismiss her talk of conspiracies to unseat her by hook or by crook but it is noteworthy that soon after the governor of Bengal, Keshari Nath Tripathi, took her to task for the outbreak of communal violence in Basirhat, Rahul Sinha, former president of the BJP’s Bengal unit and currently the party’s national secretary, lauded the governor, who is a veteran BJP politician, as “a sainik of the Modi Bahini.”
Whether or not the cartoon of the Prophet Mohammed that offended Basirhat’s Muslims was the handiwork of a Class 11 pupil, as alleged, the disturbances seem to be settling down. Mr Tripathi may not be able to report a breakdown of law and order, which is what the chief minister suspects him of trying to do. But there is no denying that many even among those who don’t owe allegiance to the saffron brigade would agree with Dilip Ghosh, the BJP’s current Bengal unit president, that “Mamata Banerjee’s minority appeasement is backfiring.”
Perception matters more than facts in politics, and Ms Banerjee has encouraged the general perception by allowing herself to be photographed draped in what looks like a hijab with eyes shut and holding her palms out as if at namaz. She can’t join in Muslim prayers and she doesn’t, but the appearance of doing so gives rise to other suspicions and accusations of favouritism.
A thriving economy would have absorbed resentment on this score. But Bengal has received no investment since Ms Banerjee and her Trinamool Congress drove out Ratan Tata’s Nano factory from Singur (Modi promptly housed it in Gujarat) and job generation is at a virtual standstill. Denied bread, people are regaled with the circus of Kolkata’s pillars and lampposts swathed in twinkling lights (that often don’t work), a replica of London’s Big Ben tower, and promises to erect a giant Ferris wheel like the London Eye. Contracts for such projects are believed to enrich the chief minister’s cronies while the party’s foot soldiers -- unemployed urban youths – are accused of running nefarious protection rackets with the ruling party’s blessings.
Sometimes they are guilty of bloomers that expose their notoriety. This happened recently when a gang turned up the home of 87-year-old Krishna Bose, a former Trinamool M.P. and mother of the well-known current Trinamool M.P., Sugata Bose, to demand why the material for some petty building repairs hadn’t been bought from them. Other young men whom the Trinamool Congress enrolled as informants and vigilantes in the successful campaign to stamp out the Maoist rebellion in three Bengal districts were found jobs in a newly created special force that has done little to strengthen law and order. One reason why the Left Front came a cropper after 36 years in power was that its commendable land reforms released a new generation of young Bengalis who were no longer content to be peasant farmers but couldn’t find the white collar jobs they yearned for.
History might repeat itself this time with the added – and dangerous -- twist of communal animosity. Popular lore has it that Ms Banerjee pampers Muslims – allowing them to grab land and build illegally – for both votes and muscle power. Actually, Muslims lag as far behind Hindus in education and earnings as when the Sachar Committee reported on the situation, but that is not widely known. Another popular belief is that thanks to high fertility and a continuing influx from Bangladesh, the Muslim population is much more than the 27 per cent recorded in the 2011 Census. The final whispered touch is that the chief minister is not averse to eating beef.
This volatile situation needs only a match to explode. With or without the Centre’s benediction, the BJP seems ready to provide it.
(Mr Datta-Ray is a journalist and author of several books. He has been editor of The Statesman. Views are personal)