With West Bengal politics witnessing a class-to-caste paradigm shift, the TMC and BJP are engaged in a bitter fight to woo Dalit communities, a deciding factor in the ongoing assembly elections. Dalits, comprising 23.5 per cent of the state’s electorate and 25-30 per cent of its population, can influence results in around 100-110 seats in the 294-member assembly, most of which will go to polls in the next four phases.
In a state where the electoral discourse has been dominated by class struggle during the 34 years of Left Front rule, both the TMC and BJP are now leaving no stone unturned to secure the votes of Dalits and other backward communities. Rajbongshis, living in Cooch Behar and other border districts in north Bengal, and Matuas, refugees from erstwhile East Pakistan and their descendants influential in 30-40 seats in south Bengal, are the two largest Dalit communities in the state whom the TMC and BJP are fighting to woo.
Both the BJP and the TMC are championing the rights of Dalits and other backward communities. The state has 68 seats reserved for Scheduled Castes (SCs) and 16 for Scheduled Tribes (STs). Both the parties have promised to include communities like Mahishya, Teli, Tamul and Saha in the OBC list as per the Mandal Commission recommendations if voted to power.
While the TMC has nominated 79 Dalit candidates in the polls, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had visited a renowned temple in Bangladesh’s Orakandi, the birthplace of Matua spiritual guru Harichand Thakur. A TMC candidate allegedly likening Dalits with beggars has also emerged as a key election issue. The BJP had won a majority of the state’s reserved seats in the 2019 Lok Sabha election, prompting the TMC to go on a course correction drive and regularise all the refugee colonies and give them land rights, besides exploiting the delay and confusion over the implementation of CAA.
While the TMC had won 50 of the reserved seats in the 2016 assembly elections, the BJP has made deep inroads into the SC-dominated areas, leading in 46 seats, including 34 in Matua-dominated areas, in the Lok Sabha elections. “The BJP has given a voice to the backward communities by speaking about their core aspirations. SCs will be a deciding factor in this election and will vote hands down for us," state BJP chief Dilip Ghosh said.
Echoing him that caste will play an important role in the polls, senior TMC leader Sougata Roy, however, dismissed the BJP’s claim that it is fighting for Dalit rights. “The rise in crime against Dalits in BJP-ruled states shows that the saffron party is least bothered about them. In Bengal, on the other hand, it is misleading the Dalits," he said.
The CPI(M) blamed both the TMC and the BJP for taking West Bengal’s political discourse to a “new low" through divisive politics. Since Independence, elections in West Bengal, which boasts of being the cradle of the Indian renaissance, have always being fought along ideological lines, with religion and caste-based politics taking a back seat.
The Left Front, which dominated the state’s political space for decades, discouraged caste politics, while SCs and STs, beneficiaries of the land reforms implemented by it, were its committed supporters. “Caste politics was never into play in West Bengal.
The state had never witnessed such divisive politics as is the practice now," Sugata Bose, noted historian and Harvard University professor, told PTI. “Realising that only communal polarisation won’t help, every party is seeking to woo Dalits, who they feel are key to win elections," Bose said.
Political analysts said that TMC supremo Mamata Banerjee had first thought of consolidating the votes of Dalits, apart from religious minorities, in TMC’s favour. She had nominated members of the Matua Thakurbari, the seat of power of the Matuas, as TMC candidates in the 2011 elections, paving way for her victory.
The TMC government had formed various ethnic development boards across the state, which helped the party perform well in the 2014 Lok Sabha and 2016 assembly elections. However, the BJP’s promise to implement the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), the RSS’s history of work among smaller Dalit communities like Bauris and Bagdis and the party’s strategy to give nominations to Matua Thakurbari members also paid off in its favour.
Besides, the BJP also accuses the TMC of “minority appeasement" and favouring illegal immigrants over refugees, who had fled religious persecution in Bangladesh. Political analyst Suman Bhattacharya said that Dalits and minorities, despite being dominant by their numbers, were never key players in West Bengal politics as upper caste Hindus always dominated the political space.
“The Left Front did not encourage identity politics. But Mamata Banerjee had first shown the road and now the BJP is treading it," he said.