Polarisation of the Hindu vote share with some division in the Muslim votes is the Bharatiya Janata Party’s game plan to take on Mamata Banerjee in the 2021 West Bengal assembly polls.
Already the state BJP, ahead of union home minister Amit Shah’s visit to the state, has raised the political temperature with ‘Nabanna Chalo Abhijan’ (‘Let’s march to Nabanna’, the state secretariat) on October 8, and now to take things forward it has requested Prime Minister Narendra Modi to greet people virtually during Durga Puja on Shashthi, October 22.
Besides Nabanna Chalo, they have also attempted to corner the Mamata Banerjee government by raising the “turban controversy". In a scuffle during the rally, Balvinder Singh, a security guard of BJP leader Priyanshu Pandey, was purportedly caught with a firearm at GT Road in Howrah. A row erupted when his turban ‘accidentally’ came off while he was being taken into custody.
Following the incident, there was massive outrage among members of the Sikh community and they demanded an explanation from Mamata Banerjee. “I don’t think the police have done it intentionally. It is true that the police here are working for TMC leaders but it is hard to believe that they have intentionally removed his turban. The BJP is trying to woo the Sikh community through this incident as vote bank politics," Congress leader Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury said.
To raise the poll fever across the state, there will be Amit Shah’s public meeting in North Bengal and also at the booth level before Durga Puja. Prime Minister Narendra Modi too is likely to offer virtual greetings to the people on Shashthi.
In the context of Shah’s plan of action, a senior BJP leader said, “He will take stock of the situation ahead of the 2021 assembly elections. Apart from his scheduled meetings in North Bengal, the union home minister will also hold meetings in south Bengal."
He said the former BJP national president, Shah, will brief party leaders about the roadmap ahead to oust the Trinamool Congress (TMC). State-centric burning issues will also be discussed by him which will be highlighted during the BJP’s scheduled campaign against the TMC in the state.
In 2016, out of Bengal’s 294 assembly seats, Mamata won 211. And in 98 of these, the Muslim vote was decisive.
The BJP has done its calculation well and is eager to make inroads in these 98 assembly seats, which proved crucial for Mamata Banerjee in winning the previous state polls.
Sources said, of these 98 constituencies, BJP vice-president Mukul Roy will suggest candidates for at least 60 (where the Muslim population is about 30 per cent, and in the remaining 38 seats the Muslim population is around 20 per cent) to ensure the party’s win in the upcoming state polls.
Political expert and author Kapil Thakur said, “Caste-based politics was always there in Bengal but it was never highlighted. You look at any matrimonial pages of vernacular dailies in West Bengal and you will find out whether caste factor is there or not among the people here in the state. In politics, too, various castes were utilised for votes in the past. But now it is out in the open as the BJP has made it very clear before the people that it is pro-Hindu. The BJP going all out with the Hindu card has forced Mamata to announce several sops for Hindus in her recent meetings. One of the crucial announcements was allowances to Sanatan priests.”
“If you go deeper, this is a dangerous trend which has been started by the BJP. On the one hand by playing the Hindu card, it managed to ‘hypnotise’ the Hindu community across the country so that it should not raise its voice against the farmer’s bill, NEP, privatisation, messed-up economy and any other contentious issues. This is not a good trend because we all (including Hindus) are going to be affected by poor policies of the present Central government. To pave a smooth passage for their contentious intentions, they shut the mouth of Hindus while playing with their religious sentiments (keeping the Muslim in their subject),” Thakur said.
Presently, as per some internal assessments in the state’s ruling party, the TMC is in a comfortable position (ahead of the BJP) at the booth level in 165-170 seats, including the 98 with significant Muslim votes and 70 primarily dominated by Hindus.
But it is too early for predictions as the BJP’s analysis indicates that in 226 of the 294 constituencies, the significance of the Muslim vote is very little.
Speaking to News18, Bengal BJP vice-president Jay Prakash Majumdar said, “The trouble for Mamata Banerjee will start when an influential Muslim group in alliance with Asaduddin Owaisi will contest the polls in these 68 seats. In 226 seats (approximately), the Hindu votes are polarised and on the other side there will be a division in the Muslim vote share. The rest you calculate. Mamata’s Muslim vote share will be under serious stress. This upcoming election in Bengal will be fought on negative votes of Mamata Banerjee.”
As Malda (TMC won 1 seat out of 12 here last time), Murshidabad (TMC won 4 seats out of 22), Darjeeling (not a single seat won by the TMC out of 6) remain a worry for the TMC, Mamata is eyeing the BJP’s nearly 29 per cent vote share mainly from North Bengal, which it gained in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls.
To give momentum to the BJP’s aggressive campaign, Amit Shah has already decided to visit Bengal before Durga Puja to sound the poll bugle.
Shah is planning to stay in the state for a couple of days to finalise the party’s strategy to take on Mamata in all the assembly seats.
In the 2016 assembly elections, the BJP’s vote share was 10.2 per cent, and in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls it went up to 40.3 per cent. There was an increase of 30.1 per cent in vote share mainly because of Hindus gravitating towards the BJP. In the past three years, the BJP has managed to cultivate religion-driven politics in Bengal and this was evident in its significant rise in the state in terms of votes.
Dominant in nearly 70 assembly seats, the BJP is already getting the support of refugees because of their stand on the citizenship issue. In the 2019 parliamentary polls, refugees wholeheartedly supported the saffron outfit which helped it to increase its tally from two to 18 Lok Sabha seats.
Nearly five crores refugees are there in India, while in West Bengal alone the figure is around three crore. They are a key factor for any political party in Bengal.
The BJP successfully played the ‘refugee card’ in last year’s Lok Sabha polls, and now party insiders say Amit Shah is ready with his “masterstroke" to secure the confidence of nearly 40-45 per cent Matua voters in nearly 70 assembly segments through the amended citizenship rules.
The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill was a long-pending demand of the refugees (a majority of them from the Matua community) who entered India from Bangladesh after 1971. They have voting rights in Bengal, but the citizenship rules said they were not Indians because, as per Article 6 of the Constitution, anybody who entered India from East or West Pakistan after July 19, 1948, would have to apply for citizenship and the year 1971 automatically fell under this category.
The refugees, and particularly Matuas, helped the BJP win 9-10 seats out of 18 constituencies in the state in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls.
Most of the refugees are settled in North 24 Parganas, South 24 Parganas, Nadia, Burdwan, Midnapore, Birbhum and in Dinajpur.
While the Bharatiya Janata Party holds the Hindu and refugee cards, the tribals, who once supported the TMC, are also divided and some are gravitating towards the BJP, Left and Congress.
From the 2011 assembly polls to the 2016 edition, the Left Front saw its vote share fall by 9.88 per cent, and from the 2014 Lok Sabha polls to the 2019 ones, its vote share further plummeted to nearly 16 per cent.
However, from the 2011 to the 2016 assembly polls, the Congress vote share increased from 8.91 per cent to 12.3 per cent, but fell drastically in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections to 9.6 % and in the 2019 general elections the party managed to secure only 5 per cent votes.
Considering all the factors, Mamata too is playing the Hindu card, to make up for possible vote deficit due to any division in Muslim vote share, by announcing a series of sops for them.
This includes a monthly allowance of Rs 1,000 and free housing for nearly 8,000 Sanatan Brahmin priests in the state and mapping of ‘lost’ ancient temples in Bengal to brand the state as ‘Maha Tirtha Bhumi’ and ‘Maha Purno Bhumi’.
While Mamata has said that the move has nothing to do with politics, ground reality suggests that TMC is concerned about Hindu voters moving towards the saffron brigade.