It takes a lot of effort to make the Left look good. West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee has done just that. The Left ruined West Bengal in a 34-year-long nightmare that drove industry from the state, allowed the India-Bangladesh border to become porous, and created deep social divisions.
Mamata has topped that. When she stormed to power in 2011, she promised change. Her first and most sensible step was appointing economist Amit Mitra, a former secretary-general of FICCI, as West Bengal’s finance minister. Mitra has turned the state’s finances around with major tax reforms and efficient revenue collection. The rest of the Trinamool Congress (TMC) has proved an unmitigated disaster. Mamata’s communal brand of politics has converted West Bengal into a tinderbox.
The week-long Basirhat riots were the culmination of years of Muslim appeasement which have emboldened radicalised Muslims to unleash violence on Hindus unhindered by a communalised and impotent police force. The Calcutta High Court has thrice upbraided the Mamata government for Muslim appeasement that damages the state’s social fabric.
Consider this stinging order Justice Dipankar Dutta passed on October 6, 2016: “There has been a clear endeavour on the part of the state government to pamper and appease the minority section of the public at the cost of the majority section without there being any plausible justification. The reason is, however, not far to seek. To put it curtly, the state government has been irresponsibly brazen in its conduct of being partial to one community.”
Now consider the behaviour of Dipendu Biswas, the TMC MLA who represents the Basirhat Dakshin constituency. One of the victims of the recent violence, Sutapa Dey, told a daily newspaper: “Our MLA, Dipendu Biswas, accompanied the police, making sure that our boys were picked up. When the Muslims attack us, the police just sit quietly, and if we do anything, they come and arrest us. Mamata was insulted just because the Governor said something that is right… what about us, are we not insulted?”
Biswas has denied his role in the communal violence but another witness Piyali Haldar claimed last week: “For the last three days, we have been enduring attacks by Muslims… Our shops have been looted. My family lost goods worth Rs 2.5 lakh… The police are raiding our homes to look for arms. Let them raid Muslim homes and see the cache of arms they bring from across the border.”
Yet another local resident, Sumanto Sarkar, added: “We have never ever seen anything like this before… If it wasn’t for us, Dipendu Biswas would never have become an MLA. And now he is picking up our boys, siding with the Muslims… I voted for the Trinamool in the last election. But never again.”
Mamata appears not to fear the law. She fears only electoral defeat. As long as she locks in the 28 per cent Muslim bloc vote and a small percentage of the floating Hindu vote, she is assured of a vote share of over 40 per cent.
In a multi-cornered fight that the 2021 Assembly election will be, a 40 per cent vote share guarantees a landslide. The Left, the Congress, and the BJP will divide the rest of the vote, giving the TMC a disproportionate number of Assembly seats as it did in 2016.
The BJP hopes to stop the TMC juggernaut in 2021 — but can it? A pro-Muslim Mamata didn’t swing enough Hindu votes towards the BJP in 2016 when it won just 10.3 per cent vote share and three seats. The TMC received 44.9 per cent vote share and 211 seats in the 294-seat state Assembly. But more Muslim-instigated riots like Basirhat and the growing fear that West Bengal is falling under the influence of Islamist radicalism could alter the electoral math in 2021.
The BJP’s cynical strategy is reverse-polarisation. The BJP succeeded in reverse-polarising Hindus against Akhilesh Yadav’s Muslim-Yadav coalition in Uttar Pradesh and won by a landslide. The party knows West Bengal is very different. But its growing focus on eastern India — the Northeast, Odisha and Bengal — shows where its strategy is heading.
The BJP is largely a party of the north and the west. To make inroads in the east and the south it has to target a vulnerable Karnataka in 2018, plug away in Kerala and Telangana, back Rajinikanth in Tamil Nadu, use the NDA-backed North-East Democratic Alliance (NEDA) to embrace the rest of the Northeast, and challenge the BJD in Odisha.
The holdout? West Bengal. However, Mamata could be walking into a mousetrap here. She can’t rein in Muslim radicals because her electoral base might collapse. But if she doesn’t, and communal riots targeting Hindus spread, reverse polarisation in favour of the BJP is inevitable. The losers? The Left and the Congress.
The former has little but Marxist obscurantism to offer Bengal’s youth. The latter has even less to offer under a dysfunctional dynasty. If West Bengal’s electoral politics becomes semi binary with the TMC and the BJP at two opposite poles and the Left and the Congress relatively marginalised, Mamata’s 45 per cent vote share could dip.
Given West Bengal’s demographics and the Left’s strong cadre-based presence, the change though may take place far more slowly than it has in, for example, Uttar Pradesh. The long-term math, however, spells danger for the TMC. As the embers of Basirhat continue to smoulder, she may rue the electoral cost of her communal politics.
(Courtesy of Mail Today.)