By Nazma Parveen
Recently the crucial and much-hyped Bihar elections came to an end and the BJP-JD(U) NDA alliance is set to form the Government once again. All the predictions based on exit polls fell flat on the face, which had prophesied a clean sweep for the RJD-led Mahagathbandhan, in coalition with Congress and the Left. Though RJD and the Left managed to get quite an impressive number of seats, Congress just about managed to secure a measly 20 seats, out of the 70 it contested on. While experts are still pontificating on why big issues like migrant crisis and mismanagement of Covid-19 failed to create a major dent into the vote share of NDA, they are all set to repeat a similar feat in the upcoming West Bengal elections.
The saffron footing in Bengal
In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, much to the disappointment of Mamata Banerjee, BJP secured 18 out of the 42 seats in West Bengal. The saffron politics which has taken over the country had not been able to make any difference in West Bengal until now. West Bengal has largely stayed away from identity politics, but the saffron surge in the country, compounded by Mamata’s alleged image of Muslim appeasement, has tilted a major chunk of Bengali Hindu voters towards BJP. There is a high chance that in 2021, BJP may consolidate more Hindu voters, which may bring an end to the TMC rule in the state. Bengal Muslims, which form at least 27 % of the state’s populace, have been a core voter base for Mamata but considering AIMIM is planning to contest elections in Bengal this year, it may lead to a splitting of Muslim votes, which may further serve as a major blow to TMC and decrease their chances of tallying a majority.
Bengal has always been known for its inclination towards the Marxist ideology. After the end of Congress rule in 1977, the Left Front, headed by the Communist Party of India, took over Bengal and managed to hold power for as long as 34 years, before its massive mis-governance and several violent incidents, like the Marichjhanpi massacre and finally the Nandigram violence served as a death knell for the Left rule. Bengal Muslims have never voted as a monolith in West Bengal and their votes are generally shared between the Congress, Communists and TMC, depending on the influence of the local leaders. I remember an incidence from my childhood when I had accompanied my Grandmother to the polling booth on the voting day. My whole paternal family had transitioned from being a Congress voter to a CPM voter. My Grandmother remained a Congress voter till the end, despite repeated counselling from the family, some of whom had themselves joined CPM. So, I had been strategically placed with her, to keep an eye on whom she votes because my uncle knew that no amount of brainwashing was likely to affect her voting choice. After going inside the booth, my Grandmother asked me to stay put at the door, while she cast her vote, and later she refused to divulge whom she voted for. The whole family knew of course and was amused at her unyielding ideology. In the past few years, however, this free will has buckled under terms and conditions.
The dilemma of Bengali Muslims
As proven in the last Lok Sabha elections, BJP has managed to make inroads into Bengal politics, despite its seemingly alien ideology to Bengali sensibilities. The decline of the Left has simultaneously given way to the rise of BJP, with many CPM leaders aligning with BJP. With the fear of CAA-NRC looming over Bengal, with Bengal being the next target after Assam, Bengali Muslims are in a Catch-22 situation. While the concern should be about voting for development, education opportunities, better living conditions and jobs, Muslims have to vote for survival. If BJP comes to power in Bengal the survival comes under threat, owing to their clear pro-NRC-CAA stance.
Mamata Banerjee has been quite vocal against the Citizenship Act and has even led multiple rallies to protest against the same. Last year I was in Kolkata during the CAA protests, and it was obvious that without the backing of the state, it was not possible to carry out an agitation of such scale in a streamlined manner. We have seen how the protests in UP were dealt with by Yogi Adityanath or in other BJP ruled states like Karnataka. We have witnessed how the protests in Delhi finally ended. Therefore, the scepticism of Muslims in Bengal is not unfounded. With Congress deciding to ally with the CPI(M), it would be interesting to see how the final results play out. This year AIMIM has decided to contest on many seats in the Muslim dominated regions of Malda and Murshidabad, and while it would be tempting for Muslims to have political representation, would they risk dividing their votes, and favouring BJP by default? Many experts have opined that AIMIM can only influence the Hindi speaking Muslims of Bengal, which is not true, as it has gained popularity even in the Bengali Muslims of Murshidabad district. Though Muslims have never consolidated their votes for any one party, this time a different scenario may emerge.
The Bengal 2021 Elections are going to be a heated affair, with BJP trying its tried and tested formula of polarization. It would be interesting to see, whether Mamata will concede letting go of her one-man showmanship, for a change, for the sake of keeping BJP out of Bengal and whether, the next election will serve as a resurrection of the Left, as it happened in Bihar. Whether the unusual alliance of Congress and the Left will prove to be the beginning of a new inning in Bengal. Whatever be the case, the Bengal 2021 elections are very crucial as it is not only a fight for a major representation in parliament but also a fight to save the famed secular temperament of Bengal.
Nazma Parveen is a doctor by profession.