"If you are coming to Bengal, you have to speak in Bengali. We will not allow that people will come from outside and beat up Bengalis," West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee said in June 2019, a month after the Lok Sabha election results, in which her party had a below par performance in the state.
A little more than a year down the line, the Trinamool Congress now celebrates "Hindi Diwas", runs campaign videos in Hindi, and has also rejigged a formerly defunct "Hindi Cell" in the party. On 18 September, the Trinamool also said that it will challenge an NGT order that has banned Chhat Puja celebrations at Kolkata's famous Rabindra Sarobar Lakes.
This one-eighty degree turn, experts and party sources say, is a "balancing act", and an attempt to take on the BJP in the “Hindu-Hindi” game.
Lok Sabha 2019: Losing Bengal's 'Hindi Belt'
Party insiders say that even in the run up to 2019 Lok Sabha, the Trinamool was aware of the 14 percent (approximately 64 lakh) Hindi-speaking voters in the state. The party, had at the time, tried to capture the Hindi vote, but failed, losing seats like Asansol, Burdwan-Durgapur and Kharagpur- all with significant Hindi-speaking populations- to the BJP.
In Kolkata too, the North Kolkata constituency, though won by Trinamool veteran Sudip Bandyopadhyay, saw close a contest in the the 'Hindi belt' of the constituency, which has a Hindi-speaking population over 38 percent.
“Of the 10 parliamentary seats where the non-Bengali population forms 30-40 percent, the TMC lost 6 seats,” says Kolkata-based political analyst and psephologist Biswanath Chakraborty. “In all these areas, except the Urdu-speaking areas, the TMC lost their political face.”
"Immediately after the elections, the Trinamool had a Bengal sub-national push. That's how they thought they'd fight the BJP's Hindu nationalist discourse," Chakraborty adds.
‘Joy Bangla’ To ‘Hindi Academy’: What Changed?
In the months after the election, Mamata appeared to lose her cool when confronted with the BJP's 'Jai Shri Ram' bait- which the saffron party used to the hilt in the post-election months.
During that time, to counter Jai Shri Ram, the Trinamool came up with Joy Bangla. Bengali sub-nationalism became a theme of most of the Chief Minister's speeches.
From there to now sanctioning a 'Hindi Academy', all in a year, the transition to a more 'centrist' position on the language issue has been gradual.
"Under Prashant Kishor, the TMC is introducing one strategy after another to divide the Hindu vote. That also explains the monetary assistance that has now been extended to Brahmin priests", says Chakraborty.
This monthly financial assistance to Brahmin priests also came with the promise of free housing to over 8,000 Hindu priests.
This is being seen as a clear "compensation" for a similar financial dole that Mamata announced for imams and Muezzins in 2012, which also brought her a lot of right-wing criticism.
"The sub-nationalism is now slowly being faded out. Not completely reversed in a knee-jerk manner. As the elections come closer, it will be completely in the background," Chakraborty adds.
'Hindi-Speakers Are Not Non-Bengali': TMC
Speaking to The Quint, Trinamool MP Dinesh Trivedi, who has now been appointed Chairman of the rejigged Hindi Cell, says that this is just a "formalised, organised outreach".
"There will now be an organised way of reaching out to Hindi speakers at the district, sub-division, block and municipality level. There are many places like Asansol where there are people who have been residents of Bengal for years, but speak Hindi. We don't call them 'non Bengali', we call them 'Hindi speakers,'" says Trivedi.
Trivedi’s classification of Bengalis and non-Bengalis is interesting in the context of the party once having open and close associations with Bengali sub-nationalist groups like Bongo Pokkho, which often went on tirades against the Bihari and Marwari communities in Bengal.
Sub-nationalist proponents like Garga Chatterjee were often invited on television talk shows as a "Trinamool supporter".
In recent times, though, the Trinamool has distanced itself from members of Bongo Pokkho, publicly admonishing a TV channel for calling a member of the group as a party representative after he made objectionable comments against the Marwari community.
Kolkata's western-educated Bhadraloks have often joked about or passed snide comments on Banerjee's broken Hindi. That notwithstanding, the Trinamool hopes that this distinct change in strategy will help the party divide the BJP's voter base ahead of 2021.
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