Grip on citadel threatened, Mamata Banerjee now has only Bengali pride and Muslims in arsenal to fight BJP

Sumit Mitra
West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee on Friday wrote to Prime Minister Narendra Modi stating, given that the NITI Aaayog has no financial powers and the power to support state plans it is fruitless for me to attend the meeting.

Since 1977, the year Jyoti Basu marched into Kolkata's (it was Calcutta then) Writers' Buildings, the old secretariat, and his Marxist party made it their home for 34 years, the people of the state began to lose the memory of fair election, and its power to change governments. In 2011, when Mamata Banerjee, the city's reigning queen of street protests, who had already rustled up an army of agitators, could overthrow the 'comrades' then in power, and start the rule of her Trinamool Congress (TMC), the people were still under the electoral memory charm. With so many similarities between the Leftist regime and its successor€"voter intimidation, using police as a private militia, enslaving of 'intellectuals', putting dissenters under surveillance€"everyone thought it was the new normal.

The sense that it wasn't so, and it could be challenged by the party of the Centre, came to Banerjee on 23 May. It was a rude realisation that her power is not absolute. Till then, she disdainfully rejected talks of the BJP being a challenger. With the election approaching, as Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP president Amit Shah made their visits to Bengal increasingly frequent (Modi visited 16 times), and there were more and more of visibility, and audibility, of the saffron power through road shows, rallies, on social media and by a wave of defection from Banerjee's party, she flipped her lid.

From her childhood, she grew up in the slums of Kalighat, in the shadow of the Kali Temple. She still lives there as she prides in her humble background. However, now a respected politician, well-travelled and highly connected, she keeps her gutter background buried carefully under an array of acquired cultural refinements, like writing poems and painting pictures, however, suspect their quality be. But the saffron invasion of Bengal brought out the low-level tongue before a national audience. She told Modi, "I'll have you chained before I put you into the prison." Or that she'd make him "sit down and stand up" with his hands "holding his ears". Such threats of punishment were punctuated by profanities uttered on a low key.

She obviously underestimated the threat from BJP as she never lost faith in her ability to manipulate elections. Ever used to treating the state police as her handmaiden, she thought the cops would always stand by the paid thugs of her government who had the license to monopolise the supplies of building materials in the state, a racket known as the "syndicate mafia". Who had the gall to stand up before the armies of TMC goons? "We are getting 42 out of 42," she'd say if asked to predict the outcome of the election in the state with 42 Lok Sabha constituencies.

Earlier, in the 2014 Lok Sabha and 2016 state Assembly elections, in which her party won 34 (of 42) and 211 (out of 294) seats respectively, the Central Election Commission no doubt had put all the statutory binds on her executive freedom during the pre-poll days. But it was a more relaxed India. During the rule of her Leftist predecessors, and in her time till now, it was rumoured that the Central police forces sent from Delhi were both pliable and biddable, being open to offers ranging from the free flow of liquor to just wads of cash. So, Banerjee was no doubt a bit perturbed as she saw the state's election schedule, spread over all the seven days, and suspected that it could be a ploy to move the paramilitary across the state at a measured pace, with concentrated deployment in select places. It was aimed at de-activating her goons.

However, right from the first phase of the election, from North Bengal on 11 April, it became obvious that the Central police forces meant business this time. Barring a few stray instances of violence, the seven-day schedule went off in an uncharacteristically peaceful way. As the results flashed on the screens, viewers rubbed their eyes in disbelief. TMC virtually disappeared from North Bengal. It has eight constituencies, of which the BJP grabbed all but one. The saffron party also captured the tribal-inhabited forest corridor that connects central Bengal to Jharkhand. It took away the south Bengal districts bordering on Bangladesh populated by members of the Matua community, a 'dalit' caste from Bangladesh who were denied citizenship; being non-Muslim, they see a golden opportunity in the Citizenship Amendment law proposed by the NDA government. Two constituencies on the international border, Ranaghat and Bongaon, both with substantial Matua population, went to the BJP, with Bongaon electing Santanu Thakur, a descendant of the community's leading family.

The BJP also struck deep roots in the industrial belt of Asansol and Durgapur with the singer-politician, Babul Supriyo, and SS Ahluwalia, national vice-president of the party, being victorious.

Though the party drew a blank in the coastal areas of Medinipur East and South 24 Parganas districts, its state president Dilip Ghosh did snatch the nearby Medinipur seat from the jaws of defeat. It could bite off chunks from the fertile lower Bengal districts with the Hooghly seat won by actor-turned-politician Locket Chatterjee. From 17 percent in 2014, BJP's vote share zoomed to 40 percent, snapping at the feet of TMC's 43 percent. Almost overnight, the Lok Sabha constituencies won by the BJP covered 137 of the state's 294 Assembly seats. That's an awe-inspiring 46.59 percent potential presence, for a party that was never a force to reckon with, in a state always regarded as being steeped in secular and Leftist ideology.

In a state with around 30 percent Muslim voting population, and given what the CPM describes as the "competitive communalism" of the views of Modi and Banerjee on the Muslim issue, it is but natural that the BJP has failed to wrest even one of the four constituencies in the state having more than 50 percent Muslim population: Jangipur, Murshidabad, Baharampur and Malda Dakshin. While TMC bagged the first two, the other two went to Congress. But what is indeed surprising is that the party's candidate Deboshree Chowdhury could, in a four-corner contest for the Raiganj constituency with 47.36 percent Muslim vote, scrape through with a lead margin of around 60,000 votes. One of the defeated candidates from Raiganj, who wanted to remain unidentified, said the BJP could win due to "total polarization of Hindu votes" and "confusion among Muslim voters between the CPI(M) and the Congress".

Banerjee is reportedly quite dispirited after the result; there are hardly any visitors at her Kalighat residence. However, a closer look at the state's post-poll map should partly cheer her spirit. Kolkata South and North, Jadavpur, Barasat and Dum Dum€"these five constituencies can be regarded as the 'cultural capital' of West Bengal as they encompass the traditional Kolkata, the 'westernized' Ballygunge, the aspiring southern and northern suburbs, and the city extensions (like Noida or Gurgaon) to Salt Lake and Rajarhat. The BJP could make no dent in this relatively affluent citadel of the TMC. It is only in adjoining Barrackpore, a graveyard of smokestacks, that the BJP could record victory with a narrow margin, and that too by fielding Arjun Singh, a TMC reject with a series of criminal cases pending against him.

In Banerjee's metropolitan citadel, the 'Muslim factor' was not at work, except, to a small extent, at Jadavpur, which has 33.24 percent Muslim population, clustered in one of the seven Assembly segments. But Mimi Chakraborty, film actor and TMC candidate, maintained her lead in all segments, though not uniformly. In Kolkata North and Dum Dum, BJP candidates Rahul Sinha and Shamik Bhattacharya, both experienced political workers with strong RSS links, gave tough fight but could not stand up before TMC's Sudip Bandyopadhyay and Sougata Roy till the last round. Arun Nag, author, archaeologist and former professor at Visva Bharati University, says it is likely that the "metropolitan Bengali" has not accepted the BJP yet. "It may present a different picture in the next election," he hastened to add.

The educated and urbanised sections of the population may be hesitant to accept a party of rumbustious supporters who are used to holding processions on the streets dressed like Hanuman, using "Jai Shri Ram', the religious cry, as a form of public greeting, and are known to propagate their deeply divisive views.

But the upper crust is too thin to be electorally significant. On the contrary, the large majority in the city comprises ordinary folks€"drivers, maids, small shop-owners€"who are held in the thrall of the TMC "vote machinery" almost round the clock during the election days. Even though the regular movement of the Central police personnel made it difficult for TMC's 'ministry of fear' to contact the voter till the last moment, the mobile phone came in handy to give her the parting message on the eve of entering the booth: "We will know what you'll do there." In cities, the ordinary man lives a precarious life, with his food, shelter and security depending on the local mafia. The fear of the voting choice being exposed is thus an existential issue.

Though Banerjee cut her political teeth in the Congress, her style of functioning is borrowed from the CPM. Like the Left, she depends on "machinery", the code for booth-management gangs. For the 'service' they render during elections, they are free to run a variety of criminal enterprises, like the 'syndicate' mafia, the extortion rackets, and, increasingly, the lucrative business of drug running. The police are programmed to not entertain public complaints against these gangs, who are usually linked to the thousands of 'clubs' that enjoy state patronage.

To the police force, Banerjee is god. A former Kolkata commissioner of police (not Rajeev Kumar) would jazz around in her house on the Kali puja day, dhoti-clad and bare bodied, with a plate of 'prasad' in hand, welcoming the guests as though he was hosting a party at his own home. Rajeev Kumar's proximity to her has even more sinister implications, involving "political heavyweights". As the immunity he enjoyed from detention by the CBI on the Saradha and Rose Valley Ponzi scam case has lapsed, and the Supreme Court has refused to extend it, Kumar's interrogation under detention may be a cause of TMC's embarrassment. In February last, when the CBI visited Kumar at his official residence, Banerjee made a song and dance about it, staging her usual 'dharna' on a road and calling it an attack on the federal character of the Constitution.

But, with the first signal of her grip on public support loosening, the uniformed force, particularly the IPS community, is likely to desert her. Already an IPS officer, Bharati Ghosh, who did Banerjee's bidding till she could take no more, resigned from service and joined the BJP. The party gave her ticket for the seat of Ghatal against Dev, a popular actor. Ghosh lost to Dev. But her revolt and the present plight of Kumar are surely giving new ideas to the state's police officers who have slaved it out under Banerjee's rule. If the officers refuse to take illegal orders from the chief minister, it will destabilise the syndicate mafia, and eventually the election "machinery". That should spell the end of "Mamata magic".

However, the BJP's dramatic rise in vote share too is a magic of sorts. If it could rise from 17 to 40 percent in five years, and that of the TMC did also grow from 39 to 43 percent, who then was the loser? The obvious answer is the Left Front which got 27 percent in 2014 but has plummeted to only 7 percent now.

The possible flaw in the argument is that even as late as in the 2016 Assembly elections, the BJP had so much fewer votes (50 lakh) than TMC (2.5 crore) that mere addition of 20 percent votes does not add up to something colossal.

The magic, if at all, therefore, lies not in the numbers of voters migrating, but in less obvious changes. Like the younger voters, who were born after Banerjee became a household name, now frantically seek escape from a drab state with no industrial future. Or at another level, the spread of smartphone and social media may have led many people€"including some erstwhile believers in Karl Marx's prophecy€"to conclude that the latest oracle is not Marx but Modi. And that the wages are so low, and prices so high, not because of the capitalist but due to the Muslim.

It is a question of belief, after all. The ability to sell one's belief is the passport to power. Banerjee is a slum-born politician who spun her own yarn of belief and sold it to Bengal with great dexterity. After coming to power, she controlled dissent with both iron fist and velvet gloves. She promptly made Joy Goswami, a popular poet with a rebellious voice, chairman of the Children's Literature Academy with a decent salary and an air-conditioned car with a blue light on its roof. She 'purchased' many such 'intellectuals'€"film personalities, journalists, even economists. On the other hand, she would get a university faculty detained for the mere 'offence' of forwarding a cartoon depicting her. For years, she refused to release the advertisement payments due to a leading newspaper publishing house, for showing the grit to criticise her policies.

Banerjee's hubris is clearly on a downswing after 23 May. But she is a long-term fighter. In the 2006 Assembly election, the CPM gave her a bloody nose and political experts almost wrote her off. But she was back in the ring in 2009, with the coalition under her winning as many as 19 seats. That jolted the Left. Two years after that, she routed the leftists in power. It is unlikely that the Modi government will provoke her too soon and give her an excuse for victimhood. But she will remain a difficult enemy, and her trump card is the confidence she enjoys of the state's 2.5 crore Muslims. If Modi keeps unchanged his own image as what the TIME has described as "divider-in-chief", it will give Banerjee dangerous ammunition for her future confrontation with the prime minister. The confrontation may be costly, with ramifications in the internal politics of neighbouring Bangladesh which, thank god, is still friendly.

Also See: Mamata Banerjee claims Central forces forced people to vote for BJP in Bengal, accuses Modi of running parallel govt in state

Poll violence in West Bengal: A look at why political parties in the state accept violence as sole tool to fight elections

Row over destruction of Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar bust: BJP has been using West Bengal's icons to chip away TMC's sway

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