‘Tomar Naam, Amar Naam, Vietnam Vietnam' (Your name, my name, Vietnam Vietnam) was the rallying cry in Bengal in the 1960s, a chant of solidarity for the country that was at war with America. Decades later, a modified version has popped up in the state as a part of the BJP’s arsenal.
That was a different Bengal. The Left, although a dominant political force, hadn’t stratified its power in the state. The Naxal movement was brewing. Refugees from East Pakistan had begun streaming in. The Hooghly riverfront was still a thriving industrial belt and Ho Chi Minh was a household name in Bengal.
The importance of a potential shift – one which the CPI(M) leadership has declared as untrue while describing itself as the “last hurdle” against the BJP – can’t be overstated. In past elections, the CPI(M)’s vote percentage has hovered around 20% and one TMC leader explained, “Right now, the more seats the CPI(M) gets…the better it is for us.”
Exit polls have predicted significant losses for the TMC with the BJP making serious inroads in the state. The leader added, “This is only possible if the Left vote shifts completely to the Right.”
Ahead of the polls, the slogan, which was changed to – ‘Tomar Naam, Amar Naam, Jai Shri Ram, Jai Shri Ram’ with an image of Prime Minister Narendra Modi – had been circulating on social media and its use is telling. Apart from banking on religious polarisation, which it hopes will garner a bulk of the Hindu votes, the BJP is also looking to gain traction from an unlikely corner: erstwhile Left voters.
Take, for instance, Dinobondhu Mahato (62), in Purulia’s Balarampur block, who described himself as a baampanthi (Leftist), but added that he will vote for the BJP this time. This, he argues, doesn’t have to do with ideology but necessity. “We voted out the Left and if need be, we will vote out the BJP,” he said.
The necessity, he explained, is that “Trinamool Congress has become exactly what it promised to get rid of. It is Baamer shesh din (last days of the Left) all over again.”
From Cooch Behar in Bengal’s extreme Northeast to Purulia at its south-western border, there are a few things that people agree upon. But the phrase ‘Baamer shesh din’ evokes near-identical responses in almost all conversations.
In a 2011 essay, economist Pranab Bardhan argued that “in the name of Marxism”, the Left Front had become an “all powerful local mafia” that would aid “in true Godfather style” during emergencies, but also fleece and intimidate the common populace. This, Mahato and many others like him argued, had become the central tenet of the Trinamool Congress.
“This isn’t to say that Mamata Banerjee isn’t trying, or that her government isn’t sending money for the village’s development. It is just that only a few people seem to benefit and the common thing that they all have is that they are all TMC party workers,” Mahato pointed out.
Speaking to News18, a BJP state committee leader, who described the ‘unofficial’ social media presence for the BJP as a “site of innovation”, explained: “We are trying to reach out to those who might not have any love for the BJP for ideological reasons, but want to see didi voted out. Whether it is because they’re disillusioned with her, or because they are angry at her for decimating the Left… the enemy of the enemy is a friend.”
In an earlier interview, Banerjee had alleged, “The BJP, Congress and CPI(M) work together in Bengal. The BJP supports the CPI(M) in some seats, the Congress backs BJP in other seats.” But TMC leaders insisted that it wasn’t solely the case. “The party has also lost its control over its cadre,” said a Rajya Sabha MP.
Banerjee’s victory in 2011, dethroning the Left Front that had ruled for 34 years, saw her immediately begin a process of consolidation. She strengthened her party in pockets that had traditionally voted for either the Left or the Congress as she systematically began increasing the TMC’s political imprint. By 2016, the TMC had won 213 of the 295 seats (72 per cent).
Voters, however, told News18, that this dominance had a negative impact.
Before coming to power, the TMC had consistently criticised the Left for turning the party into an all-seeing, all-controlling machine that was geared towards winning elections -- what Abhijeet Mazumdar, son of Charu Mazumdar and the Darjeeling district secretary of the CPI-ML (Liberation) described as a “Sarkari Left” characterised by “social control and surveillance".
Shamik Sen, a resident of Alipurduar, had fallen in love with a girl from his city while working in Kolkata and wanted to marry her. “But it didn’t happen. In my neighborhood, Trinamool er daapot aache (Trinamool dominates). They made it very clear that the girl and her family are BJP supporters, and they wouldn’t stand for it,” he alleged.
The TMC denies the charge, but Sen said he won’t vote for the TMC. At Jhargram, a seat dominated by tribals and earlier impacted by Left-wing extremism, Somla Hembram, a school teacher at Keshiyari, said, “There were jobs that were going to be advertised at the schools here. But the party gave it to those who sympathised with them.”
In particular, there is anger over the recently concluded Panchayat polls in the state, which the BJP alleges saw more than 100 murders and which Modi recently described as being more violent than in Kashmir.
At Basirhat, a seat that has steadfastly voted for TMC, the party’s 27-year-old supporter Anarul Biswas said, “I told them (TMC cadre) that I am a supporter, a didi fan. I even tried to show them that I like Mamata Banerjee on Facebook. But they still beat me up. What was the point?”.