West Bengal polls: BJP, Muslim-led parties hope to unseat TMC as religious polarisation gains ground

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Joining the Dots is a fortnightly column by author and journalist Samrat in which he connects events to ideas, often through analysis, but occasionally through satire.


Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath held his first rally in West Bengal in the campaign for the forthcoming state assembly polls on Tuesday. In the course of his speech, he accused Bengal's Trinamool government led by Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee of failing to match UP's achievements in stopping cow smuggling and "love jihad". The place his party, the BJP, chose for his rally is one among three Muslim-majority districts in West Bengal. Malda district, according to 2011 Census figures, had a 51 percent Muslim population. Hindus comprised 48 percent of the district's population. Malda is also a district that borders Bangladesh. Additionally, the place has seen communal rioting in recent years. In 2016, there were violent riots in Kaliachak in Malda district when, following a provocative speech by a Hindu Mahasabha leader, Muslim mobs went on the rampage.

The BJP has done well around the country out of its strategy of polarisation along Hindu-Muslim lines, and Bengal offers special opportunities in this regard. It is a state that borders Bangladesh, has a large Hindu population descended from Partition refugees, and has less casteism than states such as Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, making consolidation of Hindu castes on a broader Hindu religious platform that much easier. In Bengal, its base is not restricted to upper castes and trading castes, or even the Other Backward Caste groups into which it has expanded in recent years. A significant part of its support here comes from Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. The Matua, which is among the communities for whose benefit the Citizenship Amendment Act is said to have been passed, are an example of one such group.

The goal of political polarisation along religious lines in Bengal has been helped by the sudden emergence of a new predominantly Muslim party called the Indian Secular Front led by a cleric named Abbas Siddiqui, and the simultaneous entry of the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen led by Asaduddin Owaisi for the first time. While Siddiqui is officially in alliance with the Congress and Left parties, he has met Owaisi, who visited him, and has said he will not field candidates against AIMIM. There is thus a pre-poll understanding between these two parties as well, and a consolidation of Muslim communities mirroring the consolidation of Hindu castes. AIMIM and the ISF represent Urdu-speaking and Bangla-speaking Muslims respectively and these two groups have had differences in the past, especially in neighbouring Bangladesh.

The entry of the Muslim-led parties and the BJP thus make it a difficult situation for parties such as the Congress, Trinamool Congress, and Left, which draw support from across castes and communities, to hold on to their bases. However, among these, it is the Congress that stands to lose most and gain least from the rise of Muslim religious politics in Bengal, since most of its seats in the current Bengal assembly come from the Muslim-dominated districts of Malda and Murshidabad. Its conservative Hindu voters left it for BJP long ago. Now its conservative Muslim voters are likely to follow suit €" in the next polls, if not in this one.

The fate of the Congress in West Bengal is in any case of mostly academic interest for now. The political battle in the forthcoming elections is primarily one between the ruling Trinamool and the BJP. The rise of Hindu and Muslim religious politics in Bengal also poses a challenge to the Trinamool, a Congress offshoot with a centrist position, which is forced to defend its turf from all sides. It is in the districts with significant but less than majority Muslim populations that the entry of the ISF and the AIMIM is likely to hit Trinamool hardest. South 24 Parganas has a 35 percent Muslim population. There are several other districts with more than 20 percent Muslim populations. It is in these districts where the BJP will be hoping to unseat the TMC.

The BJP has been gaining rapidly among Hindu voters. With some percentage of Muslim votes also leaving the TMC, it will be hard-pressed. It is however expected, according to opinion polls, to retain the state, because its lead over its rivals is considerable. A survey by C-Voter and ABP released recently predicted that it would win between 148-164 seats out of 294, with BJP second at 92-108. The Congress-Left and others make up the rest. What the survey has probably not accounted for is the effect of Hindu as well as Muslim polarisation that is starting now with the entry of figures on the scene, such as Yogi Adityanath on the one hand, and Owaisi on the other.

Bengal is not like any other state of India when it comes to Hindu-Muslim politics. Both Hindu and Muslim religious politics have deep roots here, going back to the first Partition of Bengal in 1905. The slogan of Vande Mataram, the image of Bharat Mata, and the first known use of the word "Hindutva" all came from here. The Muslim League was founded in Dhaka in 1906. The competing Hindu and Muslim politics led to the Partition. Bengal came out of it truncated in a futile effort to separate Hindu areas from Muslim areas €" futile because at the very outset, in 1947, West Bengal already had a Muslim majority in Murshidabad district, which was initially awarded to Pakistan by virtue of its population dynamics, but subsequently included in India. The Hindu-majority district of Khulna, and the overwhelmingly Buddhist Chittagong Hill Tracts, went to Pakistan.

What's done is done, but the resurgence of religious politics here is a matter of concern. It is more volatile here than it is in, say, Gujarat or Maharashtra. Those states do not have a near one-third Muslim population. West Bengal does. Nor do they share a porous border with Bangladesh, which in turn borders Arakan in Myanmar, home of the Rohingyas who are called Bengalis by the Burmese. Majoritarian politics of religious polarisation can be done in Gujarat or Maharashtra or even the heartland state of Uttar Pradesh with relatively little cost to the majority. That is not the case in Bengal. It was Bengal and Punjab that finally paid the full price for the politics of religious polarisation in pre-Independence India.

Hopefully, Bengalis €" Hindu and Muslim €" will not have to suffer because of the same brand of politics yet again.

Also See: West Bengal Assembly Election: Abbas Siddiqui's ISF seals deal with Left in 30 seats, talks on with Congress

West Bengal Assembly election 2021, Alipurduar profile: Parties look to woo voters in tribal-dominated constituency

West Bengal Assembly election 2021, Tufanganj profile: TMC aims to retain constituency with sizeable Nashya Sekh population

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