Wheelchair-bound West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee on the campaign trail
Wheelchair-bound West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee on the campaign trail

Finally, Ma’s the word for Mamata Banerjee. She is currently seeking refuge in Ma Chandi, Ma Saraswati, Durga Durgotinashini, having declared, “I was born in a Hindu family… .” This is the latest chapter in the script for the forthcoming potboiler in West Bengal. Now, the Bengal CM has pulled out the Hindu card, albeit a little late in the day, to draw the Hindu voters. She has been quoting Hindu scriptures and has been warning the BJP not to flash the ‘Hindutva card’ with her.

In short, the soft Hinduism card is currently the trump card for all major parties, it seems. Could this be why the TMC has fielded fewer Muslim candidates this time, as compared to the 2016 poll?

Then, there were 54 Muslim candidates but this time, that number has been reversed. The 180-million-strong Muslim community makes up the majority in Jammu and Kashmir, and accounts for one-fourth of the population in the north-eastern states of Assam and West Bengal and in the south, in Kerala. In Uttar Pradesh – which alone accounts for one-fifth of the 543 seats in the Lok Sabha, Muslims constitute 18 per cent of the population.

Significant vote share

According to the Centre for Voting Opinion and Trends in Election Research, also known as C-Voter, there are 145 parliamentary seats, with 11-20 per cent Muslim votes, significant enough to overturn results in the wake of multiple candidates and smaller margins. In 35 seats, they constitute more than 35 per cent of the electorate.

It may be recalled how some time ago, Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal had said that his government’s ideal was ‘Ram Rajya’ — and had initiated a set of governance principles/framework under the template of what Ram Rajya would constitute. He has now gone on to facilitate the pilgrimage of the city’s elderly to the Ram temple in Ayodhya once it is constructed. Kejriwal has, for at least three years now, been carefully portraying himself as a leader certainly not antagonising the Hindus and has made it a point to ‘display’ his devotion to Ram’s trusted aide Hanuman and staying away from polarising issues such as the Shaheen Bagh agitation and organising pujas under state government auspices, among other initiatives.

Hindu sentiment

Mamata and Kejriwal are known to be strong regional challengers to the saffron party. And their ‘changed’, or rather ‘amended’ stand only shows how strongly BJP has managed to pitch itself for Hindutva. If secular politics, (till sometime in the past), was ‘politically’ equated with being seen as sensitive to minority wishes, the same secular politicians have now shifted stance and are using all their strength to get a foothold (obviously ‘foot’, in the context of West Bengal elections!) in the majority domain and trying hard to show that they are ‘equally’ sensitive to the sentiments of the Hindu majority.

Keeping Sri Sri Ramakrishna’s words in mind, ‘Joto Mot, Toto Poth (many opinions, as many ways)’, the Congress attempted to do the same. In November 2020, the district administration in Rajasthan’s Bharatpur sought the denotification of part of a wildlife sanctuary to allow the mining of a special sandstone, much sought after by builders, including those constructing the Ram temple in Ayodhya.

Thousands of tonnes of the pink sandstone mined in Bharatpur’s Bansi Paharpur have been sourced for the temple over the years, but much more is needed.

The Congress’s move in this regard is only reinforcing the BJP’s ideological dominance.

However, this time around, Didi’s Trinamool Congress has come under sharp criticism from the Left forces and the Congress, for toeing or rather ‘footing’ a ‘soft Hindutva’ line, a move that the BJP has described as a bid to arrest the consolidation of Hindu votes in favour of the saffron party.

Feeling isolated?

Is this mainly because Abbas Siddiqui of the Indian Secular Front, who has gone all out against Mamata in his speeches and has lectured his followers to vote for the grand alliance of ISF, Left and Congress and leave her out? Is she feeling isolated as far as the Muslim vote bank is concerned and has lately realised that her Hindu support base might just be eroding?

Whatever be the case, the TMC refuses to budge and has for the first time said Hinduism is not the copyright of the BJP! “What the BJP is preaching is not Hinduism. They just want to divide society. We want to take along all communities and religions and move forward,” is the TMC’s new plank. How this rhetoric works will only be revealed on May 2.

In January 2018, TMC had even organised a ‘Brahmin convention’ in Birbhum district. Thousands of priests were felicitated at the programme and each of them was given a copy of Bhagwad Gita, a shawl and pictures of Sri Ramakrishna and Ma Sarada.

'Soft Hindutva'

The Congress and the Left parties have alleged that the recent surge in the BJPs vote share in the state byelections has forced the TMC to practise ‘soft Hindutva’ and woo Hindu voters. Senior Congress leader, Abdul Mannan, said, “Politics driven by religious compulsion is a dangerous trend and will destroy the communal harmony of the state in the long run." The state CPI(M) leadership had also expressed apprehensions that the “competitive communalism practised by the TMC and the BJP” in Bengal may have dangerous consequences.

Since TMC came to power in 2011, the party was accused by the BJP of appeasing the Muslim community, which comprises around 30 per cent of the total electorate in the state. Various decisions by the TMC government, such as allowances to imams, were labelled as attempts to appease the minorities. However, senior TMC leader and MP Saugata Roy underplayed the whole issue by saying, “working for various communities is part of the TMC’s policy”.

TMC’s Birbhum district president Anubrata Mondal, main organiser of the Brahmin convention, had said that the show was held to highlight the ‘misinterpretations’ of Hinduism spread by the BJP and to discuss what the Hindu religion stood for. The BJP state leadership has, however said, the fear that it will consolidate the Hindu votes has forced the TMC to change its political equation.

If you thought the script was limited to this, sample further…Rahul Gandhi went temple hopping during the Gujarat polls in 2017, paying obeisance at 21 temples, including Somnath, Akshardham, Ambaji, Dwarkadhish, Chotila, Khodal Dham and Dasi Jivan temples.

Cautious BJP

The BJP is well aware of the fact that its opponents will stop at nothing to hijack its ideology and its monopoly on the religious realm could come under veritable threat some day. Ever since it initiated the Ram Janmabhoomi movement in 1986, it has ‘appeared’ to pose as the spokesperson of Hindus, highlighting their grievances etc.

This was also its strategy also in 2002, when Narendra Modi was the chief minister of Gujarat. During the state assembly elections, he played the Hindu card so well and the Congress came to be dubbed a pro-Muslim party. The rest is history. The high-decibel rhetoric continues to linger on.

Anyhow, all that is past and the outcome has been seen by one and all. Now, what lies in store for Bengal and Didi in particular is something the entire nation is watching with bated breath. With the grand alliance or the Mahajot with Abbas, the CPI(M) and the Congress are toddling away towards the first phase of polling, scheduled to begin from March 27, 2021. For the TMC, the sureshot Muslim vote may not be so sureshot after all. Hence, the supplications to Ma Chandi and Ma Durga.

It is a common practice in Bengal to wish the one who ventures out of home on a mission with ‘Dugga Dugga’, meaning, all the best. At this point, all we can hope for is that good sense prevails among the voters and Dugga Dugga to them as they set out of home on voting day.

The writer is Senior Associate Editor, Free Press, Indore.

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