West Bengal Lok Sabha Elections 2024: Ram Mandir, Jinnah, Adani Missing In State As Poll Issue

West Bengal Lok Sabha Elections 2024: Ram Mandir, Jinnah, Adani Missing In State As Poll Issue

A communal chasm which has not been seen since India’s partition has slowly grown in these districts, where the minority vote is large.

Jayanta Roy ChowdhuryUpdated: Sunday, May 12, 2024, 09:46 AM IST
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With the third phase of polling ending, the election here has ignored most of the issues hogging the limelight nationally and the fight is more over what matters locally.

Down the National Highway 12 from Adhir Chowdhury’s citadel in Behrampore to Kolkata winding through Krishnanagar, famous for its sweetmeats and more recently its firebrand MP Mahua Moitra, controversially disqualified last year from Parliament, and thence on through the mango orchard flatlands of Plassey, where Nawab Siraj ud-Dowlah fought his last battle against Robert Clive, the posters, wall writing and the conversation at cha-shops were all about either local 'durniti’' (corruption) or chief minister Mamata Banerjee.

Teacher recruitment scam, Governor molestation allegation, and Sandeshkhali dominate West Bengal amid elections

Tuesday’s Supreme Court judgement staying the earlier Calcutta High court order sacking some 25,000 teachers from government schools, because 5,000 or so of them were found to have used unfair means to get the jobs, the allegations of molestation against Governor C V Ananda Bose made by a woman employee of the Raj Bhavan, Sandeshkhali, were among hot topics at tea shops in the early hours of the day in rain-washed hamlets over piping hot cha served in earthen cups.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, his accusations that the Congress manifesto reflected Jinnah’s thinking, the Ram temple at Ayodhya, Adani and Ambani, were missing from the conversation here, east of the Hindi heartland.

A BJP slogan on a village wall accusing TMC said: "Koyla kheli, goru kheli, kheli nadir bali, bou meyeder bad Dilina, bolcheb Sandeshkhali (Coal scam, Cow smuggling, sand mining and now women at risk are all your fault, says Sandeshkhali)". A rival poster by TMC spoke about the benefits of a popular scheme '‘Lakshmir bhandar’' (Lakshmi’s income) which put money in the accounts of women householders.

Corruption, Allegations, and Communal Dynamics Shift Electoral Calculus

Till recently, corruption by TMC functionaries'’ was a big issue which was being weighed against welfare schemes launched by Mamata which covered women, girl students, farmers and provided cheap rice to the poor.

With new video tapes popping up claiming the Sandeshkhali allegations of rape were a sham organised by a political party, and the apex court’s judgement giving back school jobs, the mood seems to have changed.

In the lilting sing-song accent of the central Bengal districts, Chandi Gharani, 34, from Kaliganj near Plassey, said "The vote here is either for Mamata or against Mamata so people who don’t like her, believe in all the scams; those who like her, say corruption by TMC functionaries or not, she has delivered."

"They have tried to cash in on the anti-incumbency and some cases against TMC functionaries, but the problem is that this anti-TMC vote will be split between BJP and the Left-Congress alliance," Jawhar Sircar, TMC MP and former Prasar Bharati chairman, told Free Press Journal. While the ruling party is hoping the anti-Mamata vote will be split, helping it to pass muster in many marginal constituencies, it is worried by the communalisation of politics, though it also feels the fall-out of the Ram Mandir movement has been stymied at Bengal’s borders because of the state’s unique culture.

"The Ram Mandir has a saturated audience and is not drawing fresh votes even in the Hindi heartland, in Bengal people are more oriented towards Shakti or female deity worship. Ayodhya temple does not reverberate here," the Rajya Sabha MP said.

Despite the lack of enthusiasm for Ram Mandir, in the border districts of Murshidabad, Nadia and 24 Parganas, the religious divide has been growing with the penetration of RSS activists and frontal organisations and the perception among a section of the populace that the Left and more recently TMC uses the Muslim vote as its pocket borough.

"There has been a concerted attempt to rake up communal issues, but secular parties like ours, have managed to counter it through our cadres," said Nilotpal Basu, CPI(M) politburo member, in a conversation with the Free Press Journal. Last month’s Ram Navami witnessed a number of rallies organised by the BJP or pro-Hindutva organisations in these districts, where none were ever held even five years back.

A communal chasm which has not been seen since India’s partition has slowly grown in these districts, where the minority vote is large.

"However, whether this attempt would help the BJP or not in this election is debatable. The local factors, choice of candidates, local anti-incumbency or performance by the ruling party in the state is weighing far more than anything else," explained Prof Ranabir Samaddar, political scientist and former head of the Maulana Abul Kalam Azad Institute of Asian Studies, Kolkata.

BJP to benefit from citizenship promise to Matua community

The Matua community who believe in the teachings of 19th-century Vaishnavite reformer Harichand Thakur, are about 2.5-3 million strong and are believed to hold the key to 8-9 Lok Sabha constituencies in central and south-eastern West Bengal, which is also called '‘Rahr'’ or Ruhr of Bengal.

Members of the religious order, from the Namashudras or lower caste, many of whom migrated over the years from what is now Bangladesh, were promised citizenship rights by the BJP ahead of the 2019 election. "This saw the saffron party gaining about 7 seats in the region," said Rajat Roy, a political analyst and a member of the think tank Calcutta Research Group. Since then, the central government brought in the Citizenship Amendment Act rules which seeks to give Indian citizenship to Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, and Christian refugees from religious persecution in South Asian countries, with a cut-off date in 2014.

However the documentation sought for the application which includes proof that the migrant lived in Bangladesh and had to flee religious persecution would prove extremely difficult for the poor families for whom the move is designed.

Analysts feel confusion over how the rules will be implemented, the red tape surrounding the promised Citizenship and an intra-community fight between followers of BJP MP Shantanu Thakur who represents Bongaon Lok Sabha constituency and TMC MP Mamata Bala Thakur may have eroded the Matua vote bank for the BJP.

The BJP's attempt to use the combination of religion with caste, in this particular case a scheduled caste, is unique in Bengal’s political history. Since independence, caste has largely been absent in electioneering in the state, except in the choice of candidates in some constituencies. "Whether caste consolidation for political purposes will come to stay in this state or recede with the apparent contradictions in the CAA is yet to be seen. However the danger from the religious divide being widened in parts of the state will remain something which Bengal’s society will have to address in the days ahead," said Samaddar.

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