It’s an all-out war now between Didi and Dada. The chief minister of West Bengal, Mamata Banerjee, had the temerity to question: Who is Amit Shah? The reply came on Sunday, at a public rally in the heart of Kolkata. The president of the Bharatiya Janata Party retorted that he, a small BJP worker, would lead his party to drive the Trinamool Congress out of Bengal. Rhetoric aside, the political tussle between the two portends ill for the state that has seen relatively harmonious Hindu-Muslim relations since it witnessed the worst-ever communal riots in the history of South Asia during the 1940s.
Few could have imagined the twists and turns of politics in this part of eastern India since different agencies of the Union government launched a concerted two-pronged offensive against the state government and the Trinamool Congress: by inquiring into the recent incidents in Bardhaman district and by cracking down on individuals close to the ruling dispensation for their alleged involvement in the Saradha chit — that should be “cheat” — fund scandal. The right-hand man of Prime Minister Narendra Modi couldn’t have been more direct when he claimed that slush money from the Saradha group had not merely funded the chief minister’s close associates but was also fuelling terrorism by infiltrators from Bangladesh.
These divergent issues have been intertwined in such a manner that one fears that there will be more violence in Bengal, in particular clashes between Hindus and Muslims. One would like to be proved wrong. The fact is that Bengal has a long and tragic history of communal tension which is well documented. But what is often forgotten is that the poor and gullible in the state have frequently fallen victim to financial sharks for the better part of the last four decades. The activities of the Overland group may be fairly fresh in people’s minds, but few outside Bengal remember Shambhu Mukherjee, one of the promoters of Sanchayita group, who committed suicide under mysterious circumstances after the dubious dealings of his group were exposed and legal action taken.
There is something common about the way in which these so-called Ponzi schemes operate. The promoters of such schemes, like Sudipta Sen of the Saradha group, have no political affiliation but curry favour with whoever is in power. Thus, even if they supported the Left Front until a few years ago, thereafter they switched allegiance to the Trinamool Congress. In Orissa and in Assam, their associates were close to chief minister Naveen Patnaik of the Biju Janata Dal and chief minister Tarun Gogoi of the Congress, respectively.
Emphasising that the former mentors of the Saradha group were with the Left Front, Ms Banerjee can benefit only to a limited extent. Similarly, by repeatedly harping on the fact that the investigations being conducted by the Central Bureau of Investigation and the Enforcement Directorate in the Saradha scam and the National Investigation Agency in the Bardhaman episode, are politically motivated, will help Ms Banerjee gain political mileage only up to a point.
The next two years are crucial for the Bengal chief minister. Her party has become ridden with factions. The anti-social elements who had ditched the Communists and joined her party are beginning to desert her for the BJP. Anti-social elements, like financial sharks, are typically opportunistic and go with whoever is in power or who is perceived to be likely to come to power. Hence, Bengal’s goons and scamsters shifted their allegiances from the Left Front to the Trinamool Congress over the last four years as the former became weak. Now that the BJP is on the rise in the state, a section of the anti-social elements are again switching sides in the view that the BJP will become strong in the state and may even come to power.
The fact that the saffron party nearly trebled its vote share in the state from six per cent in 2004 to 17 per cent four years later has made it evident that the BJP is the Trinamool Congress’ principal political opponent. The Left is yet to recover from its ignominious defeat three and half years ago in the Assembly elections and its further humiliation in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. The Communists are still licking their wounds, unable to evolve political strategies to counter the Trinamool Congress and the BJP, while the Congress is still sitting on the margins.
The urban middle classes who had supported Didi are disillusioned by what they perceive as her inability to provide coherent administration. Her theatrical style is no longer attractive to the so-called bhadralok intelligentsia. Her hope is that the Muslim peasantry in rural Bengal will stick with her. And she is probably right. The BJP realises this and is going all-out to spread the Hindu agenda of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. Mr Shah’s speech in Kolkata made references to infiltrators from Bangladesh that are clearly aimed at reaffirming the agenda of the RSS. An estimated 27 per cent of Bengal’s population is Muslim and in large parts of the state this proportion is close to one-third or higher. The BJP will clearly intensify its political activities in all but these areas where the minority community has a substantial presence.
Riding on the back of the continuing euphoria about Mr Modi’s ascendancy to power in New Delhi, various “service agencies” of the Sangh parivar — that are focused on adivasis and the underprivileged lower castes — were lying low are expanding by holding events. As Tariq Thachil of Yale University astutely pointed out in an article about the activities of organisations like the Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram and Seva Bharati: “…service work — which was not without an ideological edge — was uniquely well suited for the BJP’s need to recruit the poor and retain the rich”. (Curiously, the Left too had attempted a similar strategy in the late-1970s and 1980s under Jyoti Basu.)
It serves the political interests of both the Trinamool Congress and the BJP to polarise Bengal along communal lines. The writing on the wall appears ominous. I hope I’m wrong.