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Will Bengal Turn Saffron in 2019?

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The year was 2009. Elections to the 15th Lok Sabhā had taken place. CPM led Left Front had been ruling West Bengal since 1977, and nobody had quite figured out what it would take to oust them from power. A feisty Mamata Banerjee had been challenging them for over 10 years as head of a new party, TMC; and even before that as a frontline leader of the Congress. Yet, no chinks seemed to appear in the armour of the formidable election machinery that the CPM had become. They had perfecte a new model of governance, in which the local cadres wielded complete power. In fact, the Collector and SP had to carry out the wishes of the local cadres in every district. In Calcutta (now Kolkata), they maintained a Bhadralok image, but in the hinterland, they played politics of murder and violence to the hilt. In elections, they had perfected techniques like booth jamming, which ensured that they returned to power election after election. Murders in elections were commonplace, and hardly ever made it to the national headlines. Panchayats were under the iron-grip of the CPM and Left, and Jyoti Basu ensured that the cadres were deeply invested in power by effective devolution of power to the Panchayat institutions.

Then a seminal event happened. Buddhadeb Bhattacharya tried to bring some economic and industrial reforms. Mamata Banerjee seized the opportunity. Her agitations resulted in the Singur firing, and the whole of Bengal found an outlet for the simmering anger against Left. They braved all the violence and intimidation to vote for change in the 2009 Lok Sabhā elections.

TMC got 19 seats in 2009.

From then on, the call for Poribortan assumed a new credibility, and the police and administration became neutral. In 2011, Didi stormed to power, by breaking 34 year Left stranglehold on Bengal.

Those who had hoped that Mamata Banerjee would be like a whiff of fresh air soon found that she went to the left of even the Left. She became highly authoritarian, totally intolerant of opinions, and embraced the Left culture of violence with great alacrity. Tired of the Left’s misrule of 34 years, voters renewed their faith in her in 2014 and 2016, but then something cracked.

What started as State violence against the Maoists quickly turned into violence against political opposition. Then Didi went simply too far in appeasing the Muslim clergy. There was a time when it was said in Kolkata that Bengal is run from the Tipu Sultan mosque. There has always been a faultline between the Bihari Muslims and Bengali Muslims in Bengal. As the Bengali Muslims of Central Bengal remained wedded to Congress and the Left, she targeted the extremist elements among the Bihari Muslims, who were in large numbers in and around Kolkata. But this became an overreach. Hindu festivals were targeted by this violent minority, controversies spiralled and Hindus of Bengal felt cheated. They did not want to go back to the Left, and the Left voters needed someone to fall back on.

Into this space stepped the BJP. Its leadership must be commended for sensing the chance and investing into it. The feisty Kailash Vijayvargiya was made in-charge of West Bengal in place of the suave Varun Gandhi and BJP started moving up. In bye-polls after bye-polls, BJP started coming 2nd after TMC. The Left vote started shifting towards it. Finally, the Panchayat elections became the watershed. So paranoid was Mamata di that she did not even allow people to file nominations in nearly a third of seats. Yet, BJP came second, and garnered nearly 17% vote.

As the Lok Sabha elections drew near, Didi kept making errors. Her short tempered utterances, the Sharadha scam, and defection of important leaders to BJP has given the BJP a momentum that was seen in 2009 with TMC. The ground reports suggest that there is a frenzy in the public at par with what was seen in 2009. TMC leadership has sensed this, and this explains the unprecedented violence and attempts to rig the elections.

On top of this came the Jai Shri Ram incident. I was surprised to see how quickly Jai Shri Ram became the slogan of resistance against TMC and Mamata di.

It looks fair that BJP would get at least 4 seats in North Bihar, 4 in tribal areas, 4 in West-Central Bengal and a similar number even in the Kolkata area. The question is not whether BJP would do much better than 2014. The question is whether BJP would get what TMC got in 2009. We will have an idea on 19th May once the 2019 Elections are over. If this unthinkable event happens, we can safely predict a BJP government in West Bengal

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