[ Echo of India, 27 Oct 2012 ; The Daily Star (Dhaka) 19 Nov 2012 ]
It used to be said, what Bengal thinks today, India thinks tomorrow. That was a different Bengal and a different idea of ‘India’. If the recent by-election results from Jangipur Lok Sabha constituency of West Bengal is any indication of how Bengal might start thinking tomorrow, that would indicate no small shift in the political landscape of post-partition West Bengal as we have known it. So, what has happened?
After Pranab Mukherjee was made the President of the Indian Union, the Jangipur seat fell vacant. The Indira Congress had declared that Abhijit Mukherjee, the President’s son and MLA from Nalhati, would be their candidate for the seat. In the post-schism scenario between UPA and Trinamool, the latter in an apparent gesture towards the president, decided not to contest the seat. This was astute, as this put the Trinamool in a win-win situation. A triangular contest might have caused a CPI(M) victory, inspite of Trinamul participation. A CPI(M) victory in Trinamul’s absence would not have been so damaging. The Indira Congress candidate won the seat by the slimmest of margins, 2526 to be exact. His father had won the seat by a margin of 1,28,000. There are no indications that there is a sudden ground-swell of support for the CPI(M). In fact, its own vote percentage came down by nearly 2 percent since the 2009 Lok Sabha elections. The Indira Congress vote was down by a staggering 15%. A rather damaging revelation is that a significant portion of Abhijit Mukherjee’s ‘lead’ came from booths were opposition polling agents were allegedly not allowed. So the established parties, both of which can be considered secular, together polled about 95% of the votes during the 2009 Lok Sabha elections. This time, their combined total is about 78 %. Where did all those votes go?
They went to what are parties which have not had much traction in West Bengal politics and are distinguished by their sectarian appeal to voters, however concealed they may be in the language of generality. The demographic status of the Jangipur constituency is relevant. It is in the district of Murshidabad, with about two-thirds of the voters being from the Mohammedan community. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has for long tried to develop a base in such areas with a significant Mohameddan population by playing on real or perceived insecurities of the Hindu population. Typically this has involved playing up the issue of illegal immigration from East Bengal, but this time around, that was not really important. Curiously, the BJP partly benefited from a portion of the Muslim vote which swung away from the Indira Congress due to the central government’s decision of forcible acquiring vast swathes of land at Ahiron, Murshidabad to set up the much touted second campus of the Aligarh Muslim University. Something else also helped the BJP. This was the entry of two parties into the fray, namely the Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI) and the Welfare Party of India (WPI). Much like the BJP, these are outfits that are formally secular, but are implicitly sectarian. Like the BJP’s non-Hindy faces, the Mukhtar Abbas Naqvis and Shahnawaz Hussains, these groups also have show-piece non-Mohameddans. The SDPI is for all practical purposes an extended arm of the Popular Front of India, a sectarian organization whose members have been implicated in creating communally charged scenarios in Kerala. The WPI is a newer outfit, created in 2011 by the Jamaat-e-Islami Hind. Between the SDPI and the WPI, they polled 66311 votes ( 8 percent ). The BJP received 85,857 votes (about 11 percent). In 2009, the BJP polled less than 2.5% of the votes.
It is well known that in a communally polarized polity, the poles feed each other. In the process, people’s issues that cut across sectarian lines, take a backseat. The question is, whether this result happened due to the peculiar characteristics of this election in this constituency or this has the potential to become a broader phenomenon in West Bengal in the days to come. It is true that the land dispossession of farmers and a non-local Indira Congress candidate helped the opposition. But the principal opposition party, the CPI(M), could not reap its benefits. The Trinamool too has its own vote, however small, in the area. In the event of its non-contestation, it is clear that all of it did not transfer to the Indira Congress. Part of this vote went to the BJP, SDPI and WPI. Significantly, it is suspected that ‘town’ Hindus have voted for the BJP in significant numbers.
It is now generally agreed that among the reasons behind the CPI(M)’s demise from power in West Bengal, a collapse in their Muslim vote was a significant one. The Trinamool Congress wants to ensure a more permanent slice of this vote. This has resulted in a slew of largely cosmetic measures like giving monthly stipends to imams, opening minority employment exchanges, building a gigantic Haj house, vaguely promising reservations, inaugurating trains that go from Bengal to Ajmer and the like. This rather public posturing, especially things like the imam stipends, have ruffled feathers in sections of the majority community. West Bengal’s veneer of secular politics is not something that has a very long past – both Shyama Prasad’s Hindu Mahasabha and the Muslim League had strong bases in various parts of Western Bengal. Those strands of political thought have not found legitimate expression for sometime and hence generally have not shown up in voting numbers. But they exist nonetheless. BJP’s performance in Jangipur could be replicated in other areas – it depends on how large is the majority community that has not taken well to the Trinamool’s courtship of minorities. In a scenario where the CPI(M) can only oppose the substance of the courtship but not the courtship itself, it is unlikely that the disgruntled will go to them. The assertion of parties like the SDPI and WPI may help such a communal consolidation of the majority community. And that cannot be good news. Communalism in West Bengal, though not generally overt, can be found easily by scratching the surface. A combination of circumstances can awaken it. Will more such circumstances arise, or will more responsible political parties prevent a potential communal unraveling of West Bengal politics? Bengal’s past experience with communal politics is distinctly bitter, both here in the West and in the East. The west lives with the sleeping demons. In the east, the demons never really slept, and have been in and out of power, thus seriously undermining the plural heritage of Bengal.