The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s attempt to penetrate West Bengal’s urban areas, including state capital Kolkata, involves two key messages to the bhadralok (class of gentlemen): The “prevalent lawlessness” in the state will sooner or later impact their happy-go-lucky existence. And even the urbane crowd that generally pooh-poohs the party’s electoral plank of Bangladeshi infiltration and the demography acquiring an increasing pro-Muslim skew will face an existential crisis if they do not ‘wake up’.
Infiltration is an issue that Hindus of north Bengal face every day while several semi-urban pockets, which have witnessed several riots during the term of the Trinamool Congress government that is about to end, understand the threat too. But Kolkata and other cities of the type doubt the problem is real.
Since the Lok Sabha election of 2009, Bengal’s urban areas have switched to Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee — after leaving her as the sole winner in 2004 — but in the ongoing election, Prime Minister Narendra Modi-led BJP is making inroads into the urban landscape by insisting they will not stay immune to the “ills brought about by the Trinamool Congress government”. The BJP now, unlike during the campaign for the 2014 Lok Sabha and that for the 2016 Vidhan Sabha when they needed the Trinamool’s support to clear some bills in the Rajya Sabha, is telling the bhadralok that they no longer need to compromise with Mamata Banerjee because the BJP is the alternative.
Yesterday, Union Home Minister Amit Shah addressed a rally in Bidhannagar constituency that covers the upmarket Salt Lake City of Kolkata while BJP president JP Nadda attended an “Intellectuals’ Meet” in Rajarhat New Town, another upscale locality. Over the past seven days, the BJP has also plastered Kolkata’s walls with Prime Minister Modi’s messages to Bengal.
Both these constituencies are voting on Saturday, the fifth round of the eight-phase state election. “The day is not far when the problem of infiltration (from the borders) will enter Kolkata too. Other parties cannot stop this as they see in it their vote banks. Only the BJP can stop it,” Shah said in Bidhannagar aka Salt Lake City.
In New Town, Nadda said intellectual pursuits and discussions had stopped in the state known for such culture. “Where the thought process stops, development of society ceases. You have been subjugated. So you are not able to give your best. We want to bring a rule of law to Bengal; it will be helpful to all,” Nadda said. He said that the “administration in Bengal was politicised and police are criminalised”.
BJP refines strategy for cities
The BJP has organised a number of intellectuals’ meeting and street rallies in cities to appeal to urban voters that were perceived to be averse to the Hindu right self-preservation ideology, attacked as the line of thought was by Buddhism of the Pala dynasty, the iconoclasm of Raja Rammohun Roy’s Brahmo Samaj and finally 34 years of CPM-led Left Front rule and allegedly extortionist Trinamool for 10 years thereafter. The bhadralok, with regional pride and a soft corner for leftists, had been with communists for a long time. A large section of them switched over to the Trinamool in 2011 and remained critical of the BJP’s brand of politics.
“This is the time to remove this government lock, stock and barrel, and give a chance to the good and well-meaning people in the BJP. I know the problems people like doctors, lawyers and teachers are facing. When lawlessness comes, everyone faces trouble. Politics is a very important weapon for change. If the right people are there in power, change will happen,” Nadda, whose wife Mallika is a Bengali, said.
While the BJP has cried hoarse over “cut money (commission)” in villages, which have a far greater number of seats, the issue does not wash as much in urban areas that is significant because of its ability to influence the whole state with its vocalised thought process. However, issues like Trinamool workers holding the state to ransom and infiltration have begun to tap into the anxiety of the urbane as well, say sources in Kolkata and Durgapur. The BJP is appealing loud and clear: people don’t have to “compromise” anymore, indicating albeit that the two archrivals now did strike a deal backstage in 2016.
Shah, of course, does not miss the ‘secular’ issues. Yesterday, he spoke of development- and welfare-focused issues such as a Rs 22,000-crore infrastructure fund for urban areas of Kolkata and North 24-Parganas, implementation of the 7th Pay Commission for employees, and setting up a new commission for teachers’ wages.
Can saffron do it?
Cities remain hard nuts to crack, though. How much the bhadralok serves as an index of the state is debatable. The creature unique to Bengal — “gentleman” does not quite translate the sense of “bhadralok” — was insignificant during the left rule when the Indian National Congress couldn’t win back West Bengal from the CPM despite claiming most seats from Kolkata whereas in the last 10 years, whoever has won most seats in Kolkata has conquered the state too. The Trinamool had won all 11 seats in Kolkata in 2016 when it won the state as well.
But the BJP is confident, after getting leads in three of these assembly segments in the 2019 Lok Sabha election. The BJP expects a neck-and-neck fight in three more seats in Kolkata this time. The party expects to win 50% of the seats in Kolkata, a senior BJP functionary said. The party’s urban faces such as Swapan Dasgupta are accompanying Shah in campaigns for such seats.
Nadda stressed yesterday before intellectuals that his father was a professor and vice-chancellor. He made a case that “culturally, spiritually and socially, Bengal has a name which has to be reinstated by bringing in real change”.
Speaking mostly in English, Nadda said he felt very proud of being a “Bengali son-in-law”. “The whole country looks at Bengal with an aura and a respect. But in last 30-40 years, people started migrating and deserting, something strange has happened here,” Nadda said.
The BJP, under the leadership of Prime Minister Modi, is leaving no stone unturned to woo urban voters. On 2 May, we will know whether the 20% urban voters of the state chose to switch to the BJP and to what degree.
With inputs from CNBC-TV18