May 15, 2019

India 2019 Elections: Communal polarisation and how TMC’s Basirhat candidate captures its Bengal poll strategy

Hindustan Times

Lok Sabha elections 2019: How TMC’s Basirhat candidate captures its Bengal poll strategy
Communal polarisation, which was talked about in hushed voices then, has completely crystallised now.
lok sabha elections Updated: May 15, 2019 07:00 IST

Roshan Kishore
Hindustan Times, Baduria/Basirhat/Kolkata

North 24 Parganas: Bengali film actress and TMC candidate for Basirhut parliamentary seat, Nusrat Jahan, shows the victory sign before filing her nomination papers at Barasat in North 24 Parganas district.(PTI)

Baduria is a small municipal town situated some 50km from Kolkata. It is a part of the Bashirhat parliamentary constituency (PC), which will go to polls in the last phase of 2019 general elections, on May 19. The place gained notoriety in July 2017, when communal violence erupted after a derogatory social media post on the Prophet Mohammad went viral. Those attacked by a violent mob of Muslims included the local police station and the All India Trinamool Congress (TMC) MLA from Bashirhat South. The violence, which also spread to Bashirhat town, was ultimately contained after a week, but it seems to have left permanent fault lines, not just in Baduria, but the entire PC, and probably beyond.

HT visited Baduria a year ago, just before the panchayat elections. Communal polarisation, which was talked about in hushed voices then, has completely crystallised now.

There is a small disagreement about the share of Muslims in Bashirhat PC at the local tea shop.

Finally there is a consensus that the number is more than 50%. Then there is an attempt to identify parts where Muslims are not in a majority. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) can manage a lead from these places, we are told.

There is a caveat, though; it will happen only if voters are allowed to exercise their franchise.

This is not an unnecessary concern. Anandabazar Patrika, West Bengal’s biggest Bengali newspaper, led with the headline Ato Hingsha Kano (Why so much violence) on May 13, a day after the sixth phase of polling in the state. TMC cadre attacked and vandalised Union minister Babul Supriyo’s vehicle in Bashirhat PC a day before, we are told. The BJP candidate, Sanyantan Basu, had a piece of advice for the central forces which have been brought to oversee polling. Shoot above ( the waist), not below.

The local BJP leader, who has made a makeshift office at home instead of the small dilapidated office HT visited earlier, says he expects the electorate to behave like kumro (Bengali for pumpkin): green from outside and saffron from inside. The people you see roaming around with the TMC will vote for us on polling day, he tells us. The TMC violence is largely meant to scare people from indulging in such behaviour.

The 2017 riots are not the only religious issue dominating Baduria and the rest of Bashirhat PC this time. The TMC has fielded Nusrat Jahan, a Bengali actress – some say probably the first Muslim superstar in the Bengali film industry – as its candidate.

Chief minister Mamata Banerjee introduced her as someone who organises Kali Puja at her home despite being a Muslim.

Conservative Muslims have made this as an issue against the TMC candidate. Apparently videos are also being circulated where Jahan is speaking against Triple Talaq, an Islamic practice banned by the apex court. For sections of Muslims, clearly, Jahan might not be Muslim enough.

The BJP is hoping that the conservative Muslim backlash against Jahan will damage the TMC’s prospects. Abdur Rahil Quazi, the Congress candidate, who is a local and also the only one among the major party candidates to have also contested the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, stands to gain the most from this backlash. The Communist Party of India (CPI) candidate Pallab Sengupta, is known more for his ties with the international communist movement than the politics in Bashirhat, probably even West Bengal.

The choice of Nusrat Jahan reflects a complete U-turn from the kind of Muslim politics the TMC practised in Bashirhat in the 2014 elections. Idris Ali, who won this seat in 2014 for the TMC, played a key role in organising Muslim protests against Bangladeshi author Taslima Nasreen in Kolkata. Nasreen tweeted after Ali became an MP, “Idris Ali, the Muslim fanatic who caused riots in Kolkata, now an elected member of the Indian parliament. What a sad news!”

The choice of candidate is being seen as Mamata Banerjee’s attempt to dilute, if not completely undo, the communal polarisation which now characterises Bashirhat. She can pull off such things without much difficulty given the iron grip she has over the party.

Bashirhat is a classic example of how the TMC is using an iron fist in a velvet glove strategy to counter a rising BJP in the state.

By fielding Nusrat Jahan, the party is actually challenging conservative Muslim politics, even willing to risk losing some votes to the Congress, which, in the case of a close contest with the BJP, could matter a lot. The velvet glove of Nusrat Jahan’s candidature, however, hides the iron fist of the muscle power the TMC has employed in these elections.

Whether the BJP polling agents will be able to stay for the entire poling duration in Baduria is not certain, we are told. Add to this the widespread support Mamata Banerjee still enjoys among large sections of the state, and it could be enough to see her through what is going to be her toughest election in West Bengal ever since she dealt the first body blow to the Left in the panchayat elections of 2008.