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Riding a tiger in Bengal

Author: Editorial
Publication: The Hindu
Date: May 21, 2014
URL: http://www.thehindu.com/opinion/editorial/riding-a-tiger-in-bengal/article6030286.ece?homepage=true

The Lok Sabha election fought by both the left and the right against a common adversary in West Bengal, Mamata Banerjee, produced expected results. The Trinamool Congress led by Ms. Banerjee has won 34 of 42 seats with 39.30 per cent of the votes, which is marginally more than what the TMC got in the 2011 Assembly election. Since the first general election in 1952, no single party has got as many seats in West Bengal as the TMC in 2014. In 1980, the Left coalition captured almost all the 42 seats, though none of the Front allies were close to 34 on their own. On the other hand, within a decade and a half of its formation, the TMC emerged as the fourth largest party in the country, while its key rival, the CPI(M), got two seats, the lowest ever since its formation in 1964. Mamata Banerjee should have been elated at her first media conference after the results, but she was not.

Perhaps the reason was that alongside her massive victory the BJP put in a strong showing in West Bengal. The BJP got 16.80 per cent of the votes — its highest ever in the State. While before and after Independence, the Hindu Mahasabha, the Jan Sangh or the BJP got 16 per cent or more in a few seats on several occasions here, in 2014 the BJP polled 2 lakh to 3.5 lakh votes in more than 20 seats across the State, that is, a 20-25 per cent vote share in half the seats. In more than 20 seats the BJP was in the third position, pushing the Left or the Congress to the fourth spot, and the party was the first runner-up in five. The BJP also won in a couple of dozen Assembly segments, including Bhawanipore where Ms. Banerjee resides. The BJP’s rise is changing the nature of politics in West Bengal where class rather than identity politics has been the general norm. In Basirhat in North 24 Parganas district, the BJP’s campaign was orchestrated largely around last year’s communal flare-up in the area. Similar events are reported from other parts of the State. Clearly, Ms. Banerjee’s challenge is to restrict such religious-identity driven politics as the State has a huge minority population. At the same time, she also needs to check the slide in her Hindu vote bank. The task is difficult as the semantics introduced by the TMC over the last few years in West Bengal’s politics, oblivious of the State’s violent past, overtly appealed to the minority community for en bloc votes, thus jeopardising the long-term interest of the minorities. By stepping up attacks against Narendra Modi, Ms. Banerjee encouraged polarisation, so that the BJP gains at the cost of her main rival, the CPI(M). Her plan has worked in 2014, but it may boomerang in 2016 or even earlier in 2015, in the Kolkata Municipal Corporation election. The Chief Minister is now clearly riding a tiger, and thus had reason to be worried even on a day of historic achievements.
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