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Sandeshkhali and power

opinionSandeshkhali and power

Trends are a long-term phenomenon. Even in West Bengal, the clear trend is that Hindu voters have started voting as ‘Hindus’.

The co-author has a full-time domestic help, Basanti Mandal, who has become a de facto family member after rendering sometimes great and sometimes exasperating service for about 15 years. Thanks to salary hikes and lots of savings, she has been taking a flight to Kolkata for her annual holidays for quite a few years.

Her father had fled Bangladesh from the ravages of the Pakistani Army in 1971 and settled in a village near Sealdah. He earns a livelihood catching fish and doing odd jobs here and there. Basanti is a Modi fan and went to Bengal in 2019 to vote for him in the Lok Sabha elections. She was elated when we were watching the election results at home and the BJP shocked a lot of analysts and pundits by winning 18 out of 42 seats in West Bengal and getting a near 40% vote share.

For a party that virtually did not exist as even a marginal force in the state when the Left lost power to Mamata-Banerjee led TMC in 2011, this was an incredible feat. In April 2021, when the second wave of Covid was yet to leave a trail of misery, death and destruction, Basanti flew down to Kolkata to vote for “Modi” in the Assembly elections. When she came back after a gap, she was glum and looked depressed. We thought maybe she is unhappy because “Modi” lost.

But there was more to it because people usually don’t get so upset if their chosen leader fails to win an election. Since the coauthor understands Bangla, he started a conversation with her about her unhappiness. Her response in Bangla was that TMC goons had burnt down half her village two days after the election results were announced. The co-author has no way of verifying this, but Basanti says the local TMC workers behaved like savages. This time, as India gets ready to vote for the 2024 Lok Sabha elections, Basanti has decided not to travel to her village.

She says rather not vote than face such torture from TMC goons. She also adds there is no one to help them so they have decided to just become mute spectators of democracy in action. This elaborate exposition is meant to highlight the reality of West Bengal. Basanti is not an active BJP worker. Not a single member of her family back in the village near Sealdah is a BJP worker.

They just voted for the BJP because they felt Modi was doing something good for the poor. This is also not fiction. It is a real-life story and Basanti agreed for her name to be used since there are thousands of people with the Mandal surname. Thanks to WhatsApp, she is very aware of what is happening in Sandeshkhali. She says it is a good thing she won’t go to vote this time as it is not worth it.

According to Basanti, it is not just in Sandeshkhali that women are being molested and raped. The lead author has been tracking politics in West Bengal with a special interest since the Left won its last Assembly elections in 2006. The most interesting development the lead author has seen and analysed since then is the silent and subterranean rise of the so-called Hindu vote.

Like Bihar, politicians and liberal analysts in Bengal used to flaunt the “theory” that Hindus don’t vote as “Hindus” as they cherish “secularism”. In the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP won about 17% of the vote share and got two seats in Bengal. Most pundits wrote if off as a fluke. In the 2016 Assembly elections, the BJP vote share was about 10%, better than the 2011 Assembly elections, but much lower than the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. It managed to win just 3 seats.

But three years later, in 2019, the BP vote share shot up to 40%, just about 3% lower than the TMC vote share. The lead author was not surprised. Somewhere in the aftermath of the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, the “Hindu” voter actually started voting like a “Hindu”. So-called secular policies by governments at the Centre and in many states could no longer refute the allegation that they were interested in pandering to only radical Muslims while treating the ordinary Muslims like cattle.

The results were visible in tidal waves in Assam in 2016 and UP in 2017 when the BJP scored spectacular victories. The feat was repeated as the BJP won second consecutive mandates in the two states in 2021 and 2022 respectively. While talking about CVoter polls in various shows, the lead author has often pointed out how this is a secular, long term trend in voting patterns that rhetoric cannot deny.

The question most people ask is: Assam has a much higher proportion of Muslim voters than West Bengal. Then how did the BJP manage to win two consecutive mandates in Assam while it keeps failing in West Bengal? The authors would like to clear one thing first.

Since there has been no Census since 2011 and no “official” records, there is simply no way of knowing what proportion the Muslim voters are right now in West Bengal. The co-author was in North Bengal recently and there was open talk of Rohingyas getting Voter ID and Aadhar Cards. This could be true or exaggerated.

The authors have no agency to find out the reality. But as the lead author often says in television programs, trends are a long-term phenomenon. Even in West Bengal, the clear trend is that Hindu voters have started voting as “Hindus”. The reason why the BJP is yet to succeed in Bengal compared to Assam is that Mamata Banerjee is a very popular and charismatic leader.

Second, she has inherited the strategy of the Left that ruled Bengal for 34 years to make no bones about “I am a street fighter” and intimidation. Thanks to this strategy first of the Left and then TMC, Newton’s third law of motion has been building up for a while.

The lead author clearly remembers how most political analysts refused to believe the CVoter opinion poll numbers that gave 18 seats to the BJP in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls. Many mocked and laughed at the poll numbers and the lead author. One TMC leader lambasted CVoter during a television debate and vowed that he will quit politics if the actual numbers matched the opinion poll numbers. He never quit politics, of course. Will Sandeshkhali have any impact on the voters?

The CVoter survey and opinion poll suggest the BJP will somehow manage to retain the number of seats it won in 2019. But then, CVoter did not give more than 300 seas to the BJP in Uttar Pradesh in 2017 and in India in 2019. Who knows when the so-called Hindu vote will consolidate in Bengal?

Yashwant Deshmukh is Founder & Editor in Chief of CVoter Foundation and Sutanu Guru is Executive Director.

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