West Bengal, India – The Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party led by Narendra Modi has registered a landslide win in recently concluded national elections, making impressive electoral gains in areas where it once had a negligible presence.
It has now made inroads into the eastern state of West Bengal, where it has never won more than a single parliamentary seat.
Once ruled by India’s Communist Party (Marxist) for over three decades, the state is considered an unlikely match for the right-wing BJP. The Marxist party was defeated in 2011 only to make room for a newer Left.
In a first this year, the BJP contested all 42 parliamentary seats in the state. Though it won only two seats, its vote share tripled to 17 percent, marking its entry into the home turf of Left politics.
For Rajendra Prasad, 72, a retired cotton mill worker, this means a strange journey from Marx to Modi. Once a Left supporter, he remembers walking the streets of Serampore, his hometown, waving a red communist flag to chants of “Inquliab Zindabad” (Long live the revolution). Thirty years later, the flag has changed colour, so have the chants: “Long live Modi,” he says now.
In every election so far, Prasad, the son of a migrant worker from the neighbouring Bihar state, “voted for whichever party spoke on behalf of all labourers”. This year his labour identity took a backseat; what took precedence is “being Hindu and Bihari”, a new religious, linguistic and cultural division.
A dusty old town on the banks of the river Hoogly, Serampore is a semi-industrial area dotted with jute mills and manufacturing units. This is one of six seats the BJP had internally identified as “winnable”, banking on the presence of a large Hindi-speaking population, primarily migrant labour from the north Indian regions of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.
“We were hoping that the Modi wave sweeping the Hindi belt [of north India] will impact the Hindi-speaking voter in West Bengal,” Tathagatha Roy, former BJP state president, told Al Jazeera.
A wave or not?
The “Modi wave” is a phrase coined by BJP supporters to describe an organic groundswell of public support that they believe gathered around Modi as he campaigned across India. They maintain that it was triggered by his message of development, good governance, and hope. For Modi’s supporters, BJP’s historic victory is further evidence of the wave sweeping away old political fault lines of caste, class and religion.
For Rani, a flower seller in West Bengal, this was the first she ever heard of the BJP. “Wohi jiski leher chal rahi hai na – (the man with the wave, isn’t he?) she asks, wincing to get the name right, “Moti”. That’s whom she voted for, “because everyone is talking about him”.
For Modi’s detractors, the “wave” was manufactured, produced by a pliant media and millions of dollars spent in advertising. Soon, the idea of a wave became so powerful, it actually led to one.
His critics view Modi as a divisive leader, responsible – either by omission or commission – for sectarian riots that saw about 1,000 Muslims killed. His victory, they insist, is also the result of crafty identity politics and a bitter campaign that polarised India’s electorate, consolidating the Hindu vote.
Polarisation of votes
Speaking anonymously, a BJP state leader admitted to a Hindu-Muslim divide in West Bengal.
“Mamata [the leader of the ruling Trinamool Congress party] has bent over backwards to appease Muslims with job reservations, cycles for girls, and a monthly salary for Imams [religious leaders],” he says.
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“In the areas where Hindus and Muslims live in close proximity, raising these issues helped us. Where Hindus live separately, this doesn’t affect them, so we campaigned on different planks,” he said.
This is what Amiya Chaudhari, a professor of political science from Calcutta University, describes as “regionalisation of polarisation, tailored to the audience”.
On a hot evening in April, in the vast Jamnagar grounds of Serampore, the signs were visible. Addressing swelling crowds, Modi accused the state’s ruling party of ignoring its migrant non-Bengali speaking population.
He also attacked the government for pandering to illegal immigrants from neighbouring Bangladesh. While the former comprises mostly Hindus, the latter is an indirect reference to Muslims. Responding swiftly, the party chief Mamata Banerjee accused Modi of attempting to divide Bengal on “language and religion”.
“If a Bangladeshi comes here, your face lights up,” Modi had said in direct barb, “but if a Bihari, Oriya, or Marwari [migrant] comes here, you are upset.” A few miles away, watching Modi speak on a small TV in his cramped room, Rajendra Prasad nodded in agreement.
From Marx to Modi
Back in the early 1950s, Prasad remembers attending his first political rally at the same Jamnagar grounds – the Congress party leader and India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharal Nehru had arrived to address the people of Serampore. A few years later, with a job at the local cotton mill, Prasad became a member of the Congress-run mill workers union.
In the 1960s, protest from the worker’s union led to a pay bonus: all permanent employees would receive an additional 17 cents (Rs 10). When Prasad was given only half that, he confronted the Congress leaders, demanding his fair share. “Be happy with what you’ve got,” he was told.
“That day,” Prasad says, “I broke with the Congress permanently.”
Next, he joined the only other political alternative in West Bengal at the time – the Communist Party of India (Marxist). The CPM’s initial support base in Bengal came from mass labour and peasant movements – with workers like Prasad as its backbone. The party’s many rights-based protest movements, for “cotton rates, food prices, land to the tiller,” struck a chord.
In the 1970s, when Prasad rose to become a cashier in the local CPM-led trade union, it meant tracking the party’s financial spending. He finally broke ties with the Communist party after he was overlooked for a new job in favour of a Congress candidate who promised to convert and bring new members.
“My years of loyal service had no value,” he told Al Jazeera. “If I was Bengali, they would have backed me,” he said.
Prasad now believes he was sidelined within the CPM union because of his Bihari identity. “We have always been second-class here,” he said. “Modi only reminded us.”
Back then in 2000s, when the ruling Trinamool Congress first appeared on Bengal’s political horizon, positioning itself as the more credible Left , it earned Prasad’s vote. This year, it disappointed him too. “The CPM tried to get Biharis out of here, and TMC is only appeasing the Muslims,” he says. “That’s why I voted for the BJP.”
It is hard to tell whether this is a real wound or new found rhetoric. In a clear departure from the past though, his reason for changing political allegiance is not a local, personal or “development” issue – but the rekindling of once dormant identities.
“The BJP is the only party that is speaking on behalf of all Hindus. Bengal had no such option here earlier, but we finally have that now.”
Follow Tusha Mittal on Twitter: @tushamittal