Bengal 2021: In Mamata Banerjee's Last Stand, A Question For The State's Muslims

by Minhaz Merchant - Apr 19, 2021 04:11 PM +05:30 IST
Bengal 2021: In Mamata Banerjee's Last Stand, A Question For The State's Muslims Cartoon of West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee (Samir Jana/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)
  • If Mamata Banerjee wins the West Bengal election for a third consecutive time, the state’s Muslims can look forward to five more years of business as usual: state administration appeasing the regressive elements within the community while mouthing platitudes to 'secularism'.

There is a growing sense of disquiet in the Trinamool Congress. According to ground reports, the first five phases of the West Bengal assembly election have not gone well for the TMC.

The remaining three phases may prove no different. Bookies have an ear to the ground and the odds they are offering on a BJP victory on 2 May have unnerved Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee.

Christophe Jaffrelot, whose antipathy towards the BJP is well documented, wrote in a recent op-ed in The Indian Express along with co-author Kailaiyarasan A: “Cowing down to BJP’s vitriolic attack of Muslim appeasement, Banerjee has not only cut down on the number of Muslim candidates by one-third but has granted allowances and housing to Brahmin priests – a symbolic gesture.

“At the same time, the BJP has exploited the anxiety of the bhadralok and has made religious polarization a central poll issue. The party is fighting the election on two planks: one, to restore ‘Sonar Bangla’ to its Hindu past; and two, preventing ‘West Bengal from becoming West Bangladesh’, a reference to Muslim refugees.”

The TMC, like all violent Left-wing political parties, knows how important it is to control the narrative. A willing cabal of newspapers, columnists and TV anchors is just a call away. They leapt to Banerjee’s defence.

Lower levels of the cabal were invited to a Clubhouse chat by TMC’s political strategist Prashant Kishor to redirect the narrative.

In a comical eureka moment, Kishor told the assembled journalists that, yes, the TMC after all was a communal party: it had pretended to appease Bengal’s Muslims to corner their votes en masse and then betrayed them by keeping them backward and impoverished.

The assembled journalists exhaled in disbelief at Kishor’s masterclass revelation: Muslims in Bengal vote en masse for the TMC? Really, they do? We never knew. The conversation soon descended into political parody.

Kishor himself of course has good reason to dislike the BJP. After helping the party win the 2014 Lok Sabha election in May, he asked a senior BJP leader about his future role.

“After May?” he inquired expectantly.

“June,” came the terse reply. Kishor never worked for the BJP after that.

But Kishor doesn’t really matter. He has already flown the coop to Punjab. The journalists he invited to the Clubhouse chat, long corroded by an ecosystem in which they form closed mutual admiration societies, don’t matter either. Their growing irrelevance gnaws at them but there is little they can do about it.

The key issue is Banerjee’s future role in Indian politics. If, against the odds, she pull off a close win, the Opposition will coalesce around her for the big battle ahead: the 2024 Lok Sabha election.

If she loses, she will not fade quietly into the background. With significant numbers of MLAs, the TMC will obstruct governance. Its cadres will engage in street violence. But with the police no longer under its control, the TMC will be a defanged force.

If the BJP wins Bengal, its problems will have just begun. It will need to choose a chief minister who has credibility or the charge that Bengal will be run from Delhi could come to haunt the BJP in future local elections.

Cleansing Bengal’s cut-money culture will be another challenge. But the biggest hurdle facing a potential BJP government in Bengal is establishing a positive relationship with the state’s large Muslim population. The trust deficit will be difficult to bridge but it is vital for both the BJP and Muslims to bridge it.

Muslims in Bengal, as Kishor with affected naïveté conceded, have been cheated for decades by what can only be described as “secular fraud”.

Real secularism is religion-agnostic. It favours no religion and discriminates against no religion. By that definition, the TMC and much of the Opposition today (SP, RJD, AAP, NCP, Congress) is deeply communal.

What of the BJP? It doesn’t pass the smell test. Hindutva embraces all in theory but in practice, Muslims and Christians are politely ignored.

That must change. Modi has played the role of a neutral statesman but that has earned him the ire of the Right for selling out “Hindu” interests as well as the wrath of the Left for the Citizenship (Amendment) Act and the reading down of Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir.

Real secularism empowers. Fraudulent secularism disempowers. Mainstream Indian politicians preach real secularism but practise a fraudulent version. The worst victim of this fraud? The ordinary Indian Muslim.

If Mamata Banerjee wins the West Bengal election for the third consecutive time, the state’s Muslims can look forward to five more years of betrayal. The tragedy of the community is that it prefers betrayal to the fear a BJP government evokes in them following decades of fraudulent narratives on secularism that they have been fed by the Congress, then the Left, and now the TMC.

Will 2 May end their paranoia or will it just extend their status as a protected species: disempowered and impoverished but happy in the affectionate embrace of the TMC?

Minhaz Merchant is an author and publisher. 

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