Every vote is precious, and no party appreciates this better than the BJP. The saffron party, which ran a 360-degree election campaign in Chhattisgarh, made it a point to reach out to the roughly 1.7 lakh Bengali voters in the state.
And that paid rich dividends. According to BJP leaders, more than 80 per cent of Bengalis who exercised their franchise voted for the BJP. That was enough to snatch three seats in the state from the Congress.
Bengalis, whose population is estimated to be around 2.8 lakh in Chhattisgarh, form just one per cent of the state’s population.
But even this miniscule section of the state’s population was not too small for the BJP to target. Bengalis form a significant section of the electorate in four Assembly constituencies--Raipur Gramin (Raipur Rural), Antagarh, Bhanupratappur and Kanker. The last three are in the Maoist-affected North Bastar Kanker district in southern Chhattisgarh.
The outreach to the Bengalis--a small minority group in the state--was a manifestation of the determination of the BJP leadership to win Chhattisgarh.
The Bengalis of Chhattisgarh had been traditional supporters of the Congress. The BJP had launched its outreach to them many years ago, but with mixed success.
But this time, the BJP leadership decided that the Bengali Hindus of the state had to be won over. Apart from promising to make them beneficiaries of a host of welfare measures, the BJP also made emotional appeals to them.
Central to this outreach was the deployment of Bengali Hindu leaders from outside the state, primary among them being the Leader of Opposition in the Bengal Assembly, Suvendu Adhikari.
“I was instructed by Amit Shahji to go to Chhattisgarh and campaign amongst the Bengalis there. I was privileged to do so. And it feels great to know that my efforts contributed in a small measure to the victory of my party in that state,” Adhikari told Swarajya.
Adhikari went on a door-to-door campaign at Mana, which has a large concentration of Bengali Hindus, in Raipur Gramin Assembly constituency. He, and other Bengali leaders of Bengal and the Barak Valley region of Assam, also visited Pakhanjore, Kapsi and Bande towns and other small Bengali villages and settlements in Kanker district.
“We told the Bengalis there that once the BJP comes to power in the state, a number of welfare measures would be rolled out and those would benefit them. We listed out such measures. We also pointed out to them that during the 15 years of BJP rule in the state from 2003 to 2018, investments flowed in and many jobs in the private sector were created. This would be carried forward and job-creation would be the next BJP government’s priority,” said Adhikari.
“We campaigned in the name of Narendra Modiji and his guarantees. Most Bengalis in Chhattisgarh are traders and own small businesses. Our promises to them included easier loans for businesses, simplifying procedures, cutting red tape and similar measures that would result in ease of doing business.
“Many Bengalis are also working in the private sector or are teachers, doctors and engineers. Our promise of clean and transparent governance, an end to appeasement and taking strong action against the corrupt who flourished under Congress rule appealed to them,” Adhikari added.
The Bengalis of North Bastar Kanker district had been adversely affected by the rise in Maoist activities over the last five years of Congress rule. Maoists had been extorting a lot of money from even petty businesses there.
One of the main issues highlighted by the BJP in that district was the rise in Maoist activities over the last five years and how, under the earlier BJP government, Maoists were curbed and they were nearly wiped out of the entire region.
“The Bengalis, and in fact all sections of people of Chhattisgarh, realised that the BJP was the best bet to wipe out the Maoists from the state. The Congress government was not only powerless to tackle the Maoists, but many within that party have strong links with Maoists,” said Adhikari.
The campaign by Adhikari and other BJP leaders among the Bengalis yielded results. The Congress lost Kanker, Raipur Gramin and Antagarh seats.
The Congress could retain only Bhanupratappur, but that was because of a continuing sympathy wave in favour of the Congress candidate who was the widow of the sitting Congress MLA who died a little over a year ago.
The death of Manoj Singh Mandavi (the sitting MLA of Bhanupratappur who won the seat in 2013 and 2018), a popular leader, in October last year generated a sympathy wave that ensured the victory of his widow Savitri Mandavi.
The BJP got a majority of votes polled in the booths in Bengali-majority pockets of these seats.
How Bengalis reached Chhattisgarh
The Bengalis of the central Indian state are all Hindu refugees, and their descendants, from erstwhile East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). They had fled horrific persecution and a genocidal programme codenamed Operation Searchlight launched by the West Pakistani army against Bengalis in March 1971.
But the influx of Hindus from East Pakistan had started as soon as Partition (of India) was announced by the British.
Initially, immediately before and in the aftermath of Partition, lakhs of Bengali Hindus were accommodated in Assam and Bengal.
But as the influx continued throughout the next few decades due to continuing persecution of Hindus in East Pakistan, Bengal and Assam ran out of space to accommodate the desperate millions fleeing their Islamist oppressors.
The Union Government then mooted the Dandakaranya Project to settle the Bengali Hindus from East Pakistan in the Bastar in Madhya Pradesh( Chhattisgarh was carved out of Madhya Pradesh later) and Koraput in Odisha.
Though the project was ill-designed and generated considerable controversy, the hapless Bengali Hindu refugees settled down in those two states.
The few thousand families who settled down in Bastar met with a lot of difficulties--alien environment, considerable hostility of local Halba tribals, arid and fallow lands that were difficult to cultivate and an acute scarcity of water.
But the Bengali Hindu families survived and most even prospered moderately. Many from those families are in various professions today and some are even bureaucrats.
The resettlement that they were offered by the then Congress governments at the federal and state levels made the Bengali Hindu families ardent supporters of the Congress.
“Indira Gandhi gave us land (six acres per family), materials to build our houses and cattle and poultry to earn livelihood. We were homeless and penniless and had left everything behind in East Pakistan. What she gave us was a lot. She was a Devi to us. My father, on his deathbed (he passed away in 2018) made me promise to continue to support the Congress,” Tuhin Biswas, owner of Biswas Medical Store on ITI Road in Mana Camp, told Swarajya over phone from Mana.
“Despite my misgivings, I voted for the Congress in 2018 just to honour my father’s wishes. But this time, I decided to vote for the BJP. While we are grateful for whatever the Congress did for us, we now feel that the BJP can do much more for us,” said Tuhin, whose son is studying to become a doctor.
Manik Sil, the owner of Suruchi Bhojanalay, a popular eatery behind the Shani Mandir in Mana Camp, told Swarajya that Suvendu Adhikari’s campaign made him make up his mind to vote for the BJP.
“I had always voted for the Congress because that party had helped us when we were in an utterly hopeless situation. We can never forget the fact that the Congress governments in New Delhi and the state helped us with our resettlement here. For that, we shall always remain grateful. But now, we want a better life for our children. We want more opportunities for our children and we want good governance. We feel that it is the BJP which can provide all this now,” said Sil, 58.
Sil fled with his parents and siblings from Khulna in East Pakistan as a young boy of six in 1971.
Tens of thousands of other Bengali Hindus like Sil and Biswas have, thus, voted for the BJP in order to secure a better and brighter future for themselves and their children. Thanks, in no small measure, to Suvendu Adhikari and other Bengal BJP leaders who campaigned for the party among the Bengalis of Chhattisgarh.
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