Thursday, November 1, 2012

West Bengal on dangerous slide

By Nilotpal Basu

Agency: DNA | Tuesday, October 23, 2012

The sigh of relief on the Raisina Hills must have been loud enough. In Jangipur by-election, the President’s son and Congress nominee won the contest by the proverbial ‘whisker’. And, to the great relief of his more illustrious father and his well-wishers, he scraped through.

At least he did not have to bite the dust like the other son – of chief minister of Uttarakhand — who got the drubbing in Tehri. Abhijit – the President’s son – made it. In fact, these by-election results have been a clear pointer to the public mood on ground zero. That the spate of reforms and the endless revelation of corruption and scams engineered at the highest echelons of the ruling establishment continue to influence public perception was underlined in these results. Despite the bravado of the mandarins of neo-liberalism, the reforms, far from refurbishing the image of the government, have actually accentuated its further alienation from the people.

So, though Abhijit survived, the impressive lead of 1,28,000 votes his father had clocked tumbled to just 2,500; and this despite the Trinamool Congress and its supremo Mamata Banerjee’s public support for his candidature.

That the electoral commitments made by these two parties to the Bengal electorate in the 2009 and 2011 elections have gone awry is patently clear. The Trinamool disowns the government in Delhi; and the Congress reciprocates in Kolkata with the choicest invectives. And, obviously, the fundamental promise of their joint electoral campaign of paribartan has flopped. It is through these allegations and counter allegations that the electorate’s adverse experience about them gets reinforced.

But this is not merely about Jangipur people’s disenchantment with these parties in alliance. It is not also about performance of the Left, which all but wrested the seat and managed to retain its votes in trying circumstances. The CPI (M) candidate established lead in four of the seven assembly segments that constitute the Jangipur Lok Sabha seat as against only one in the assembly elections. But, let that pass.

Perhaps, the most significant feature of this by-election was the advance the communal forces registered. The BJP’s vote share went up to 10 per cent from a meagre two per cent. Between them, two Islamist parties — the SDPI, part of the Kerala-based Popular Front, and the Jamaat-e-Islami sponsored Welfare Party of India — got almost eight per cent votes. Such level of support for communally-oriented political outfits is definitely a new development in West Bengal. Obviously, it is fraught with major adverse ramifications in a border state which is intensely diverse and has 27 per cent Muslim population.

But frankly speaking, this was waiting to happen. Since the inception of the Mamata Banerjee-led government in the state, a major damage has been done by overt religious appeals to the minorities for electoral support. West Bengal has been a state, perhaps unique, in staying clear from the dangerous concoction of religion and politics. Therefore, election results during the last six decades have underlined gradual decline of communal forces in the state’s politics. It will be pertinent to mention that a prominent member of the Nehru government – Shyama Prasad Mukherjee — resigned and formed the Hindu Mahasabha nursing the fond hope that it would advance in the state which suffered the trauma of Partition. But Mukherjee failed abysmally. And subsequently, with the growth of the Left in the state, the tradition of harmony got consolidated. When the country was burning in the aftermath of Indira Gandhi’s assassination or demolition of the Babri Masjid, the state remained an oasis of peace and amity.

But today, that legacy appears to be in jeopardy. The crude religious appeal that the chief minister makes to the minorities by putting on hijab while addressing her audience in Muslim neighbourhoods or frequently using phrases like Khuda Hafiz or Salam Aleqqum; and linking all activities of her party with one or the other religious practice of Muslims is an ominous development. Even the withdrawal of the Trinamool support from the UPA government was linked to Jumma Namaz. The controversial decision to give governmental grant to imams of local mosques is not only being challenged in the courts but by sections of the Islamic scholarship.

But more than that, this is courting the BJP to exploit these overtures. West Bengal, a border state with significant minority population, has always interested the Saffron brigade; but thanks to the consistent secular practice by all other political parties in the state, their efforts tanked.

But now that is threatened. The additional problem is the developments in West Asia which disturbs Muslims across the world with a sense of frustration, insecurity and revulsion. The community has extremely legitimate concerns – more socio-economic and related to human rights and social justice than religious. Unless this cesspool of sentiments is channellised by secular democratic forces, they will become cannon fodder to sectarian Islamist forces; even more so, in the face of aggressive assertion by the Hindutva forces.

Jangipur brings home this danger with all its grotesque ramifications. One hopes that this will drive sense in the TMC and its supremo. Let us hope that at least Jangipur teaches her to mend her bizarre and deeply divisive political pursuit.

The writer is a member of the central committee, CPI(M)

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