India: How West Bengal is being won and what it means for Bangladesh

The Daily Star  April 21, 2021

With the assembly polls ongoing in West Bengal, the state—currently being ruled by the strong matriarch Mamata Banerjee—has turned into a battleground for Banerjee’s party Trinamool Congress (TMC) and the power at the centre, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

While on the one hand, the TMC’s election narrative is riding high on Bengali nationalism, BJP is playing the communal card to attract the majority Hindu vote banks. Also, the BJP is wooing the relatively influential Matua community, which has a significant vote bank spread across areas such as Nadia, North 24 Paraganas, South 24 Paraganas, Siliguri, Jalpaiguri, Cooch Behar and Bardhaman.

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And both TMC and BJP are vying for the attention of the female voters. The TMC campaign heavily stresses on the safety and progress of women under the rule of Mamata Banerjee. Earlier in March, The Indian Express quoted Chief Whip of TMC in Rajya Sabha, Sukhendu Sekhar Ray, as saying, “In Bengal, women are very safe when compared to UP and other BJP-ruled states … Soon after becoming Chief Minister, she started doing so much work for them. One of these is self-help groups with women, and now we have over 40,000 self-help groups all over West Bengal. Everyone is earning something with their dignity intact”.

The BJP election manifesto, on the other hand, highlights many schemes and plans for financial assistance for women, including one-third reservation for women in government jobs and pensions to widows, among other promises.

But the West Bengal polls have been marred by protests, clashes, an assault on the Chief Minister herself, and even civilian deaths at the hands of paramilitary forces during polls. And the major players, TMC and BJP, have often resorted to blaming each other for the violence.

This election will be crucial for West Bengal because its results will have lasting impacts on the political identity and characteristics of the state. If the TMC gets a third consecutive term in office, their hold over the state will be further consolidated. They will be in a position to keep emphasising Bengali nationalism, which resonates so well with the emotions of the Bengali population. And they might keep leveraging the sentiment of the people to deny Bangladesh the waters of Teesta.

While it is clear that all these measures had been taken to woo minority vote banks, the TMC at least appreciates the need for development that is inclusive in nature.

On the other hand, if BJP comes to power in West Bengal, there remains the fear of them stoking communal tension in the state. The BJP will push its narrative of ultra-Hindu nationalism and in a state where the minorities have enjoyed safety and inclusion, such tensions will not go down well with the people.

This might brew trouble for Bangladesh. BJP’s attitude towards Bangladesh, despite all the fanfare of Modi’s recent visit, is not free of caveats. Amit Shah—Modi’s right hand and the Indian Minister of Home Affairs—in 2019 had very clearly stated his sentiments when he referred to Muslim migrants from Bangladesh as termites (“Infiltrators are like termites in the soil of Bengal”) and suggested that “A Bharatiya Janata Party government will pick up infiltrators one by one and throw them into the Bay of Bengal”.

As recently as April 13, 2021, Shah, in an interview with the Kolkata daily Anandabazar Patrika while referring to the issue of tackling migration in West Bengal, said that poor people from Bangladesh migrate to India because they apparently do not get food in their own country. He suggested that in a developing country, the benefits of development are usually reaped by the rich, and often do not trickle down to the ones living on the fringes. “As a result, the poor in Bangladesh still go hungry. That’s why intrusion is happening. The intruders are not only living in Bangla [West Bengal], they are also spreading to different states, even to Jammu-Kashmir,” he added.

M Humayun Kabir, a career diplomat who has also served as Deputy High Commissioner of Bangladesh in Kolkata between 1999 and 2001—a time when the TMC was fighting for power against the then ruling CPM—while discussing the 2021 West Bengal assembly polls from the Bangladesh perspective, suggested that, “If BJP comes to power in West Bengal, there would be challenges for Bangladesh on two fronts: political and legal. BJP already has a government in Tripura, and in Assam also they have the government, and if they can maintain that in Assam, that means Bangladesh will be surrounded by BJP’s political ideologies. That may have some adverse impacts for Bangladesh because the rise of Hindu nationalism around us might also encourage communal forces in Bangladesh. This is a potential trouble that one might look at.”

“Second, if West Bengal becomes a BJP-ruled state, BJP might go for implementing the national register of citizens (NRC) in the state. Then we may have a serious problem at hand. Already, we have two million people who are deregistered as such, as of now in Assam. Now in West Bengal this could be more troublesome, because in West Bengal a large population has migrated from Bangladesh after 1947. So, if the registration goes ahead and NRC is implemented, there will be trouble in West Bengal. If people are delisted there would be trouble for Bangladesh as well. From a legal perspective, we can anticipate some trouble ahead.”

While the Indian Minister for External Affairs S Jaishankar, during a 2019 visit to Dhaka, said that NRC is India’s “internal matter”, there are fears that the delisted people might be deported or even pushed back into Bangladesh. Bangladesh should remain vigilant because given the porous nature of the border the country shares with West Bengal and Assam, and the repeated anti-Bangladeshi rhetoric of the Indian leadership, these possibilities cannot be overlooked.

And then there is always the communal angle. Dilip Ghosh, BJP’s main man in West Bengal, at a rally in the state’s North 24 Parganas in 2020 threatened to expel 50 lakh Muslim “infiltrators” from India and even went on to say that anti-Citizenship (Amendment) Act protestors who participated in vandalism would be shot if BJP comes to power in West Bengal.

While the Indian Prime Minister during his recent visit to Bangladesh had many nice things to say about the deep-rooted ties between the two neighbouring countries, the flourishing people-to-people relationships, and united efforts of India and Bangladesh to promote regional development and achieve common goals—”For our millions of people, for their future, for our fight against poverty, for the fight against terrorism”—the persistent undertow of unfavourable rhetoric from the senior leaders of his party  should concern Bangladesh.

The West Bengal assembly polls this year is nothing short of a nail-biting showdown. But whichever party comes to power must understand that in a globalised world, there are only a few issues that are internal. The problems of one country can destabilise an entire region. The persecution of the Rohingya at the hands of the Myanmar military is a glaring example of it. South Asia is still reeling from the shocks of the Rohingya crisis, and all the countries must work together to eliminate the possibility of this happening again, on any soil.


Tasneem Tayeb is a columnist for The Daily Star. Her Twitter handle is: @TayebTasneem


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