Will BJP’s hate speech give it grassroots support in West Bengal?

By shifting from hitherto class-driven politics to identity-based politics did TMC open up spaces for the BJP to further polarise the people?

Published : Jun 04, 2024 13:27 IST - 4 MINS READ

TMC supporters outside Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s Kalighat residence, in Kolkata, June 4.

TMC supporters outside Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s Kalighat residence, in Kolkata, June 4. | Photo Credit: Swapan Mahapatra

As the counting of votes gets underway, results from West Bengal seem to suggest that Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress (TMC) is leading in the State. What does that mean? It means that the BJP’s relentless campaign of hate may not be paying off. “TMC means Trushtikaran (appeasement), Mafia and Corruption. Tell me, should these ghuspathiye (infiltrators) be stopped? And the refugees who have come to our religious community, should they be granted citizenship or not? Mamata didi welcomes these ghuspathiyo (infiltrators) with red carpets because they are your vote banks…,” said Union Home Minister Amit Shah while campaigning in West Bengal’s Birbhum district on May 10.

Language that would otherwise have shocked and surprised many even a decade ago had very little impact at a time when hate speech has become almost normalised. “This is in sync with the BJP’s Hindutva politics and strategy of polarisation,” says Asim Ali, a New-Delhi based independent political analyst.

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According to Section 123(3) of the Representation of the People Act, 1951 (RP Act), appeals by a candidate to vote or refrain from voting on the grounds of his/her religion, race, caste, community or language is a corrupt electoral practice. Furthermore, Section 123(3A) denounces any attempt by a candidate to promote feelings of enmity or hatred among citizens on these grounds during elections.

Weaponisation of hate

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Shah, and other BJP star campaigners have repeatedly evoked the populist rhetoric of “population jihad”, dehumanising Muslims as those “with the most babies” even when data shows a steady decline in the fertility rates of Muslims. The term jihad prefixes several hate campaigns portraying Muslims as infiltrators across private and public spheres to incite mob violence against India’s largest minority, with “vote jihad” being a widely used election pitch in 2024 even as “love jihad” continues to criminalise inter-faith relationships.

Projecting the mangalsutra, a marker of married Hindu women as under threat, calculatedly aimed at whipping the fear of Hindu women supposedly along the lines of honour and modesty however might lose its resonance in Bengal where Hindu women not only do not wear the mangalsutra but also inhabit a different ecosystem of rituals and traditions. Given this context, the north Indian, Hindi belt’s brand of femininities, masculinities, and models of patriarchy perhaps can’t be transplanted to understand Bengal’s diverse cultural strains.

Asim Ali, a New-Delhi based independent political analyst, disagrees: “Those nuances might be there, and it is true that the Muslim vote in West Bengal has stuck to TMC; however, by shifting from hitherto class-driven politics to identity-based politics (Hindu-Muslim, women voters, the tribal vote and so on) TMC opened up spaces for the BJP to seep in and further polarise the people along the lines of ethnic identities and nationalism.”

Ali adds, “Whenever there is identity-based politics elite groups feel threatened and tend to shift to the BJP, the Dalit and tribal vote have already begun to swing towards the BJP under the threat of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA).“

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Sabir Ahamed, researcher at Nobel laureate Amartya Sen’s Pratichi Trust says, “It is very unfortunate that the Prime Minister and Home Minister have repeatedly used Islamophobic words, hate speech in Bengal to polarise the voters. In some sense, it is very effective: for instance, look at the High Court court saying that Muslims in Bengal are snatching away jobs using the OBC card, so, the judicial participation in furthering of propaganda is also to be factored in.”

Hindutva and India’s voter sentiments

According to Congress chief Mallikarjun Kharge, Modi mentioned “mandir (temple)“ 421 times, his own name 758 times, and Muslims, Pakistan, and minorities 224 times in recent speeches, while neglecting to address inflation and unemployment issues. “We have to accept the fact that an overwhelming number of people in our country prioritise the Hindu-Muslim, mandir-masjid-mangal sutra narrative. In fact, nothing has changed in the past five years (2019-24) and if anything the number of people voting for this narrative has only gone up,” Sanjay Kumar, Professor and Co-director of Lokniti, a research programme at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, tells Frontline.

“In Bengal, there is a rich history of jukto sadhona or walking together. The intensification of hate is a blow to that,” says Sabir Ahamed, researcher at Nobel laureate Amartya Sen’s Pratichi Trust.

Sanhati Banerjee is an independent journalist content consultant

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