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Arrangements at the venue on Natioal Highway 31 in Cooch Behar on December 7 in anticipation of a rally to launch the BJP’s rath yatra. Photo: Swapan Mahapatra/AP

The BJP’s “rath” for its planned yatra in West Bengal. Photo: By Special Arrangement

BJP activists and supporters leaving the venue where party president Amit Shah was to have to launched the “rath yatra”. The rally was cancelled after Calcutta High Court denied the BJP permission to hold the yatra. Photo: Swapan Mahapatra/AP

Competitive “yatras” by the BJP and the ruling Trinamool Congress mark a new twist in West Bengal politics.

AS the 2019 Lok Sabha election draws near, politics in West Bengal has taken a new twist with the parties competing to hold yatras (ceremonial processions) and long marches. This form of campaign, alien to Bengal’s political culture, was sparked off by the much-hyped “rath yatra” planned by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The ruling Trinamool Congress immediately countered it with a plan to hold a shuddhikaran, or purification, yatra. Although administrative and judicial hurdles forced the BJP to postpone its rath yatra from the scheduled date of December 7, the battlelines were drawn as the two parties were locked in a tense and violent face-off over the matter.

The BJP had pinned a lot of hope on the rath yatra, which was to have been kicked off by party president Amit Shah, to spike its vote share and consolidate its position at the ground level. Labelling it as a “Save Democracy” yatra was a ploy to kill two birds with one stone—attack the Trinamool government and at the same time extend the BJP’s political reach in its traditional fashion. The 41-day rath yatra was to have taken place in Cooch Behar and Birbhum districts and in Gangasagar in South 24 Paraganas district.

At the outset, Chief Minister and Trinamool supremo Mamata Banerjee dismissed the BJP’s call for a rath yatra as a political gimmick and announced a “Purification and Unity Yatra”. “I have told my party workers to conduct purification and unity yatras to cleanse the places through which the BJP’s chariots will pass.... It is Ravan yatra [that the BJP is conducting], not a rath yatra,” she said. Even though her first reaction was to allow the BJP to go ahead with the rath yatra, her administration ensured that permission for the yatra was not granted on time. After having waited until December 6 (the day before the rath yatra was scheduled to start from Cooch Behar) to get permission from the State administration, the BJP moved the Calcutta High Court.

The BJP received its first blow when the High Court, taking cognisance of the inputs provided by the police and intelligence that the rath yatra might disrupt communal harmony, directed the BJP to defer its programme until January 9, 2019. Meanwhile, the situation in Cooch Behar remained tense following an alleged attack by Trinamool activists on State BJP president Dilip Ghosh’s convoy.

Although the following day a division bench of the High Court set aside the earlier order and ordered the State administration and the police to sit down with three BJP representatives to discuss the proposed yatra and come to a decision by December 14, the damage had already been done and the initial momentum that the party had gathered was lost.

“Every preparation was made. Now, there is disappointment among our workers. A sizable section of the party also feels that it should not have gone to the court in the first place, and should have just gone ahead with the rath yatra. We cannot defy the court, though we could have gone against the administration,” a BJP source told Frontline. However, the party’s State leadership tried to put up a brave front.

Abhijit Roy Choudhury, senior BJP leader from north Bengal, told Frontline: “It has given us more publicity and when the rath yatra finally does take place, it will be a bigger spectacle. This is a ‘Ganatantra Bachaao Andolon’ [save democracy movement], and Mamata Banerjee’s action has made this yatra even more relevant because it has once again demonstrated that there is no democracy in West Bengal.”

Electoral debacle

However, the biggest blow to the BJP’s immediate aspirations in West Bengal may well be the impact of its defeat in the Assembly elections in its three strongholds, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. The December 11 election results from these States made it clear that the so-called Narendra Modi wave, which had caused an increase in the BJP’s vote share in West Bengal from 6 per cent to 18 per cent, may not be something to fall back on any more. Moreover, the BJP’s losses have further strengthened the position of Mamata Banerjee, who has made no secret of her ambition to play a key role in defeating the BJP at the Centre. “People voted against the BJP. This is the people’s verdict and a victory of the people of the whole country,” she said, when the BJP’s defeat in all the five States that went to polls in November/December became apparent.

The West Bengal unit of the BJP, which, in spite of being perceived as the main opposition to Mamata Banerjee’s government, still remains comparatively weak organisationally at the grass-roots level and highly dependent on its central leadership. The rath yatra was being considered as a key exercise to strengthen the base of the party in the State.

The noted political observer and psephologist Biswanath Chakraborty said: “Initially, the BJP’s intention was to strengthen its position in the booth committees, but in reality it could only succeed in 60 per cent of the total. By the rath yatras, it hoped not only to cover a large geographical area but also remain in the spotlight for a prolonged period and spark enthusiasm among its supporters and create a momentum before the elections.” The State BJP leadership had pinned its hope on a victory in at least two of the three States in order to give a fillip to the morale of party workers in West Bengal.

However, what impact the electoral setbacks will have on the party’s growth in West Bengal is still a matter of conjecture. “Had there been an election in West Bengal before December 11, the BJP’s vote share would have seen an increase from 18 per cent to around 35 per cent. I do not believe it will change much immediately. However, how much that would have translated into seats is anybody’s guess,” said Chakraborty.

One factor that seems to be working in the BJP’s favour is Mamata Banerjee’s tendency to counter the BJP’s Hindutva with the Trinamool’s own brand of “soft” Hindutva, even when it comes to the politics of yatras. “Trinamool’s idea of following the BJP’s rath yatra with its own purification yatra essentially exposes its insecurity. The ruling party does not have an idea of its real support base, as the last panchayat elections were so violent and rigged that it is impossible to make a proper evaluation. It believes that this counter yatra will have an intimidating effect and keep people from daring to vote for the BJP,” said Chakraborty. He also feels that by placing so much importance on the activities of the BJP, Mamata Banerjee herself is helping the growth of the perception that the latter is a viable alternative to the Trinamool Congress.

Left Front’s march

Even as the BJP and the Trinamool remained locked in a competition of political one-upmanship, the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Front successfully organised a different kind of yatra—processions and long marches in various parts of the State—to protest against the policies of both the Central and the State governments. While the yatras of the BJP and the Trinamool were of a symbolic nature with religious overtones (Trinamool workers were seen scattering cow dung and gangajal at a site in Cooch Behar where the BJP had organised a rally, apparently to “purify” the area), the Left’s yatras were based on concrete economic and social issues.

On November 29, the Kisan Sabha and the All India Agricultural Workers Union started a two-day “Singur March”. More than 50,000 farmers walked from Singur in Hooghly district to the Raj Bhavan in Kolkata in protest against the agrarian crisis prevailing in the State. The Left Front is organising similar marches and rallies in different parts of the State, including parts of northern West Bengal.

Lashing out at the Trinamool’s method of tackling the BJP, CPI(M) Polit Bureau member and West Bengal State party secretary Surjya Kanta Mishra told Frontline: “This kind of yatras was absent in [West] Bengal for so long. Our Chief Minister and her government are directly responsible for the rise of such politics. Going by what the RSS [Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh] itself claims, its branches have increased by 11 times in the last four years in West Bengal. The objective of the Trinamool government here is to encourage a kind of competitive communalisation that will lead to multipronged polarisation, which will benefit both the parties and establish them in the first and second positions.”

He pointed out that the Trinamool’s policy of countering the BJP’s Hindutva with its own kind of Hindutva was harmful to the secular fabric of society. “If the BJP brings out Ram Navami rallies, so will the Trinamool; the same with Hanuman Jayanti, and now this rath yatra and the purification yatra. This kind of culture is alien to West Bengal and is destroying the secular and inclusive nature of society. It is going against reason,” he said.