Prime Minister Narendra Modi speaks at a rally on April 29 in Chanditala, West Bengal, India. (Photo: AFP / Debajyoti Chakraborty / NurPhoto

Anticipating a substantial loss of seats from the north Indian states, the BJP is now actively looking eastward for fresh gains as the last phase of voting takes place on May 19. The party is hoping to make major gains in the state of West Bengal.

With the BJP using its standard tactic of polarizing votes on religious issues, the state has already seen outbreaks of violence between BJP cadres and the ruling party there.

West Bengal, bordering Bangladesh, is ruled by the All India Trinamool Congress (TMC), which has opposed the BJP for years. The fiery chief minister, Mamata Banerjee, is keen to retain her supremacy in the state.

On May 14, as BJP president Amit Shah held a rally in the state capital of Kolkata, riots broke out. BJP supporters rushed into the campus of a renowned, two-centuries-old college and pulled down the bust of one of India’s most revered social reformers.

The state is critical to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s plans to return to power. But the violence that broke out on Tuesday could dampen the enthusiasm for his party.

The attackers brought down the bust of Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, a 19th century Bengali polymath and a key figure in the Bengal Renaissance. He is also hailed for having led social reforms including women’s education and permission for Hindu widows to remarry.

The fight broke out near the Presidency College and Calcutta University after some students inside the campus allegedly shouted anti-BJP slogans and BJP supporters rushed at them with rods.

In a video of the incident, men holding BJP flags and clad in saffron clothes can be seen rushing towards the college gate and attacking it.

After the incident, Banerjee and some of her top ministers changed their social media profile pictures to Vidyasagar’s photo. She said that BJP brought “outsiders” to the state and added: “What does Amit Shah think of himself? Is he above everything? Is he God that no one can protest against him? His goons used rods and set fire, vandalized the statue. Such a big shame, it has never happened in Kolkata. We will not spare them.”

Amit Shah on Wednesday addressed the media on the violence during his roadshow and said that, after six phases of elections, incidents of violence had been reported only in West Bengal and nowhere else.

He accused the TMC of damaging Vidyasagar’s bust to gain sympathy and said that the regional party was behind the violence. He also said, “The place where the statue of Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar is placed is inside the rooms. The college was closed, everything is locked. Then who opened the room? Even the lock is not broken. Then who had the keys? The TMC has captured the college.”

Shah, during the press conference also called the Election Commission a “mute spectator” and demanded its intervention. The commission convened a videoconference with West Bengal observers on poll violence in the state.

BJP’s agenda

The BJP had seen its support diminish in the Hindi heartland states when Congress wrested power in 2018 state assembly elections in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. Meanwhile, the BJP had gained power in the seven northeastern states in assembly elections with a majority or as a coalition partner.

But with the regional parties of Uttar Pradesh – Samajwadi Party [SP], Bahujan Samaj Party [BSP] and Rashtriya Lok Dal [RLD] – forming a strategic alliance against the BJP, Modi’s prospects for a clear sweep in the state look shaky.

In view of the chances of losing sway in India’s most politically significant state, which sends 80 members to the Parliament, the Hindu nationalist party is looking east to gain support.

Given that West Bengal is an electorally important state in the east, the BJP has tried to make inroads into the state for the past couple of years – and reports suggest it has used communal polarization to do so.

Massive turnouts at rallies featuring Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Shah in West Bengal have raised eyebrows, given that the party won only two out of the 42 seats in 2014. While Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh has claimed that BJP will win all 42 seats in Bengal this time, Amit Shah has kept his estimate to 23.

A bastion of the left for over three decades, the state finally had a regime change in 2011 when Mamata Banerjee came to power. In this election, the usual narrative of the left versus the TMC appears to have changed into TMC versus the BJP.

Banerjee has shaped her party’s image as secular and used her rhetoric to oppose communal struggles between Hindus and Muslims.

Her decision to give a monthly allowance to imams and muazzins [religious heads of mosques] was criticized. Also, to forestall breach of peace, she had also called a halt to the Durga Puja immersion [Hindu festival] as it clashed with the Muslim religious occasion of Muharram. The BJP called the cancellation an “anti-Puja stance.”

Religious tension has long been an undercurrent in West Bengal. While tagging Banerjee as a Muslim appeaser, the BJP has tried to consolidate the Hindu votes in the state.

The state was divided on religious lines in 1905 by Lord Curzon, then viceroy of India, and then reunited in 1911. But when India got its independence from British rule, Bengal was divided again, with West Bengal remaining with India and the east part becoming East Pakistan. In 1971, East Pakistan became Bangladesh after its liberation war against Pakistan.

However, West Bengal is still home to a large number of Muslims, who account for over 25% of its population. Being a state that shares borders with Bangladesh, West Bengal has faced problems of illegal immigration by Muslims from the neighboring nation.

As of now the TMC’s student wing is protesting the vandalization of Vidyasagar’s statue while the BJP is also holding protests against violence during Shah’s roadshow.

The seventh and final phase of the General Election will be held on May 19, when nine parliamentary constituencies from West Bengal go to the polls.

The results will be declared on May 23.

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