At a rally held by Communist Party of India (Marxist) in Kolkata on February 9, party leader Biman Bose accused West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee of patronising allies of Bangladesh’s radical Jamaat-i-Islami. Bose was referring to the decision by Mamata’s Trinomool Congress to nominate a controversial journalist to the Rajya Sabha in January. Their candidate, Ahmad Hasan Imran, the editor of an Islamic daily titled ‘Kalom’, is the Kolkata correspondent of the official publication of the Jamaat-i-Islami and is alleged to have been the founding president of West Bengal unit of the banned Student Islamic Movement of India.

“With such forces becoming very active in Bangladesh, fanatic elements belonging to both the majority and minority communities have become active in our state,” Bose said.

Recent incidents suggest that he may not be far off the mark. In the decades after Partition, communal violence has never hit Bengal, even during the turbulent times of Babri Masjid demolition. Many believed that the CPM leadership is to thank for this. But after Mamata Banerjee took over in 2011, there have been reports of growing communal tensions in the state. In 2013, violent clashes broke out between Hindus and Muslims in Canning in the South 24 Parganas district, adjacent to Kolkata.

Even though the Bharatiya Janata Party has a limited presence in the state, Narendra Modi is starting to make his presence felt. Just days before the CPM rally, the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate spoke at the same venue. Though the audience was only moderately sized, local BJP leaders believe the rally will boost their fortunes in Bengal. The Press Trust of India reports that the BJP has increased its membership to seven lakhs last year from three lakhs in 2011.

It also reported that BJP’s student wing the Akhil Bharatiya Vidhyarthi Parishad, and the party’s minority and women’s wings saw a 50% jump in their membership over the last one year. The West Bengal unit of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh acknowledged that they too have expanded over the past two and half years and now runs about 1,000 shakhas in the state. The Hindutva organisations have tried to gain traction from Mamata’s decision in April 2012 to grant a monthly allowance to the state’s 30,000 imams and muezzins, a move that the Kolkata High Court struck down  in September as unconstitutional.

Old-time politicians in the state are wary of Mamata’s strategy. The TMC “is kissing both the snake and frog”, said senior CPM leader Mohammad Salim, quoting an old Bengali adage. “Earlier Mamata hobnobbed with the Hindutva forces for political mileage and now she thinks that pandering to the Muslim right will help her in the upcoming elections,” he claimed. “She doesn’t care even if it leads to communalisation of Bengal’s polity.” He alleges that communal forces have seized the opportunity to make inroads in the state now that the Left forces have been contained.

But Mohammad Yasin, a professor of political science in North Bengal University, blames the Left for fostering deep-rooted communalism during its rule. “What Trinomool is doing is not something new,” he said. “Whereas Mamata is patronising those Muslims who are asserting their identity with renewed vigour in the new government, it is the Left which forced the Muslim population to remain a passive community by keeping them socioeconomically weak.”

As evidence of the Left’s strategy of also indulging in the same tactics it accuses Mamata of practising, Yasin noted that the CPM has decided to field Mohammad Salim in Raiganj, a constituency with a sizeable Muslim population, in the upcoming general elections and not in his traditional seat of North Kolkata. “So if this is not playing the same identity politics, then what is?” asked Yasin.

Identity politics has become a new currency in West Bengal, observers say, and Mamata is spending it lavishly. Muslims form just over 25% of the state’s population. But though most Muslims in Bengal speak Bengali, the TMC government has been running a highly visible campaign to promote Urdu using roadside banners that feature images reinforcing the stereotype of the skull cap-wearing Muslim.

This is not unexpected, given Mamata’s support for the ideologues such as Imran, who projects this stereotypical vision of Muslim identity. “Communalism is definitely going to be an issue in West Bengal now,” said Samantak Das, a professor of comparative literature at Jadavpur University. “And my worst fear is Hindu backlash in the state which can have devastating consequences with decisions like these by Mamata.”

Observers warn that while Mamata’s tactics might win her Muslim votes in the next elections, they will undermine the state’s long tradition of pluralism. Said Das, “We can’t accuse her of fomenting communal hatred, but her backing of Muslim right may make Bengal another Uttar Pradesh.”