Like Lalu Prasad Yadav in neighbouring Bihar, Mamata Banerjee’s mass appeal depends to a large extent on her earthy oratory. She made news in 2014 when she characterised soon-to-be Prime Minister Narendra Modi as a “Haridas Pal” in Bengal, idiomatic Bengali for a non-entity. Now, in 2016, her calculated use of both the Sanskrit “Ishwar” and the Arabic “Allah” – both meaning “god” – in her swearing-in ceremony on Friday has set tongues wagging about her government’s policy on secularism.
The Trinamool Congress swept the recently concluded West Bengal elections, winning a massive 211 seats in the 294-strong Assembly and convincing 45% of Bengal’s voters to opt for it. This win givens Banerjee’s party the second highest majority ever, behind Siddharth Shankar Ray’s 216 seats in 1972 – a record made all the more impressive given that the 1972 election saw widespread rigging by the ruling Congress.
Acquiring the Muslim vote
Banerjee’s win was largely stitched together using an unlikely coalition of backward classes and castes – an alliance which contained large numbers of Muslim Bengalis, who are largely seen to support the Trinamool in the crucial region of south Bengal. Banerjee received these voters initially not due to her own efforts but as a result of the mistakes of the Left. The Communist Part of India (Marxist) had come to power in 2006 – a mandate which it interpreted as one in favour of rapid industrialisation. India’s crony capitalist system, though, means that the state acts as an agent for private industry in acquiring land under the colonial land acquisition act. The violence and intimdiation used by the ruling CPI(M) in acquiring land in places such as Nandigram made farmers turn away from it. Given that Muslim Bengalis are cultivators almost to the man, the CPI(M) lost a large chunk of that support in 2011, when Banerjee came to power.
After this, the Trinamool worked hard to retain this Muslim Bengali demographic. In its five years in power, the Trinamool did not relax its stand on land acquisition one bit. To this economic mix, Banerjee added small doses of identity politics.
Friday’s swearing-in was hardly the first time Banerjee has invoked Islamicate terminology. Earlier as well, she has pepperd her oratory with “Insha Allahs” and “Khuda Hafizes”. Posters with her sari wrapped around her head as a faux hijab have frequntly popped up in Muslim-dominated areas of the state. The Trinamool has also courted organisation such as the Jamiat Ulama-e-Hind – a pan-India body of Muslim religious leaders – as well as the local sufi shrine of Furfura Sharif in the state. In 2012, she even started a bhata, allowance for imams and muezzins – a move that was struck down by the Calcutta High Court in 2013.
To be sure, Muslims aren’t the only social group Banerjee courted. Matuas, a Hindu religious sect, has been publicly approached by the Trinamool for support and a government minister put up a statue of medieval saint Chaitanya at Ramkeli, a place of pilgrimage for Bengal’s Vaishnava Hindus.
Of course, appeasing Muslims produces very different reactions from appeasing Vaishnavs or Matuas in the Indian discourse. The Bharatiya Janata Party made sure to attack the Trinamool’s courting of Muslims during the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. The party even went so far as to accuse the Trinamool of supporting Islamicate terror after a bomb blast in Burdwan.
Stung by this, Banerjee changed course. In Delhi, she first made peace with the BJP, extending the Trinamool’s support in the Rajya Sabha, where the Modi government was short of a majority. The BJP simultaneously stopped charges of Muslim appeasement and terror against the Trinamool. But the Trinamool also made changes on the ground. The more starkly visible elements of the Trinamool’s wooing of Muslims were removed and, for the past two years, the Trinamool has cut back on its Muslim identity politics. As a result, Banerjee even lost the support of Furfura Sharif. Of course, this is only a course correction and overall the Trinamool remans heavily dependent on the Muslim vote.
As of now the oppostion space is wide open in West Bengal with the CPI(M) being decimated in this election. This leaves the field open for the BJP to come up and take a shot. And Banerjee’s Muslims appeasement would seem a good first place to begin. Of course, Banerjee’s invokation of both “Ishwar” and “Allah” at her swearing in shows that she sees no need to change her social policies from those that she followed in her first term – given that they served her so well in the 2016 elections. The Trinamool it seems will continue its stratgey of populaist appeasement of socially backward groups as best it can even after the 2016 win.