West Bengal has seen a very bitter Lok Sabha election campaign, as the Trinamool Congress and the Bharatiya Janta go toe-to-toe for West Bengal’s 42 seats. A bad performance by the BJP could dash its chances at balancing potential losses in the Hindi states, while a subpar result for the Trinamool could imperil its chances of retaining power in the state in the 2021 Assembly elections.

After a month of trading barbs, and in many cases blows, the Trinamool-BJP rivalry has now come down to Kolkata, as the West Bengal capital votes in the final phase of the election on May 19. On Tuesday, Kolkata saw scenes of turmoil and violence as a rally by BJP president Amit Shah ended in clashes.

Under attack

As Shah’s roadshow passed through the city’s College Street area, it was met by protestors from the Trinamool’s student wing, who shouted “Amit Shah go back.” Angered by this, BJP workers attacked the students with bottles, bricks, stones and sticks, reported the Indian Express. BJP workers then moved on to Vidyasagar College, setting motorcycles on fire and trying to break the main gate. A statue of Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar was smashed inside the college.

Born in 1820, Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar is one of the key figures of the Bengal Renaissance and one that most Bengalis encounter in their everyday lives, since his standardised alphabet is used to write the Bengali language even today. He was a key mover behind the Hindu Widows’ Remarriage Act of 1856.

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BJP workers pelting stones at Vidyasagar College.

Rallying cry

Since so much of politics is about symbols, the attack on Vidyasagar’s statue immediately became a major issue. The Trinamool latched on to the incident, using it to push a nativist line, painting itself as a Bengali party and the BJP as an organisation of outsiders.

In the midst of an election rally in Kolkata on Tuesday, Banerjee attacked the BJP as being external to Bengal. “Amit Shah’s rally is full of people from Rajasthan, UP, Bihar and Jharkhand,” said Banerjee. “Do you, the goonda leaders of Delhi, know who Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar was?

She added: “If you lay a hand on the heritage of Bengal, you will have to face my wrath. If they attacked Vidyasagar, I am forced to call Amit Shah a goonda.”

After this Banerjee went over to Vidyasagar College and addressed the press, announcing a protest rally on Wednesday. As a further emphasis on using this incident as a nativist rallying cry, Trinamool leaders starting from Mamata Banerjee have changed their social media display photos to that of Vidyasagar.

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Bengali identity politics

This is not the first time the Trinamool has pushed a nativist messaging to counter the BJP, which, given its lack of political success in West Bengal thus far, is often portrayed as a North Indian party.

On April 22, Amit Shah made a factual error, stating that Bengali poet Rabindranth Tagore was born in Birbhum district rather than in Kolkata city. The Trinamool’s television quiz master-turned-spokesman Derek O’Brien argued that this lapse was proof that the BJP was “clueless about Bengal” and “insults Bengalis”. Earlier, a Trinamool campaign song asked first time voters if they will “vote for or against Bengal”.

On Monday, as Amit Shah referred to Bengal as “kangal”, a pauper, the Trinamool countered him by saying that the BJP leader had insulted the state.

Banerjee, in her rallies, is paying close attention to aspects of Hinduism unique to Bengal. Her speeches frequently refer to Durga, the most popular deity in the state. “Do you [BJP] know what Durga Puja looks like?” she asked on Tuesday in Kolkata. “Do you know how many weapons Ma Durga carries?”

Her rallies now also regularly feature the very Hindu Bengali practice of women ululating.

Religious versus linguistic identity

Much of this use of Bengali identity is a response to the BJP’s attempt to use Hinduism to make space for itself in Bengal. Banerjee’s invocation of Hindu Bengali gods is a rejoinder to the BJP’s use of the “Jai Shree Ram” slogan, frequently heard at its rallies and meetings.

Till now, however, it is the BJP’s use of identity which has won out. While Hindu nationalism has driven large numbers of votes to the BJP’s fold across Bengal, it is unclear if the Trinamool’s use of Bengali identity has been able to drum up any significant measure of support for the party.

However, the final phase also includes two seats in the city of Kolkata, the capital of West Bengal. Given the large urban, middle class population in Kolkata, the issue of Bengali identity might have its greatest resonance here than the mostly rural seats that have already gone to the polls.

Firefighters douse vehicles set afire by BJP supporters in Kolkata on May 14. Credit: PTI
Firefighters douse vehicles set afire by BJP supporters in Kolkata on May 14. Credit: PTI