View: How ‘Jai Sri Ram’ in Bengal became a battering Ram
The day West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee chose to confront Jai Shri Ram-chanting protesters in Medinipur, she committed a fatal mistake.
“Jai Shri Ram,” said the man selling chutney lozenges. I met Ajit Dutta at an Amit Shah rally in Chinsurah, the old Dutch settlement on the Hooghly north of Kolkata. He’s been in the lozenge business for 34 years — orange, lemon, pineapple, ginger.
“What do you say at Trinamool rallies?” joked the jovial BJP ladies in orange saris, fanning themselves in the scorching heat. The man stuck his tongue out and said, “I am doing better business here. In Didi’s rallies they won’t let me into this reserved section.”
The day West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee chose to confront Jai Shri Ram-chanting protesters in Medinipur, she committed a fatal mistake. She could have ignored them, or Jai Shri Ram-ed back at them (along with ‘Sat Sri Akal’ and ‘Allah hu Akbar’ for good measure).
Instead, they were taken to a police station and Jai Shri Ram became a rallying cry for BJP in Bengal, a battering ram that has breached her fortress and taken 18 seats out of 42.
What it has also done is shatter the smug superiority of Bengalis who thought themselves a breed apart from the rest of India because they ate egg chicken rolls during Durga Puja. One of the abiding arguments against BJP was that it was, despite its Syama Prasad Mookerjee origins, a ‘non-Bengali’ party, that condescending term by which Bengalis divide the world into us and them.
2019 showed that Amit Shah might have muddled the birthplace of Rabindranath Tagore, and BJP might fail its Good Bengali quiz, but it can still appeal to Bengali Hindus.
Somewhere along the way, jobs and getting ahead had started mattering more than looking back at Tagore and Vidyasagar.
The Left vote shed its ideological moorings and went to BJP in search of protection from Mamata’s Trinamool. “It’s not surprising because the committed ideological vote is low in Bengal,” says Maidul Islam, assistant professor at Centre for Studies in Social Sciences.
“Remember, Mamata held onto her base but the Left vote collapsed.” Shah and Modi barnstormed the state with rallies so frequent, the joke was they would appear next at paara (neighbourhood) meetings. Every candidate preached one simple mantra — a vote for me is a vote for Narendra Modi. And a vote against Mamata Banerjee. It was a trifecta that helped BJP — they united Mamata-haters, Modi-lovers and Hindutva warriors.
This vote was styled as a revenge for the panchayat vote where BJP accused the Trinamool of intimidating their way to victory. Many hoped that a strong Opposition could make for a better Trinamool.
Trinamool’s bloody nose carries a lesson for many other regional parties. In Indian politics, there’s rarely room for more than one behemoth national party. Congress enjoyed that spot for years. Now it’s BJP’s turn. Its main Opposition is provided by strong regional parties. But now comes the paradox that Mamata Banerjee faced. The regional party that gets too ambitious too quickly gets its wings decisively clipped.
In Trinamool rallies, speaker after speaker spoke about sending Didi to Delhi. In BJP rallies, speaker after speaker warned the audience that if Didi went to Delhi, her nephew would be installed in Kolkata, setting up a dynasty.
Five years ago, Arvind Kejriwal got smacked in the face for his premature national ambitions. This year, N Chandrababu Naidu faced the same fate as he tried to forge a national Opposition alliance. The January 19 mahagathbandhan in Kolkata was not able to hold its ramshackle national narrative together.
But DMK focused on Tamil Nadu and did well against the rudderless AIADMK and YSR Congress chose to concentrate on its own backyard as well and romped home.
Thus 2019 exposes a fundamental conundrum for regional parties as they seek to be national players. How do you fly high, yet not too close to the sun?
Meanwhile, in Bengal, BJP is salivating at the prospect of 2021. “I would still put my horses on hold,” says Maidul Islam. “You will still need a mass leader to be a gamechanger in the assembly elections. Mamata Banerjee and Jyoti Basu were not built in a day. BJP will need a Himanta Biswa Sarma figure like in Assam.”
Meanwhile, at my gym in suburban Kolkata, a middle-aged lady in pink sweatpants on the leg extension machine greeted everyone with a cheery Jai Shri Ram as the results played out on the TV screen. I wasn’t sure if she was being facetious or sincere.
But I won’t be surprised if Ajit Dutta adds a new flavour to his lozenges today — Jai Shri Ram, saffron-scented, of course.