India: Battle for Bengal: India’s BJP in bloody struggle with local rival for votes

  • At an election rally in the eastern Indian state of West Bengal, a local leader from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) described how workers from the state’s ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC) had disrupted a public meeting in Jan 19 by destroying their vehicles.
  • Political differences have been erupting into tension and sometimes violence across India ahead of the general election in Apr 19 – May 19, but it’s particularly bad in West Bengal.
  • Both the BJP and the TMC are accusing each other of killings, beatings, vandalism and making false allegations to the police.
  • After losing three state elections in late-2018, and with weak farm incomes and slow jobs growth undermining his backing in the BJP’s traditional Hindu base in the north, Modi is driving hard to pick up support in West Bengal.
  • The push has set him and the BJP on a collision course with firebrand politician Mamata Banerjee, the TMC leader and the state’s chief minister.
  • For Banerjee, popularly called ‘Didi’ or elder sister, defeating the BJP’s challenge is vital to cement her power base and bolster her image as a possible future prime minister if opposition parties win enough seats to form a coalition government.
  • There is a sense of anti-incumbency that is working against Banerjee, who has won the previous two state assembly elections, Bandyopadhyay said. BJP did well at village council polls in 2018 and a recent survey showed the party winning 8 out of the 42 parliamentary seats in Bengal, up from two currently.
  • To be sure, Modi could win the national election without taking many seats in West Bengal. What could have been a close contest has changed in recent weeks because of a suicide car bomb attack in Kashmir that killed 40 police officers.
  • The BJP has been holding a series of mega rallies in West Bengal headlined by top BJP leaders, including Modi himself.
  • Rather than emphasizing its national agenda, such as driving economic growth and providing affordable housing, the BJP in West Bengal has been focusing more on accusing TMC of corruption and Banerjee of running a dictatorship.
  • Hindu groups linked to the BJP accuse her of appeasing Muslim voters, who make up about one third of the electorate, by providing separate schools, hospitals and training institutes for the community and handing out stipends.
  • The BJP said it had to cancel several visits by senior leaders to address rallies as Banerjee’s administration denied permission for their helicopters to land. The BJP’s West Bengal President Dilip Ghosh said police and other government officials were being used by Banerjee to thwart democracy in the state.
  • On 23 Mar 19, Rahul Gandhi, president of the Congress party that is the main national opposition group, also accused the TMC of regularly harassing and beating up its workers in Bengal.
  • Still, it will be an uphill task to defeat 64-year-old Banerjee, an aggressive and strong-headed politician with grassroots appeal. Posters of Banerjee in a quintessential Bengali lower middle-class cotton sari and rubber flip flops are seen across the state.

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