National

BJP’s caste calculus in Bengal

Abhishek Law Kolkata | Updated on March 26, 2021

A national TV channel van, painted with a portrait of West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and BJP leader Amit Shah, moves across a street ahead of the Assembly polls, in Kolkata   -  Swapan Mahapatra

For the first time, caste has become a big factor in elections owing to the BJP’s aggressive wooing of splintered communities among SC/STs and OBCs

 

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s upcoming visit to Bangladesh is expected to include prayers at a temple at Orakandi – revered by the hitherto unknown community of Matuas, among the several such lesser-known communities who have together constituted a strong base for the BJP in West Bengal. For the first time in the State, caste has become a big political calculus owing to the BJP’s strategic alignment with the hitherto splintered groups among the SC/STs and OBCs.

 

For instance the Matuas, who came to the State as refugees during partition, are a deciding factor in at least 30-40 seats of Bengal in the bordering districts of North 24 Parganas and Nadia. The community now forms a pivot in BJP’s Bengal aspirations.

Mamata Banerjee had first tapped into the vote bank in 2011 and retained her support till 2016. However, the BJP cultivated the dominant sub-group of what are called the ‘Thakur households’ and worked on their distinct identity besides pushing the demand for their citizenship. The community voted en masse for BJP in 2019.

 

Citizenship demand

For the Matuas, citizenship is a primary demand. Despite having voter ID cards, the Matuas speak of a clause in the amendments made to the Citizenship Act of 2003 that can take away their citizenship rights. The new CAA is expected to address the issue.

Following delay in framing of rules to the CAA, the BJP faced resentment from the community, with Santanu Thakur – BJP MP from Bongaon and a scion of the Thakur household - leading protest rallies. But all that changed with Union Home Minister Amit Shah meeting Santanu and other community leaders to diffuse tension. Santanu — the BJP’s Matua face — will also accompany Modi to Bangladesh.

The BJP has already announced implementation of CAA in its “first cabinet meeting” after coming to power here, cash doles for five years, and cash support to senior Matua dalapatis (religious leaders) and a host of other promises that include development of the region.

This apart the saffron camp has fielded at least five Matua candidates in the two districts.

Candidature discontent

Trinamool’s logic that “a separate citizenship does not matter, as long as the community has voter cards” no longer cuts ice with the community which is further miffed with the ruling party over its selection of candidates. Mamata Bala Thakur, a former MP of Trinamool, now the matriarch and one the community heads, has refused to contest this time because the party did not accept her demand for giving 10 tickets to candidates of her choice.

“It is true that the party offered me a seat. I was interested in fighting the polls from Swarupnagar. I told Prashant Kishor categorically that unless members of my community were also offered candidature, I would not fight…. I also told him that I did not mind if I was denied a ticket in order to accommodate them. There was no further discussion and eventually, I have decided not to fight,” Mamata Bala said.

Caste and identity politics

In 2016 Assembly polls, the BJP made its first brush with caste politics in Bengal as it tried to woo the Namoshudra community with Modi mentioning them in his speech. It brought in some success in the North Bengal region, but that was credited to disillusionment of hill communities with Mamata Banerjee.

The Chief Minister played into the BJP’s pitch by expanding the scope of the OBC category to include different Muslim communities and ensuring reservations. It paid her electoral dividends. Now, the BJP has taken this to another level as it sub-categorised communities – Matuas, Kurmis, Rajbongshis, Mahatos and so on – and made individual promises from them in its manifesto.

Recently, the BJP President, JP Nadda promised to include the left out Hindu castes, like Mahishya and Telli in the category of OBCs.

The CM, on her part, claimed BJP was “stealing” from her manifesto and in a bid to get back the adivasi community votes, Banerjee roped in Jharkhand CM Hemant Soren to campaign for Trinamool, despite being very public in her displeasure over Soren’s Jharkhand Mukti Morcha fielding candidates here.

“The BJP thrived in Uttar Pradesh by pitching the lower castes against the dominant Yadavs. In Bengal Mamata highlighted how Muslim communities were included in the OBC category. And now the BJP is wooing the left out Hindu minorities by pitching them against inclusion of Muslim communities in OBC list,” pointed out a poll analyst.

TMC statement on Bangladesh visit

According to Kakoli Ghosh Dastidar, Lok Sabha MP, Trinamool, the PM is on foreign shores and the party would like to restrain itself from making any comments on the visit.

People of India and Bengal are cert sharp. They will draw their own conclusions, especially regarding the timing for of the tour. People are watching,” she said in a statement today.

Published on March 26, 2021

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