Three years after the word first entered West Bengal’s political lexicon, poriborton has taken a new connotation. From the pro-Trinamool Congress surge of support it was, it has transformed into a trickle in favour of Narendra Modi, fed by the state government’s many schemes for Muslims, including stipends for muezzins and imams.
Hindu-Muslim polarisation is new to Bengal politics and it seems to be cropping up in the most unlikely seats, from cosmopolitan Kolkata North to Basirhat which has a 65-per-cent Muslim population to industrial town Asansol. There is even a new slogan, a spin-off from the Trinamool’s battle cry of “chupchap fule chhap (quietly choose the flower)”. The newly added second line is “shudhu chhotor jaigai boro ful (only, rather than the small flower, it is the big flower)” — a reference to Trinamool’s grass flower symbol vis-à-vis BJP’s lotus. The BJP voter, though, is largely silent.
As teaseller Tapan Mandal puts it in Basirhat, “Even Congress and Trinamool workers will quietly vote for the BJP.” In a small bylane off Nooruddin Road in Asansol, where houses sport an apparently endless row of Trinamool flags, Putan Mishra talks about a BJP wave fuelled not by Modi but Mamata’s love for minorities. What of the flags? “The elephant has different teeth for eating and showing,” he quotes a proverb.
“I had never seen Hindu-Muslim polarisation in these parts. But these elections it is clearly happening. Hindus are unhappy because of the minority-specific schemes, some of the differential treatment is very overt. All girls go to school but it is only the Muslim girls who get cycles. There is a chance that a large block of Hindus, if not all, will vote for BJP because of this frustration,” says Ajoy Byne, a SUCI candidate from Basirhat.
On Sunday, before Narendra Modi landed for a rally in Asansol, BJP local leaders made snide references about how Mamata “bamboozled people with her minority rant and then sprang a Saradha on them”. Modi spoke only about how Muslims are better off in Gujarat than in West Bengal, but he timed the rally well. Asansol’s sizeable migrant population, still reeling from Mamata using the word “guests” for them at a rally last month, feels let down. A “making up” rally on May 1 does not seem to have helped.
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Sitting in the Gujarati Primary School in Asansol, a Gujarati employee of the West Bengal government says: “First it was the minorities. Then she described us as guests. Many of us including myself have never lived in our native states, we were born here. How can we be guests in our own home? But there is a fear of victimisation by Trinamool men. So we are keeping quiet.”
The BJP might not be placed well enough to win too many seats in south Bengal but it certainly looks set to improve its vote share to two digits after a measly 4 per cent in 2009. Its weak link is lack of ground-level workers.
Mrityunjay Sarkar is young, aspiring and Hindu. But that, he says, is not why he will vote for the BJP in Kolkata North. The primary reason is the hoardings and pictures around Eid of the chief minister offering namaz, head covered Muslim style, which he holds responsible for increasing Muslim assertiveness.
“It was different during Left rule. There was no friction but there was no notion of first among equals. Now you see Muslims become aggressive. It is so bad that we taxi drivers do not go into Muslim-dominated pockets for fear of getting into a quarrel that may turn communal, and then the onus would be on us to prove our innocence,” he says.
In rural and semi-rural Bengal, voters are not as forthcoming. At the mention of Modi, the conversation at a tea stall in Barasat suddenly halts. “Modi…” is all the owner says before letting the rest of the sentence dissolve into a smile. A man with a string of tulsi beads around his neck interjects: “The BJP is quite strong.” He is quickly shut up.
A sweet shop owner in Srirampore sums up the mood. “We voted for poriborton three years ago. That change never happened. So now it is time for a second poriborton. I was a Trinamool worker but reduced to a second-class citizen. In 34 years of Left rule, we were equals. Now we are not. Our girls do not get cycles, theirs do. Our pandits don’t get paid what their imams do. Modi looks like a man who will not play these games.”
There are some local factors, too, working in favour of the BJP. In Basirhat it is the lingering memory of the Deganga riots and their aftermath. In Krishnanagar, BJP candidate Satyabrata Mukherjee’s son-of-the-soil act is drawing even Muslims to the BJP fold. In Asansol, the large population of Hindi-speaking industrial staff and officers from Bihar and Jharkhand form a natural votebank for the BJP and Narendra Modi. Here, the Trinamool’s tactic of filing cases against Babul Supriyo, many say, may prove counterproductive.