“The vanquished kafirs (infidels) with heads hanging down, exercise their power and authority to administer the lands which belong to them. But they have also been appointed (executive) officers over the Muslims in the lands of Islam, and they impose their orders on them. Such things should not happen”
This was the gist of the letter written by Maulana Muzaffar Shams Balkhi, a ‘Sufi’ saint in 1397 and it was addressed to Ghiyath al-Din Azam Shah, the third Sultan of the first Ilyas Shahi dynasty of Bengal. This letter also serves as a window to the prevailing demographic state of Bengal at the start of 15th century after 200 years of Islamic rule. Hindus who were not only in majority but also controlled the Bengali economy and vast tracts of lands (owned by the nobles) were constantly being usurped by the Muslim rulers who owed their religious and philosophical allegiance to the Middle-East. The only plausible way that Hindus could survive was either by converting to Islam or by giving up their positions of power and this is how demographic change was brought about in Bengal.
Six hundred years later even as 64% of the original undivided Bengal (including Bangladesh) is now made up of Islam while only 32% are Hindus (rest of the 4% is made up of mainly Buddhists and other smaller religions), the state of West Bengal in India is still following the dictum of Maulana Balkhi – incentivizing the continued Islamization of the Bengali state. In fact, never has this naked Islamization directly by a democratically elected government been starker as it is today in Bengal.
In the last 5 years, Mamata Banerjee has taken minority appeasement to a whole new level in Bengal hitherto unheard of in any state of India. As a first step, the state government has quadrupled the minority affairs budget to 2200 Crore. Next the TMC government has decided to give government recognition to Madrasas whose sole job is to teach Islamic religion – at last count there were a whopping 16000 Madrasas in West Bengal, nearly half the number of total Madrasas in entire Pakistan estimated at 35000. Mamata Banerjee has further promised to build 20000 houses specially for Muslims – yes, the state itself will build “Muslim only” homes. What really is the icing on Mamata’s Islamic cake is the direct bribe to 70000 Imams (who lead the Friday prayers) with 2500 rupees as honorarium every month along with 1500 rupees’ honorarium for Muezzins who call the Azaan on the mosque loudspeakers. Since Muslim masses are intrinsically controlled by these Mullahs, Mamata’s direct bribe is aimed at getting near 100% minority support during elections. Essentially, the modern, secular, democratic state of West Bengal is not only funding Islamic religious activities but is also actively propagating Islam as the state sponsored religion.
When Bengal is accelerating on a state sponsored Muslim appeasement trajectory how can communal polarization not spring out as a natural demographic speed bump? Over the last 2 years we at 5Forty3 have been constantly monitoring this phenomenon of “polarization” in the socio-political scenario of India and have developed a special demographic scale which measures the extent of polarization in a particular society by adding differential weightage to various data factors like specialized opinion surveys, communal incidents in a specific geography, perception/reality of a government’s religious appeasement policies and economic divisions etc. Based on this scale, West Bengal is today one of the most polarized societies in India in the 5Forty3 CPS (Communal Polarization Scale) at a score of 7.7 (where 0 is the lowest and 10 is highest) almost 2 basis points higher than even Uttar Pradesh (5.9) which is historically notorious for communal flare-ups.
This communal polarization is a strong undercurrent in the Bengali society which may go unnoticed in the larger political narrative but as we observed in our pilot study in South-Central Bengal, it has created deep-rooted symbolism among the Hindu populace. For instance, just a few months ago in December when Mamata Banerjee announced a special Development Authority with a package worth nearly 100 Crores for Furfura Sharif village of Hooghly district in a blatantly communal rally led by Muslim cleric Toya Siddiqui, it left most Bengali Hindus of Hooghly in a state of orphaned helplessness. In fact, we could discern that phenomenon in our pilot study as a whopping 43% of Hindu voters chose the safe option of “can’t say” when confronted with the question “whether the state government is working only towards Muslim vote bank?” even as 35% Hindu voters ‘openly’ believed so. In that option of “can’t say” is hidden the helplessness of Bengali Hindus.
Our pilot study was conducted in the 4 districts of Hooghly, Howrah, Kolkata and North 24 Parganas with a small sample size of 510 (due to capital constrains). This pilot study was not an opinion poll designed to discern vote percentages of different political parties as it is too early for such a survey but instead it was aimed at understanding the Bengal demography and the mass psychology of the Bengali voter in terms of their preferential choices.
The second most important part of our finding in the Bengal pilot study was a unique socio-cultural phenomenon of “past greatness”. As we specifically asked voters “whether they believe that Bengal no longer enjoys the preeminent status in India (especially compared to the era of freedom movement)” 51% of them replied in the positive while 28% believed there is “no change”. What this essentially means is that at least 1 out of every 2 Bengalis believe that their state which was once ‘great’ has now lost its past glory.
This is indeed a unique phenomenon of the Bengali mass psyche wherein most Bengalis (especially the urban ethnic Hindu variety) bemoan the decadence and decline of Bengal but are mostly unsure of many historic reasons for such a state of affairs. In fact, we found that this “past greatness” phenomenon has no significant differential variation among different age groups as both the young and the old seem to think along similar lines (as shown in the chart below). If anything the variation is along communal lines as almost 2 out of every 3 Bengali Hindus believe in the decline of Bengal while only 1 out of every 4 Muslims do so which further underlines the polarization in a historic context.
This historic context of Bengal’s greatness is an important political paradigm that we tend to miss in simpler electoral narratives. History was witness to the creation of industries and educational institutes in Calcutta to fuel the machines of industrial revolution of Britain which in turn had a positive fallout for the immediate society of Calcutta and surrounding regions by giving birth to the renaissance of Bengal. While the industries drew their workforce from highly skilled craftsmen and artisans, the thinkers, artists, writers and educationists created a vibrant atmosphere of growth, prosperity and enquiry.
While the likes of Ramakrishna Paramahamsa and Swami Vivekananda elevated Hinduism to a whole new global pedestal of Nirvana, at the same time the advent of Raja Ram Mohan Roy and his Brahmo Samaj or the poetic vistas of Rabindranath Tagore painted the multi-hued Bengali landscape of alternate thinking. Even in the post-independent India when motion pictures became the primary platforms of mass artistic expression, Bengal remained at the forefront of this renaissance too. If migrant Punjabi superstars like Raj Kapoor and Dev Anand provided mass entertainment, it was the Bengali creativity that provided the artistic brilliance to this new national medium through the genius of the likes of Bimal Roy, Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Ritwik Ghatak, Satyajit Ray and the Burmans.
Unfortunately, such a vibrant society got sucked into Communist rebellion movements on the one hand and debilitating mass migration on the other hand which has all but left an empty shell of a state that is once again slowly developing a willingness to reinvent itself even if sporadically. The question really is can politics of the electoral kind reignite the greatness of Bengal?
Every election in India of the last few years has been a battle between change and status quo. For instance, the 2014 election was the biggest example of this vote for change which was also a textbook case of how Modi and BJP were able to tap India’s desire for change; conversely, the latest round of Bihar election was a victory of status-quo where BJP failed to enthuse or harness the vote for change.
Today’s conventional political wisdom of Bengal argues that Mamata Banerjee is in all probability heading for a massive reelection mandate, yet when we scratch the surface of the average Bengali voter’s mindset we find that electoral realities are a lot more nuanced than conventional political wisdom. Our own pilot study of south-central Bengal has showed us that just like the rest of India, Bengal to yearns for real change (i.e.) a break from the traditional quasi-communist, pro-Islamist state of governance.
By all means our pilot study was a small exercise within a limited geography of the state so we are not scaling up those numbers fully to the entire state of West Bengal. So even if we extrapolate these numbers to merely the 5 south-central districts of Kolkata, Howrah, Hooghly and the North & South 24 Parganas districts, what we get is a stunning electoral landscape that challenges the conventional political wisdom.
More than 1 out of every 3 Bengali voters are concentrated in these 5 districts of Bengal which account for 108 assembly segments and this is the region which has the largest urban conglomerations of the state. By scaling and extrapolating our VWISM numbers to these 5 districts we believe that out of roughly 2.4 crore voters at least 80 lakh voters in this region are willing to embrace change and experiment with their democratic choice. It is this window of opportunity that a party like BJP should be targeting in the upcoming Bengal elections to challenge the status-quoists.
The first part of BJP’s Bengal strategy needs to be targeted at the interweaving of the polarized Hindu vote and the ethnic Bengali appetite for a socio-cultural and economic renaissance. As our pilot study clearly demonstrates, a large number of Hindu Bengalis suffer from a sense of helplessness at their state of being politically orphaned because BJP till now has failed to provide a viable alternate leadership. Thus the saffron campaign should be designed along the lines of “Reigniting the greatness of Bengal” which is essentially a marriage of the revival of Bengal in the urban landscape and providing the Hindu leadership for the rural masses.
At the heart of the Bengali conundrum, the economic & socio-cultural revival of Bengal and Hindu polarization are two different sides of the same coin, yet the subtle variation between urban and rural landscapes is a demographic necessity. Fact is that in rural Bengal, Muslim vote weightage stands at a big 37% whereas in urban areas it is a more manageable 22% (vote weightage is a factorial index of a particular ethnic groups’ ability to turnout at polling booths and influence the outcome derived from the underlying voting population percentage). Thus essentially, Muslim vote is doubly more lethal in rural Bengal as compared to the cities and larger towns. In rural Bengal, Hindus need the raw saffron leadership whereas urban Bengal requires the packaging of renaissance.
The second part of the hexagon is the targeted approach to the “change” voters. If there are 80 lakh voters in the 5 districts of south-central Bengal, why are they more likely to simply go along with the status-quoist voters as of today? The answer is lack of an alternate vision for Bengal and even more importantly lack of creativity in the BJP campaign. In fact, this was an affliction that BJP suffered even during the Bihar elections. The party seems to believe that the sole mode of electioneering is built around a central mode of large public rallies, especially addressed by the Prime Minister.
No doubt Narendra Modi is the most popular political leader in India today, but an election campaign is a sum of many other parts and this is where BJP is faltering. For instance, in Bihar we had identified 4 large themes that included agrarian distress due to drought and bad state of primary education, but BJP was never able to capitalize on these issues because it never responded in time. In Bengal, the saffron party should design at least half a dozen micro-campaigns that specifically target the “change” voters.
The third dimension is a continuation of the first two parts of the hexagon that combines the cultural revival of a polarized Hindu Bengal and the change seeking voter by providing a viable citizen-chain platform. Before we go further, let us ask ourselves a question. In the last 2-3 years there have been 3 interesting developments in India, what is the common binding thread of these unconnected events?
What all these three mass-market phenomena have in common is a unique thread of revival of India’s ancient cultural roots through subtle Hindu nationalism. This is the newly rurbanized, neo-middle-class Hindu India that is capable of bestowing mass scale within a very short period of time to a simple connecting platform of a common demographic ethos. What BJP needs to invest in Bengal is in creation of a multi-level chain socio-political marketing strategy that can potentially build a voter chain of over 2 Crore ethnic Bengali Hindus by deploying citizens’ movements, Hindu organizations and volunteers. If BJP can creatively bind 2 Crore Bengali Hindu voters through a ‘sacred thread chain’, it has the potential to upset the Mamata applecart in a possible 3 or even 4 cornered battle this summer. All the saffron campaign needs are a bit of out-of-the-box creative thinking and a radical approach to electioneering.
Even in 2014, citizens’ spiritual movements like ‘Art of Living’ (AOL) and Baba Ramdev’s followers had made a stellar contribution to the Modi campaign, but somehow, off late the involvement of such groups in BJP’s activities is at best marginalized and this is what must change in the elections of this summer. In Bengal there are two particularly important cultural catchment areas to build this multi-level chain of 2 Crore voters – 1] The Ramakrishna Mission which has roughly 1 crore members and 2] The Gaudiya Math and the associated Chaitanya Mahaprabhu movements which have nearly 75 lakh citizens among its followers. How BJP builds a creative bridge to bring together all of these groups to reignite the greatness of Bengal will probably decide the future path of saffronization of the east.
The fourth paradigm of the hexagon hinges on the branding of BJP in Bengal. Indian masses always find safety in numbers which is why we invariably see the tendency of “winner takes it all” in our elections wherein voters prefer not to waste their votes and instead exercise their democratic franchise in favor of the leading party or player. This is a unique feature of India’s democracy unlike the western countries – for instance, consider the ongoing primaries in the US which are producing such varying results in different geographies without giving any advantage to winning candidate.
This unique behavior of Indian masses is not limited to politics or elections but is reflected across the consumer landscape of India. For instance, in the extremely fragmented car market of India, the top 2 players (Suzuki and Hyundai) command over 60% of the market share (unlike the US where none of the car makers command more than 7-8% market-share individually). Similarly, this behavior is reflected across various products starting from toothpastes and detergents to noodles and television sets where the top 2-3 brands command a majority of the market-share. Essentially what this means is that mostly Indian masses look for safe choices by going with other fellow Indians rather than trying to be contrarian. If BJP has to be a safe bet for an average Bengali voter, then the party has to rebrand itself as the leading choice of other Bengali voters and not just a challenger to TMC or the Left. (There are reports that BJP as a party feels it is viable only in 40 odd seats which only means that the party is not serious about Bengal so no voters would take it as a serious choice.)
The other part of BJP’s Bengal branding exercise comes from projecting a face for the party in the form of Roopa Ganguly. Here again BJP’s approach has been rather amateurish despite the massive failure in Bengal which was primarily due to lack of a viable alternative leadership to Nitish Kumar. Once again India’s consumer behavior gives us adequate political insight in understanding what clicks with the masses. In recent years, Tata Nano, the cheapest car alternative in one of the world’s poorest markets failed miserably to enthuse Indian buyers and in that failure is an interesting political insight. Indians do not like cheaper alternatives but would rather prefer the real deal. For instance, when BJP projected Kiran Bedi in Delhi, she was perceived as a cheaper version of Arvind Kejriwal by the Delhi voters who preferred to elect the real Kejriwal than the cheaper alternative – had BJP instead gone with a homegrown brand like Hrashvardhan, Delhi result would have been significantly different. Thus Roopa Ganguly should not just be a cheaper ‘Nano’ version of Mamata Banerjee but a leader in her own right with an alternate vision for Bengal. BJP also as a party should confidently project her as a leader and bring together all the saffron cadre out in full strength.
The fifth point of the hexagon is that of technology leveraging. This had been BJP’s USP in the run-up to the 2014 elections but off late the party seems to have gone rusty in its approach as was evident in Bihar where BJP’s reaction times to opposition’s digital campaigns was tardy at best. In Bengal, as per our estimates based on tech-tools like CADIPS, the number of FB and WhatsApp users could be in the range of 8 to 9 million at the least. These nearly 1 core odd new-age social-media and internet users can amplify the saffron message many-fold but BJP needs to have the right creative approach to reach out to this digital demography by engaging them without being redundant. For instance, there are hundreds of creative writers, historians and intellectuals in the online right-wing ecosystem which BJP has never really leveraged. Together these online right-wingers can take the message of “reigniting the greatness of Bengal” and also educate the Bengali Hindus about the socio-politics of their historic plight and the opportunity to redress that.
The sixth and final dimension of this hexagonal blueprint for Bengal hinges on creating sustainable polling booth architecture across the 77000 polling booths in West Bengal. Even the best of campaign designs would fail if the party fails to turnout the base at the polling booths on election day – which is also what happened in Bihar a few months ago where the party cadre was busy arranging Modi rallies and forgot to bring in voters into polling booths. In Bengal the problem for BJP is more acute due to the strong arm tactics of the TMC and the Left who usually control voter flow by using power. Thus BJP’s strategy has to be threefold in Bengal;
Many within the BJP and the larger Sangh parivar tend to believe that this round of elections in April-May are not really significant in the larger national scheme of BJP’s near-term political ambitions as the party has in any case never been an important player in these geographies, but the reality is far more complex than that.
Primary importance of the summer of 2016 stems from the direct impact that these elections can have on 2019. By all accounts the 2014 national elections were possibly a new peak for the BJP and it is quite likely that the party may find it difficult to perform at the same optimum level in the next electoral cycle. Logically BJP may find it difficult to repeat the 2014 performance in most of the northern and western states leading to attrition of anywhere between 30 to 50 MP seats in the normal course of time. If BJP has fill these losses, then the party has to perform far better than 2014 in the eastern and southern hemispheres. Thus even if BJP eventually manages to lost West Bengal in the summer of 2016, a strong performance here would prime the party as the logical alternative for the 2019 parliamentary elections in the east.
The second reason why BJP must take these elections in the summer of 2016 seriously stems from the political context that India finds itself in today’s times. There is a raging battle between nationalism and status-quoism (represented by the left-libbers) which BJP has to win to put India on an irreversible Right path. The surest way of winning this battle is by conquering the polling booths rather than winning TV studio debates. The fact is that the left-libbers and the Lutyenites are feeling empowered by 2 successive BJP defeats in 2015, so a strong showing by the party in the summer of 2016, especially in the Left dominated, non-saffron geographies would create a lot of self-doubts among these chattering classes.
The third and the obvious reason why the summer of 2016 is important for BJP is to provide the legislative cushion in the Rajya Sabha so that governance does not suffer in the wake of opposition’s deliberate stalling tactics. Keeping these 3 reasons in mind, one fervently hopes that the BJP leadership has the courage, conviction and the creativity to negotiate the Indian electorate in the east and south, especially more so in Bengal where an orphaned Hindu demography is crying for a leadership of rekindled greatness.
Despite our raging Bihar debt, 5Forty3 deployed a small specialized team of 12 in the 4 districts of south-central Bengal to understand the demographic realities of the Bengali masses. This pilot study was a unique exercise with a 15-point questionnaire that did not attempt to know the vote percentages of different parties and instead analyzed the socio-economic realities beyond party politics. The questionnaire was designed carefully with political logic and stayed away from “headline creating” but inherently silly questions like preference between Modi v/s Mamata et al.
Despite a low sample size of 510, we deployed our immensely successful tools like VWISM, RSSI and swing polling booth methodologies to arrive at logical statistical conclusions. Adequate care was taken to ensure proportionally weighted sampling of different ethnic groups, genders and also urban-rural demographic divide. This survey used voter-rolls as the primary sampling frame data and the following table illustrates the sample size parameters;