How BJP is trying to gain a foothold in Kolkata

36-Babul-Supriyo Saffron surge: (From left) Union Minister Babul Supriyo, BJP president J.P. Nadda and actor Payal Sarkar, who is a candidate in Kolkata, during a roadshow in the city | Salil Bera

The Kalighat Temple in Kolkata has seen few devotees this season; the sweltering heat and the raging pandemic have kept them and their prayers indoors. So, when a white Swift Dzire pulled up about 200m away from the temple, and a sophisticated white-haired man stepped out, the few onlookers there were surprised. Subrata Saha, a retired Army lieutenant general and a PhD holder in defence studies, waited on the pavement, mask on. Soon, a truck sporting a BJP banner and filled with party workers stopped in front of him. It was only then that the people realised that the man was the BJP candidate in their constituency—Rasbehari.

I may sound like [BJP state president] Dilip Ghosh, but it is the truth. Our [bhadralok] community is completely opportunistic. - Arindam Gupta, professor of business and commerce at Vidyasagar University

A roadside vendor went up to him with tea in a paper cup. Saha took off his mask, smiled, and took a few sips. The campaign had begun. Rasbehari, which will go to the polls on April 26, is an urban constituency with both upper-class intellectuals and the slum-dwelling poor.

After finishing his tea, Saha met one of his first prospective voters—a nonagenarian seated on a bench in the tea shop. Being told that Saha was a former Army man, the man said: “I do not care which party you belong to, but as a freedom fighter I must salute you.”

But when asked for his vote, the man became guarded. “Sorry general,” he said. “I cannot tell you whether I will vote for you or not. But you are an able man to join politics. I am proud to meet you.” Saha smiled and returned the compliment.

Kolkata, which has a mix of middle- and upper-class people, and of Bengali and non-Bengali speakers, has always voted for either the left or centrist parties such as the Congress and the Trinamool. There are about 15 seats in the metropolitan development area, none of which has a significant BJP presence. In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections though, the party, as per its internal survey, had a good showing in three assembly segments—Bhabanipur, Rasbehari and Dum Dum. The BJP is desperate to win these three seats, along with others where it lost by a few thousand votes. These include Tollygunge, Kasba and two seats in Behala. But the question is, will Kolkata accept the BJP’s hindutva ideology?

The city’s politics largely hinges on two groups—the working class voters and the bhadralok intelligentsia.

Before independence, Jana Sangh founder Syama Prasad Mookerjee had the support of the intellectual community in Kolkata. He controlled most educational institutions in the city, and had a great relationship with literary greats such as Rabindranath Tagore and Kazi Nazrul Islam. Even after his death in 1953, chief minister Dr Bidhan Chandra Roy—from the Congress and CM for 14 years—did not oppose the Jana Sangh ideology; he was Mookerjee’s friend.

But then came the leftists’ class war, which erased the right-wing ideology. The academic arena was chock-a-block with Marxist thinkers; films, theatre and music became the modes of communication for left politicians.

But in 1991, with liberalisation, Kolkata’s youth started demanding a better life from the pro-proletariat government. Slowly, the working class, too, raised their voice for better incomes. The two groups began to see a viable alternative in the Congress, and later the Trinamool. “The Congress in Kolkata tried to adopt the left culture of protest in the city,” said Arindam Gupta, professor of business and commerce at Vidyasagar University. “The Congress in the 1990s protested the price rise of fuel and hike in electricity and transport fares; the Trinamool gradually took over that role. The people of Kolkata, except the intellectuals, preferred this.”

Holding on: Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee at a rally in Kolkata | Salil Bera Holding on: Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee at a rally in Kolkata | Salil Bera

So, did the Congress and the Trinamool use the left’s tools to try and bring down the government? “Not at all,” said Gupta. “There is no difference between the economic policies of the Congress and the BJP. The Congress and the TMC are both rightist in their political ideologies. They proposed the same development policies for Kolkata that the BJP is promising today. What worked well for the Congress and later the TMC was that it was a movement for the youth and the working class, who wanted better lives.”

What about the bhadralok? “They are opportunists,” said Gupta. “I may sound like [BJP state president] Dilip Ghosh, but that is what the truth is. Our community is completely opportunistic.”

He said that, in 2011, when the left government was mired in a land acquisition mess, the intellectuals wasted no time in rallying behind Mamata Banerjee. “Had they been real leftists, they could not have changed their colours like that,” he said. “I saw few who retained their character as Marxist intellectuals. Leftism is not all about supporting the CPI(M), but at the same time, it is odd to join the TMC.”

Sensing an opportunity, the BJP has struck a balance between intellectualism and religious polarisation in Kolkata. It has tried to attract working-class Hindus by promising to bring businesses and, in turn, jobs to the city. The business-friendly approach has also brought support from the film and television industry, and several actors and directors have joined the party in recent years.

Many have called this political opportunism, but then, perhaps, the demands of the intellectuals have changed with the times. They do not want to become obsolete. As THE WEEK sought comments on the apparent saffron surge in Kolkata, many intellectuals were happy to discuss it; this was not the case a few years ago. “I do not see anything wrong in the growth of a particular political ideology that is acceptable to the majority or a sizable section of the population,” said renowned classical musician Tarun Bhattacharya. “I believe it gives an opportunity for a wider section of opinions to emerge in governance. I am happy that doctors, lawyers and people from fine arts and acting are all in politics. I strongly believe that democracy should celebrate diversity, and if Kolkata is changing, I wholeheartedly support it; politics and governance should not be static.”

The BJP, on its part, has tried to soften its hindutva image by fielding doctors, singers and half a dozen actors in and around Kolkata. Having bhadralok candidates such as Saha is part of that strategy. Many in the city believe that, with issues such as the Ram temple and the abrogation of Article 370 being settled, the BJP has few “disruptive issues” left; this means it can focus more on governance in Bengal if voted to power.

Said actor and producer Arijit Dutta: “The electorate in Bengal is extremely mature, and whatever change you are talking about is not an urban phenomenon.” However, he admitted that the BJP was more visible now. “And that is [evident] with the high-profile visits of those who are in power in Delhi,” he said. “This was not seen before. Whether Kolkata has changed or not is debatable. But being an apolitical person, my take is simple. If there is a change for the overall good of the people, it is always welcome.”

Some entrepreneurs in the city said that the failure of “ultra-secular” politics had led to the growth of the BJP. “There is an acute polarisation of voters on religious lines and [there is] also a feeling that Bengal should get the benefits it has been deprived of for 44 years (under regional party rule),” said Subhojit Roy, secretary, Eastern Chamber of Commerce.

But there are also those who think that, regardless of how well the BJP is predicted to perform elsewhere in the state, it will not make an impact in the capital. “The people of Kolkata have been careful in choosing a particular ideology by trying to understand its nuances. It has always rejected any ideology that is regressive and not inclusive,” said Soukarya Ghosal, a young film director in Kolkata.

The BJP, however, is upbeat about its chances this time. “We will win at least seven of the 11 seats in north and south Kolkata,” said state BJP vice president Biswapriya Roychowdhury. However, he conceded that his party’s disconnect with the intellectuals still stands. “A section will not vote for us,” he said. “But there is a sudden shift of many [others]. We will get the votes of the young generation.”

Gupta said he expected the BJP to do well in rural Bengal, but not in Kolkata. “Of course,” he said, “it will increase its voter base in the city.”