India General Election: Vandalism of a 19th Century Icon’s Statue Has Triggered a Culture War Between BJP & Mamata Banerjee

The marathon general election in India is approaching its end in a few days’ time. The seven-phase polling to cover 543 seats of the Parliament has become far too long to witness campaigning of the lowest quality. The political mud-slinging which has been taking place in the name of campaigning reached its lowest ebb on Tuesday, May 14, when a road rally of the national president of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Amit Shah, in the city of Kolkata resulted in a mayhem. The BJP has remained a second-best force in the East Indian state of West Bengal even in the days of Narendra Modi wave and the saffron party has always eyed to conquer this region, which is known be India’s intellectual heartland and was once dominated by the Left. 

On Tuesday, just days before the city of Kolkata went to the polling, the BJP was expecting to go all out with a rally with a mass appeal that would reflect in the ballot box.

However, things did not turn out the way the BJP would have liked it. The procession met resistance from the supporters of the local Trinamool Congress (TMC) whose supremo Mamata Banerjee has been the most vocal critic of PM Modi this election. And as things inched towards the worse, a renowned college in North Kolkata named after Bengal’s iconic social reformer Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar bore the brunt. The college’s gate was set ablaze and worse, a bust of the reformer inside the college was smashed into pieces.

The vandalism has made the issue something more than an electoral issue

This vandalism had its far-reaching implications. From a pitch battle of two political forces fighting over communal and secular ideologies, it became a battle between the self-pride of the Bengalis with the non-Bengalis since one of their icons were touched. Cult politics has not been a common practice in Bengal where the Left had ruled supreme once but for Mamata Banerjee, this was an opportunity to hit Modi and his party hard.

The TMC supremo, who also happens to be the chief minister of the province, made it into a matter of hurting Bengali pride and refuelling through it, the form of Bengali sub-nationalism she has been preaching since coming to power in 2011. Politics around historical and mythical figures are more vivid in western and northern India but the populist leader in Mamata made it relevant at once in Bengal to beat another populist leader in Modi.

The vandalism of Vidyasagar’s bust was projected by the provincial ruling party as not just an attack on Bengal’s pride but also on the ideals of liberalism and modernity that the 19th century reformer, also one of the pioneers of Bengal’s Renaissance, is identified with. Being a party which is often seen as narrow, exclusive and appropriating, the BJP was at the receiving end over the whole episode even though there was no conclusive evidence as to who had actually smashed the bust. The duo of Modi and Shah kept on claiming that it was something staged by the TMC itself to gain in the next phase of polling but those claims were set to fall on deaf years because the BJP is still not a force which is seen politically and intellectually compatible with the identity of Bengalism.

The heinous act of vandalism is condemnable but it has certainly helped the anti-Modi forces in the country at the moment. The Election Commission curtailed the campaigning in the state from Thursday and the Opposition slammed it saying it was biased in favour of the PM for waiting for his rallies to end.

BJP has little resource to fight back on this burning issue

The Vidyasagar bust episode brought out into open two conflicting ideologies that are battling it out fiercely. Mamata Banerjee is one who has to take care of her state’s big minority votes and the BJP has tried to discredit her on that front. But after the vandalism of the icon’s statue, the Bengal leader has given the plot a twist saying the rich culture of Bengal is under attack from a non-Bengali force called the BJP. The saffron party is still organisationally weak in the state and doesn’t really have much of ammunition to neutralise Mamata’s claim.

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