Opinion divided on most non-Bengali voters favouring BJP in West Bengal
Divide between non-Bengalis and Bengali speaking population has been growing but a large non-Bengali population have continued to support the Left, Congress and of course Mamata Banerjee
The divide between non-Bengalis living in West Bengal and the native speakers has been sharpening for several years. In the general election of 2019 it was generally accepted that non-Bengali speaking people voted largely in favour of BJP, a party where decision-making and the purse strings are both controlled by non-Bengalis. The support of this section in North Bengal districts and in places like Asansol was credited for BJP’s spectacular growth in vote share that enabled it to bag 18 of the 42 Lok Sabha seats.
This section supported the Left Front before 2011 and Trinamool Congress in 2011 and 2016. But in 2019 the support for BJP grew. Undoubtedly non-Bengali speaking people seem more comfortable identifying with Hindi and a party from the cow belt.
Few authoritative figures are available about their number though. It is however estimated that of the 110 million population of the state, around 15% happen to be non-Bengalis. Some estimates put it higher. But there is general consensus that these voters are in a position to influence 70-80 assembly seats in Asansol, Barrackpur, Srirampur, Howrah, Dumdum, Jalpaiguri, Durgapur, North and central Kolkata besides pockets in Hooghly. The resentment caused by their poor political representation during the Left Front and AITC rule has been successfully stoked and tapped by the BJP, which has rallied this section in the assembly election. Confirms Tribhuban Mishra, general secretary of the Kolkata based ‘Rashtriya Bhojpuriya Ekta Manch’, “We had to get united to promote our own interests; we were left with no other option.”
Realising the threat, All India Trinamool Congress formed a Hindi Cell and the state government took a slew of decisions to make different bodies more inclusive. The state level committee to promote Hindi language and literature has been expanded with the inclusion of Hindi-speaking journalists. Allowances have been given to Hindi-speaking priests. The strength of the Hindi Academy has been increased from 13 members to 25. The Chief Minister has also announced the formation of a Hindi University and declared holidays on the occasion of Chhath Puja. In contrast, she had declared earlier that people living in the state would have to learn Bengali.
Not surprisingly, BJP’s state president Dilip Ghosh sees desperation in such measures. People cannot be fooled by these last-minute steps, he maintains. Political Observer Bishwanath Chakravarty agrees. It is doubtful, he says, if Hindi-speaking voters will be swayed at this stage by such measures. A veteran RSS leader Jishnu Ghosh repeats the RSS line that existence of Hindus is threatened in the state and the state government, if it cared, could have given assistance to those killed in violence.
Senior journalist Pulakesh Ghosh, however, points out that there is considerable support among Hindi-speaking people for Mamata also. It would be incorrect to assume, he says, that all of them are BJP supporters. There is support for the Left Front and the Congress also, he points out.
Historian and sociologist prof Partha Chatterjee, while conceding that Hindi speaking voters feel a natural affinity for the BJP, points out that in the last 10 years Mamata Banerjee has done nothing to increase the antagonism of this section. He expects a large number of this section of voters to favour Modi for the Centre but Mamata for the state.