As West Bengal readies to vote in the sixth phase of polling to the 2024 Lok Sabha Elections, the possibility of Cyclone Remal, currently forming in Bay of Bengal, playing spoilsport has left all stakeholders worried. At the same time dark clouds of communal polarisation are again looming large on the state’s political horizon.

Two recent issues, in particular, have stood out in the last week: One, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee uncharacteristically taking on a section of faith-based orders that hold a sway of a substantial part of Hindu voters. Two, The Calcutta High Court (HC) struck down OBC (Other Backward Classes) certificates granted during Banerjee’s tenure.

As it is, the poll process this time has been affected by a relatively lower voters’ turnout. Though West Bengal has fared better than other states in most phases, it has lagged behind its own performance in the 2019 general Elections.

Among the reasons cited for a lower turnout have been heat, a general apathy among voters as well as the inability of migrant workers to return for voting. This has been a cause of worry for Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress (TMC) as well as Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the two main contestants.

The political equations are relatively clear in the first three phases, when mostly constituencies in north Bengal went voted. The TMC may be in power in the state for over a decade but it is still a challenger there. The BJP won seven of north Bengal’s eight Lok Sabha seats in 2019 with the remainder going to Congress.

While TMC hopes to add a few of those to its kitty this time, the political heat surely increased for Phase 4 onwards, as the election bandwagon rolled down south. The 2019 Modi wave helped BJP bag its remaining 11 seats from these areas, at the cost of TMC. This time the saffron party has been talking of increasing its Bengal tally to 28-30.

Banerjee, on the other hand, knows clearly that she has to wrest back seats in these phases and defend existing ones if she has to increase her clout in Lok Sabha. An increased tally would also leave her in a more comfortable position before the 2026 Assembly elections.

From the beginning of the poll process TMC’s strategy was two-pronged:

i) To attack the BJP and its PM for being divisive; for failing to govern well; and for discriminating against Bengal

ii) To showcase the state government’s welfare schemes, especially those geared towards empowering women (Lakshmir Bhandar, Kanyashree, etc)

Only in a few seats has it even bothered to attack its erstwhile main rival Communist Party of India (Marxist) or the Congress, even though they have contested as a separate bloc.

The BJP initially did try to fight on the development plank, claiming central schemes have improved the lot of millions and promising to do more if voted back to power. At the same time, it tried to garner political capital out of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and several charges of corruption against the Banerjee government and TMC leaders. However, they did not seem to click much with the voters, especially in the rural areas.

In some cases, political observers say, the issues may also have boomeranged on the BJP. These include the CAA, a High Court verdict cancelling appointments of thousands of government school teachers and the Sandeshkhali issue where a series of videos, some of them ‘stings’, claimed that BJP functionaries were instrumental in getting women to file false rape charges against TMC strongmen.

Backfire or not, BJP’s campaign has increasingly veered towards Hindutva, following the trend in other parts of the country. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah have repeatedly raised the bogies of Muslim appeasement and Hindus being second-class citizens. At the ground level too, there have been reports of a saffron agenda overrunning all other campaign tools.

“In Kanthi, I saw a rally of bikers with saffron bandannas chanting only ‘Jai Shri Ram’ and nothing else; not even an appeal to vote for the candidate or any sloganeering for Modi, Shah or Suvendu,” a senior Kolkata-based reporter said.

The BJP has fielded Soumendu Adhikari, brother of Bengal Opposition leader Suvendu Adhikari, from there. Their father Sisir Adhikari has held the seat since 2009, even serving as a minister of state under Manmohan Singh.

While Banerjee was irked with the HC scrapping the teachers’ appointments, she used it in her overall theme of painting the BJP as anti-Bengal. Even as an appeal has been moved to the Supreme Court, the CM maintained her composure over it apart from blaming “some judges”.

But recently, Banerjee was visibly irked as she alleged from a campaign stage that some monks are helping the BJP in elections. In particular, she alleged that one Kartik Maharaj of Bharat Sevashram Sangh (BSS) was not working for the saffron party. “Someone who says he would not let Trinamool agents seat (in polling booths), I do not consider him to be a sadhu,” she said at an election rally in Hooghly on May 18. “All saints are not the same,” she said, adding that “she used to respect BSS a lot”.

The next day, Modi blasted Banerjee for this and alleged that she was doing so under pressure from Islamic fundamentalists. Interestingly, however, he named ISKCON, Ramkrishna Mission (RKM) in the same bracket as BSS, even though the TMC supremo had referred only to the latter. All three have their base in West Bengal and represent different faith systems within the Hindu fold.

International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) is a Vaishnavite movement, globally known for popularising the ‘Hare Krishna’ chant, headquartered in Mayapur near Nabadwip, the birthplace of Chaitanya, the founder of Gaudiya Vaishnavism.

The RKM was established by Vivekananda and named after his guru Ramakrishna, who was popular in 19th Century Kolkata as a mystic who readily mingled with all. Though the Mission propagates Vedanta, Ramakrishna was famous as a worshipper of Kali, putting him in the Shakta tradition. The RKM is headquartered in Belur, across the Ganga from the Dakshineswar Kali temple where Ramakrishna was the chief priest.

Kolkata-based BSS was set up by Pranavananda and is more aligned to a Shaivite tradition. All three boast of presence across India and even abroad and involve themselves in various activities that put them directly in touch with people, including running schools and hospitals, distributing relief during times of natural calamities, etc.

The RKM is widely popular among the Bengali ‘bhadralok’ elite, especially in Kolkata and the vicinity. Securing admission in schools run by it is considered to be an achievement even by the upper-middle class.

The ISKCON has a wider appeal thanks to Chaitanya’s popularity among the middle castes, much of which is upwardly mobile now. The BSS, on the other hand, is known for maintaining a presence in difficult terrains amid the more marginalised.

Modi’s attack, drawing all three into the campaign arena, drew a quick riposte from Banerjee. She made an unscheduled stop at a campaign meeting in Bishnupur and repeated her allegations adding that Kartik Maharaj was “doing BJP in the name of religion and was instigating local traders”, according to information that she has.

“He can do politics… But then he should wear the Lotus [BJP’s symbol] on his chest,” Banerjee said.

At the same meeting she also made it a point to stress that she is not against RKM or any other organisation per se, and claimed that she has enjoyed a smooth working relation with them on several occasions in the past and helped such bodies whenever needed.

The BSS has distanced itself from anything he has said. The RKM has stressed that it stays away from politics and its monks do not exercise their right to vote. But Kartik Maharaj has reportedly sent a legal notice to the CM, claiming defamation.

He has also told reporters that he was “pained” by the CM’s comments and claimed that both TMC and BJP have offered him tickets to contest in elections.

Meanwhile, a group of monks have announced a bare-foot procession in protest of Banerjee’s comments. The Vishwa Hindu Parishad has also issued a statement.

A section of local BJP leaders, including Rajya Sabha member Samik Bhattacharya, had claimed there was nothing wrong with religious orders seeking votes for parties, saying that Imams have earlier sought votes for TMC candidates.

This has not surprised observers in Kolkata. “Ram and Hanuman have surely given BJP a mileage in several parts in Bengal, but only to an extent. It doesn’t appeal to all Bengali Hindus,” a veteran journalist with one of the leading dailies in Kolkata, pointed out adding “They feel the need to rope in local sects as well.”

Late last December, a congregation was organised at the city’s famed Brigade Parade Ground for a live Geeta recital by a crowd of 100,000. Its organisers had claimed that President Draupadi Murmu, PM Modi and CM Banerjee would all be invited. To pull off a ‘hit’ congregation at the Brigade is considered a sign of coming of age in Bengal politics.

It is debatable whether the organisers actually managed to get a lakh people to recite verses, the attendance was pegged at around 40,000 by the ‘Telegraph’ daily and none of the big-ticket invitees landed up. But Suvendu and state BJP chief Sukanta Majumdar did turn up.

But apart from drumming up solidarity for the BJP, the organisers also seemed to have another goal in reaching out to nearly three dozen organisations: To bring together the various strands of faith within Hinduism under one umbrella.

Efforts to inject more saffron into Bengal politics is not new. In September 2022, it was reported that Assemanand, an accused in bomb blasts in Ajmer, Hyderabad’s Mecca Masjid and Samjhauta Express, would mentor Hindu Samhati after the death of Tapan Ghosh, who had founded the Hindu nationalist organisation. Ghosh was once compared to Pramod Muthalik of Karnataka-based Sri Ram Sene.

On the face of it, such organisations may seem to be on the fringe. But there have been instances of the BJP bringing in candidates from religious orders in the past, the most well-known being Uttar Pradesh CM Adityanath. In Bengal this time, it has fielded Hindu Samhati’s Debtanu Bhattacharya from Birbhum.

Close on the heels of the Mamata vs monks fracas came an order from the Calcutta High Court in a more-than-a-decade-old PIL challenging the state’s move to grant OBC status to several groupings, mostly from the state’s Muslim minority. The division bench of Justice Tapabrata Chakraborty and Justice Rajsekhar Mantha also passed some caustic comments.

Muslims in West Bengal, they said, were treated as a commodity for “political ends” and this was evident in the way 77 groups were classified OBC. “Identification of the classes in the aid community as OBCs for electoral gains would leave them at the mercy of the concerned political establishment and may defeat and deny other rights,” it said.

In the crosshairs was The West Bengal Backward Classes (Other than Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes) (Reservation of Vacancies in Services and Posts) Act. It was enacted by Banerjee, a year into her tenure as CM.

Modi has been quick to capitalise on the verdict. Even in faraway Haryana, he has raised it in his rallies, saying it was a slap on the face of I.N.D.I.A.

“The I.N.D.I.A-Jamiat alliance is conspiring against SC, ST OBC reservation… distributing OBC quota among infiltrators,” he alleged, terming it ‘vote jihad’—in a throwback to pejorative references to the Muslim community such as ‘love jihad’.

Even the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M)has criticised the state for distributing OBC certificates indiscriminately, though the erstwhile Left Front government in West Bengal was the architect of the move to reserve space in the government for backward Muslim communities.

Banerjee expectedly has refused to back down on the issue, calling the division Bench’s judgement a “BJP verdict” against which her government is already moving the Supreme Court. At a rally in Kolkata on Thursday, she said, “Modi says Muslims will snatch away rights of those in schedules; is that possible? Can one snatch away the others’ rights?” BJP has earlier opposed similar moves in Karnataka.

While the court has questioned the manner in which the state government has adjudged groups as OBC, without looping in the state commission for backward classes, its move would put in jeopardy some 500,000 OBC certificate holders. Banerjee equated this with the way another HC verdict has put in limbo the fate of thousands of teachers.

Meanwhile, analysts have pointed out how the reservation has impacted the state’s backward Muslims positively. “Though there is not much government hiring, the Act has still benefitted. Representation in the public sector has inched up,” said a city-based researcher who works for a non-profit. “One can only imagine how much better the situation would have been had the government filled up more vacancies,” he said.

While deliberating on the issue, the HC also dragged the Sachar Committee into the issue, saying its report did not have constitutional support as the panel was formed (in 2005) by the Prime Minister’s Office during the tenure of Manmohan Singh. “It was not constituted under Article 340 of the Constitution, which empowers only the President to constitute a Commission for backward classes.