Riding anti-incumbency sentiments and communal polarisation, the BJP, which had clinched just two seats in 2014, recorded a historic double digit win in Bengal this time, bagging 18 of the 42 parliamentary seats.
Flashpoints in West Bengal politics were one too many in 2019, a year which saw a resurgent BJP breach the TMC citadel in Lok Sabha polls, and the Mamata Banerjee camp change its narrative from “all-inclusiveness” to “Bengali pride” to contain the saffron surge. Riding anti-incumbency sentiments and communal polarisation, the BJP, which had clinched just two seats in 2014, recorded a historic double digit win in Bengal this time, bagging 18 of the 42 parliamentary seats.
The TMC, which had eyed a major role in national politics, experienced a sharp dip in its popularity, with just 22 constituencies in its kitty, 12 less than what it had secured in the last election. The opposition Congress and the once-formidable Left Front were relegated to distant third and fourth positions respectively. The politically volatile state, where the general election was held in seven phases along with Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, also witnessed unprecedented violence and vandalism round the year, as supporters of the two major parties engaged in frequent brawls, leaving scores injured and the situation tense.
In an acknowledgement of the BJP’s growing political heft, West Bengal Chief Minister and TMC supremo Mamata Banerjee was quick to hire poll strategist Prashant Kishor to revive the party’s fortune ahead of the 2021 assembly polls. Subsequently, her government launched several programmes, including ‘Didi ke bolo’ (Tell Didi) – a mass outreach campaign to address public grievances and seek suggestions. In what could be seen as another attempt to regain its sheen, Banerjee also stoked a sense of “Bengali pride”, resisting the apparent “imposition of Hindi” by the Centre.
Union Home Minister Amit Shah had pitched for a common language and said Hindi, which is spoken the most, could unite the whole country. He later clarified that he did not mean to push Hindi over regional languages. The TMC chief also highlighted Sourav Ganguly’s ascension as BCCI chief and Abhijit Banerjee’s Nobel win as moments of glory for the Bengalis.
The publication of the final NRC in Assam that excluded 19 lakh people, including many Hindu Bengalis, gave Banerjee a golden opportunity to turn the tide against the saffron camp, as she vociferously opposed Shah’s assertion that a similar exercise to weed out illegal immigrants would be carried out in Bengal and the rest of the country. Dubbing the BJP as an “anti-Bengali party”, she presented herself as the only saviour. The gamble paid off for the state’s ruling party, as it managed to grab three state assembly seats in November by-elections.
Towards the end of the year, the passage of Citizenship (Amendment) Bill in Parliament – considered a precursor to a nation-wide National Register of Citizens (NRC) – left the state astir as protesters went on the rampage against the “divisive” law, vandalising public property for days on end. Internet services were suspended in parts of the state to prevent circulation of fake news, and vigil stepped up across districts to control mob violence.
Members of the TMC, led by their supremo, hit the streets against the saffron camp, which also took out rallies claiming that Banerjee was trying to mislead people over the amended law. It is not known if the process will be undertaken at all after Prime Minister Narendra Modi contended last week that a pan-India NRC was never discussed by his government, a statement that was later endorsed by Shah.
Banerjee, who has been at the forefront of protests against the proposed NRC exercise and the newly amended citizenship law, had already announced that the Act won’t be implemented in the state — where refugees play a deciding factor in 80 of 294 assembly seats.
The Union cabinet’s decision to update the National Population Register also met with resistance in Bengal, with the ruling party claiming that it was the “first step towards NRC”, an allegation termed by the BJP as “baseless”. Banerjee ordered an immediate halt to the NPR updation process.
Amid the political upheavals, Governor Jadgeep Dhankhar, who took charge in July, engaged in regular verbal duel with the ruling TMC, often taking to Twitter to criticise the government’s decisions and policies. Dhankhar, who was accused of running a “parallel government” by the TMC, offered to sit for talks with Banerjee to resolve the differences, but failed to get a positive response.
Earlier in the year, the CBI had attempted to question former Kolkata police commissioner Rajeev Kumar in connection with the multi-crore-rupees Saradha chit find scam, but the chief minister came to his rescue as she staged a dharna claiming that the “spirit of Constitution and federalism was being stifled by the Modi government.
Kumar, who has now been appointed the principal secretary in the state Information Technology Department, tried every trick in the book — from going untraceable to seeking relief from the Calcutta High Court — to evade questioning by the investigating agency.
Bengal grabbed national headlines in October when five migrant labourers from the state were shot dead by terrorists in Kulgam district of Kashmir. All five of them hailed from Murshidabad district.
Meanwhile, two cyclones, which pummelled the coastal regions of the state during the year, left many dead and homeless. Cyclone ‘Fani’, which slammed Odisha in May, brought in its wake thundershowers, snapping cables and telecommunication lines.
In November, Cyclone ‘Bulbul’ claimed at least nine lives and left behind a trail of destruction, with the government pegging the loss incurred due to the calamity at over Rs 23,000 crore.