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Bangladesh cards rule West Bengal polls

SAM SPECIAL (1)-1

From slogans to smear campaigns, election pledges to blame games, Bangladesh has featured heavily in the discourse of rival parties in India's ongoing West Bengal assembly polls.

Bangladesh has always been an important factor for the eastern region of India, and West Bengal in particular.

The fourth-most populous Indian state not only shares around 2,216 kilometres of border with Bangladesh, it also shares culture, language, climate and blood bonding with the country.

Against this backdrop, it is natural that Bangladesh comes up in political campaigns during the West Bengal polls.

This time around, however, Bangladesh is coming up more prominently than ever before and many of the political talking points portrayed the neighbouring country negatively, said political analysts.

India's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has repeatedly used Bangladesh and Bangladeshi issues to draw Hindu voters in West Bengal as many of them migrated from Bangladesh.

The ruling party in the state of West Bengal, Trinamool Congress (TMC), on the other hand is critical over Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's recent Bangladesh visit, blaming him for bringing criminals from across the border.

Political analysts, however, blamed the absence of ideology-based politics behind this deeply disturbing trend.

West Bengal's politics has a long history of catchy slogans ahead of elections.

One such slogan this time is "Khela hobe" (roughly translated as "Let's play"). It has been widely used by TMC supremo Mamata Banerjee and her grassroots leaders in their election campaign. The slogan has even been appearing as graffiti on walls alongside TMC's electoral symbol of "jora ghas phul".

Interestingly, the slogan was first uttered by Bangladesh's ruling Awami League MP Shamim Osman of Narayanganj-4.

During the BNP-Jamaat movement in 2013-2014, Shamim Osman had challenged BNP at a public rally with these words: "We are ready; come, let's play."

Later TMC's Birbhum district President Anubrata Mandal incorporated the slogan in his public address. Later, the slogan went viral and became the party's "theme line".

The leadership of the ruling BJP, including Indian PM Narendra Modi, while countering this slogan, used to say: "Didi is saying there will be a game. We are saying there will be education, there will be healthcare, development, hospitals, enlightenment."

That slogan apart, the so-called illegal immigration from Bangladesh also came up as a major campaign issue this year.

BJP took the illegal Muslim immigration from Bangladesh claim to woo Hindu voters.

At a public rally in February at Bongaon -- the district lying across the border from Jashore -- Indian Home Minister Amit Shah categorically said even a bird will not be able to enter from Bangladesh if BJP is voted to power in West Bengal.

The BJP leaders constantly held WB Chief Minister Mamata as the chief patron of the so-called illegal Muslim immigration from Bangladesh.

But statistics shows trespassing from Bangladesh declined since BJP assumed power in India.

On February 10, India's Home Ministry presented a statistic in parliament which said 1,601 people were detained for illegal entry in 2016, and that the number dropped to 955 in 2020.

In 2018, 884 people were arrested at the border for illegal trespassing.

PM Modi's recent Bangladesh visit also added fuel to the high-octane campaign rhetoric between TMC and BJP.

Mamata took the visit as an opportunity to hit back at the BJP leadership.

"At other times, they [BJP] used to say Mamata is patronising illegal trespass. And during election time, he [Modi] himself visited Bangladesh to seek votes, and to bring criminals from Bangladesh," Mamata told a public rally at South 24 Parganas on April 3.

Trinamool and BJP have even engaged in a tug of war over the slogan "Joy Bangla".

Joy Bangla was the slogan in Bangladesh's Liberation War and it united the nation to fight against the Pakistan military under the leadership of Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.

On January 23, during a programme marking the 124th birth anniversary of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose -- one of the most prominent figures of India's independence movement -- at Victoria Memorial where both Modi and Mamata were present, the latter walked off the stage hearing "Jai Shri Ram" slogans from the audience.

"Jai Shri Ram" is BJP's political slogan.

In protest, Mamata chanted "Joy Bangla" and left the dais.

Mamata's slogan sparked another row between BJP and TMC.

West Bengalchapter BJP President Dilip Ghosh immediately capitalised on it and wrote on his verified Facebook page, "Honourable [Mamata] is fighting for greater Bangladesh."

In that post, he also shared photos of Bangladeshi actor Ferdous during a TMC campaign for Lok Sabha polls in 2019 and of cricketer Shakib Al Hasan attending at a makeshift Kali temple last year.

Moreover, Dilip, during a meeting with the election commissionin January, alleged that many illegal immigrants and Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh were on the voter list.

Bangladesh also became an issue during and after Modi's two-day visit to be part of the twin celebrations of the Bangabandhu's birth centenary and the golden jubilee of Bangladesh's Independence.

During his second day in Bangladesh, Modi visited a sacred shrine of the Matua community at Orakandi in Gopalganj.

Centring Modi's visit to the shrine, Mamata alleged that the PM's Bangladesh visit was a violation of the electoral code of conduct and demanded cancellation of Modi's Bangladesh visa.

While speaking at an election rally at Midnapore, Mamata categorically said Modi's visit to a temple of a specific community in a foreign country was made to draw the attention of the Matua community.

"Why shouldn't your visa be cancelled? We'll complain to the EC," she had said.

Around over 3.5 crore Matua people live in West Bengal and 1.5 crore of them are voters.

The politically active community is a decisive factor in 30 out of 294 WB assembly constituencies and has indirect influence in around 63 seats.

Bilateral issues like the longstanding Teesta water-sharing also came up during the electioneering.

At an election rally in Siliguri on March 7, CM Mamata alleged that the central government did not engage the state in any dialogue on the Teesta water issue, adding that her government would agree to the Teesta water-sharing only when West Bengal got enough water.

Bangladesh's Teesta water-sharing treaty with India has been stalled for the last 11 years due to Mamata's stubborn opposition.

Teesta is crucial for Bangladesh, especially in the leanest period -- from December to March -- when the flow of water falls to less than 1000 cusecs from 5,000 cusecs.

Recently, images and footage of Bangladesh featured in a video song titled "Didi you do not love us", which was made for BJP's election campaign.

Paper cuttings, photographs and news clips containing reports on minority repression in Bangladesh, police action against Islamic outfits in the country dominated a major part of the song.

The song started with Purnima Rani Shil, a 2001 post-election gang-rape victim in Sirajganj.

The video includes guerilla fighters from the Middle East fighting under the banner of the Islamic State with their own flags. It also contained images of cattle smuggling from India.

Biswanath Chakraborty, a professor of political science at Rabindra Bharati University in India, told The Daily Star that Bangladesh is being negatively portrayed as both TMC and BJP are doing identity-based politics instead of ideology-based politics.

"Negative campaign is destined to breed where political parties shift position from ideology," said Chakraborty.

Tarek Shamsur Rahman, a political analyst and a professor at Jahangirnagar University, told The Daily Star that this time BJP selected issues that can woo Hindu voters in West Bengal.

Rahman also said Narendra Modi's efforts, like intentionally highlighting repression on the minority community, or his visit to the Matua shrine were aimed at wooing Hindu voters and the BJP leadership has done it tactfully.