Even as the “insider-outsider” theme has become one of the central planks of the Bengal Assembly elections, the TMC is growing wary of alienating non-Bengali voters in the state.
Senior TMC leaders said they were aware that the BJP is attempting to turn the narrative to their favour by using it to win over the non-Bengalis.
“We are aware that the BJP will use this to try and tell our non-Bengali residents that the TMC doesn’t care for them. This is something we are working on. For TMC, the definition of a Bengali is someone who lives in the state, understands it, knows its culture, and contributes to it. It doesn’t matter where they come from. They are all welcome in Bengal and you will see this in the campaign. Those who attack Bengali culture and have no understanding of it, they are the outsider,” a senior leader drafting the party’s strategy said.
On December 2, Ghosh said those “who have come from other states” have played a crucial role in Bengal’s development”. He accused TMC of resorting to divisive politics and tagging “those who worked for the welfare of the state” outsiders.
According to party leaders, non-Bengali votebank in the state is around 15 per cent of the electorate and it is influential in and around Kolkata, where it accounts for about half of the population. “Kolkata attracts lots of workers from nearby states and they make up a big number. Then there is the Marwadi community that is very influential and prosperous,” a senior leader said.
A key plank of TMC has been to attack BJP as a party of outsiders, accusing the party of having few local faces. This has been furthered by allegations against economist and Nobel laureate Amartya Sen, including remarks by BJP state president Dilip Ghosh. The TMC used this as an example of the BJP attacking an “icon of Bengal”.
Mohammad Salim, politburo member of the CPM, which is fighting the election in alliance with the Congress, said the politics of both the TMC and BJP is “based on exclusion”. “If you look at the years before this one, TMC was nearly always aligned with the BJP. They have no ideological opposition. This insider-outsider politics is only an extension of these ideas that divide,” Salim said.
The CPM leader said, “In the rest of India, in the BJP’s worldview, particularly of Hindi, Hindu, Hindustan, Bengalis have faced being the outsider, being called puffed rice eaters etc. This is what TMC is doing in Bengal, and Bengal has always fought against these divisions.”
In the eighties, the Amra Bangali movement that espoused Bengali ways and language had attempted to turn such a narrative political. Amra Bangali had emerged as a counter to a movement in Assam to drive away Bengalis called “Bongali Kheda”. The outfit has now been reduced to a fringe role. Shiv Sena, which also has little presence in Bengal, has said it may tie up with Amra Bangali.
Sukhendu Sekhar Ray, Chief Whip of TMC in Rajya Sabha, said “it is a wrong perception” that the party is calling the BJP “outsiders”. “We call them outsider ‘bargis’. This word is important. In 2011, CPM were called Harmads for their reign of terror. We call BJP ‘bargis’ because during the Maratha invasion, Bargis destroyed crops and plundered. If you look at BJP’s language, it is not a language of winning elections. It is one of conquest. They do not say they want to come to Bengal, present their vision for development and win people over…. They use words of bahubalis… They want to create a situation of violence,” Ray said.
Ray said TMC was “proud of its non Bengali” residents and that Bengal has always been “mini India”. “Bengalis and non Bengalis have always stood side by side, as brothers and sisters.”
A key member of TMC’s communication wing said the party was keen to focus on the term “tourist gang” in its outreach. “Both words are important. Tourist or outsider by itself isn’t bad. But the gang is important as people who don’t respect Bengal. For instance, the strategy is to juxtapose two images. One of Amit Shah eating at a village home and Mamata Banerjee standing in queue for her Swasthya Sathi health card. These two images show who is an outsider just here for photo opportunities, while the other is invested in the state,” a senior leader said.