New Delhi, May 1 (IANS) Exactly a hundred years before the great “Indian Mutiny”, a decisive battled enslaved India to the British irrevocably. The needle moved in such a manner that a de facto trading outfit became de jure ruler of India. Now 72 years later, the ruling dispensation led by Narendra Modi is again at a tipping point to carve a larger swathe for itself in India. The battleground is again Bengal and the BJP is using its polarising Hindu machismo subliminal messaging to breach Mamata Banerjee’s bastion. The dramatic personae are also similar.
The Battle of Plassey was a seminal moment in British India’s history as Robert Clive’s East India Company fought the Nawab of Bengal and his French allies on June 23, 1757. John Company aka East India Company consolidated its presence in Bengal and then improved its sphere of influence over India for another 190 years till Lord Mountbatten came as liquidator and decoloniser in 1947.
The epic battle was fought in Palashi or Plassey on the banks of the Hooghly, about 150 km north of Kolkata and south of Murshidabad, then capital of Bengal. The protagonists were Nawab Siraj-ud-Daulah while antagonists were the British East India Company. Incidentally, Siraj-ud-Daulah was the last independent Nawab of Bengal and he had been anointed a year ago. He came face-to-face with the East India Company when he asked them to stop the extension of their fortification.
Robert Clive resorted to typical British chicanery and bribed Mir Jafar, the commander-in-chief of the Nawab’s army, and also promised to make him Nawab of Bengal. Clive defeated Siraj-ud-Daulah at Plassey in 1757 and captured Calcutta.
The battle was preceded by an attack on British-controlled Calcutta by Nawab Siraj-ud-Daulah and the Black Hole massacre. The British sent reinforcements under Colonel Robert Clive and Admiral Charles Watson from Fort St. George Madras to Bengal and recaptured Calcutta. Clive then seized the initiative to capture the French fortification of Chandernagore.
A game of shadows and heightened suspicions between Siraj-ud-Daulah and the British culminated in the Battle of Plassey. The battle was waged during the Seven Years War (1756–1763), and, in a mirror image of their European rivalry, the French La Compagnie des Indes Orientales sent a small contingent to fight against the British.
Siraj-ud-Daulah had a numerically superior force and made his stand at Plassey. The British, worried about being outnumbered, formed a conspiracy with Siraj-ud-Daulah’s demoted army chief Mir Jafar, along with others such as Yar Lutuf Khan, Mahtab Chand and Swarup Chand, Umichand and Rai Durlabh. Mir Jafar, Rai Durlabh and Yar Lutuf Khan thus assembled their troops near the battlefield but made no move to actually join the battle.
Siraj-ud-Daulah’s army with 50,000 soldiers, 40 cannons and 10 war elephants was vanquished by 3,000 soldiers of Colonel Robert Clive, owing to the flight of Siraj-ud-Daulah from the battlefield and the inactivity of the conspirators. The battle ended in 11 hours flat.
Now, as the BJP has traction in Bengal attacking Mamata Banerjee’s bastion in a move reminiscent of the Battle of Plassey, her once trusted lieutenant Mukul Roy enacts the role of Mir Jafar (at least from Mamata’s perspective) while she herself plays Siraj-ud-Daulah. For Mamata, Modi and his BJP represent the East India Company, for the PM himself this is a fertile breeding ground and a test laboratory for Hindu nationalism.
In a deliberate strategic move, the BJP has chosen to make Bengal the battleground in 2019 just as it did with Uttar Pradesh in 2014. An assertion of “Hindu asmita” after years of appeasement and minorityism saw an aggregation of the Hindu vote cutting across caste faultlines rally behind Modi in Uttar Pradesh to complete an unprecedented sweep. Lifting itself from bootstrap level, the BJP has emerged as the principal opposition to Mamata in Bengal in over five years.
The discourse has been downright dirty driven by a visceral hatred for one another. Sample this: West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee last month said the BJP’s poll aspirations in West Bengal would fetch them a “rosogolla”. The Trinamool boss made the remarks in the context of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s comments from 2016, where he had said the BJP’s victory in West Bengal would result in “laddoos” in both their hands, at the state and the Centre.
“In 2014, they got two seats. They will get a big ‘rosogolla’ this time,” Banerjee said. Ms Banerjee made the comments at two election rallies in North Bengal’s Dakshin Dinajpur district. The famous sweet is colloquially referred to, whenever a person gets a zero for an examination. Banerjee also took aim at the BJP, using a popular Hindi adage. “Delhi ka laddoo – jo khaya wo pachtaya (whoever has eaten laddoos of Delhi has regretted),” she said.
In the 2011 West Bengal Assembly elections, BJP got only 4 per cent votes, but this ramped up to 17 per cent in the 2014 general election. The saffron party, however, saw a fall in voter percentage in the 2016 state polls when it got only 10.16 per cent and won three seats. Trinamool got a gangbuster 44.91 per cent votes in 2016. Mamata, who has shown her wily side while dealing with a rampant Modi and Amit Shah, is in the fight of her life as an incumbent now.
While Saradha and Narada have eroded Mamata di’s image, a plethora of schemes launched by her have impacted the hoi polloi – monthly doles to Imams, schemes like Kanyashree and Rupashree for girl children, Nijoshree (affordable housing) and so on. Last October, she launched a food security scheme ‘Khadya Sathi’ that benefits around 8.5 crore people as well as a special assistance scheme for those living in Jangalmahal and hill areas, farmers of Singur, tea garden workers and Toto tribe members.
The BJP is hopeful of winning seats in north Bengal, the region bordering Jharkhand, and some seats in North 24 Parganas. The seats include Alipurduar, Cooch Behar, Krishnanagar, Barasat, Basirhaat, Bangaon, Barrackpore, Asansol, Jhargram and Purulia. The party did well in the last two seats during the panchayat elections.
Shah’s team has been on a poaching spree in the past few weeks with a lot of help from Mukul Roy. Some of them have been fielded as candidates. Among them, Khagen Murmu (Malda North), Arjun Singh (Barrackpore) and Soumitra Khan (Bishnupur) are seen as strong candidates.
It is the Muslim factor and the Muslim bashing/Islamophobia prongs which will ultimately decide the election in what has become an acutely polarised Bengal. Bengal has a 30 per cent Muslim electorate and this is what Mamata is tapping into.
Equally, the BJP is using the Citizenship Amendment Bill debate to drive a wedge between the Hindus and Muslims. With 24 seats still up for grabs, the BJP, even though it doesn’t have a leader in Bengal, is using PM Modi’s oratorical skills to make deep inroads.
Trinamool is the default Left of Bengal, the new Left which has managed to usurp power from the real Left. Twenty-four seats are still to go to the polls and these may well decide BJP’s fate, for to offset the losses in the last four phases of the election, the BJP wants to make headway in Bengal and Odisha.
Plassey thus comes back to the centre-stage almost 200 years later.