Birender Singh came to Kolkata from Bihar’s Darbhanga with his father 17 years ago. While his father returned to their village, Singh stayed back and took a driver’s job at a big transport company. Eventually, his family shifted to Kolkata.
“I feel more Bengali than a Bihari. When I return to my village on vacations, many of my relatives ridicule me, saying I am no longer a Bihari. For me, Durga Puja is more exciting than Chatth,” he says in Bangla.
Manish Gupta runs a successful software company in Rajarhat, a swanky township on the outskirts of Kolkata that chief minister Mamata Banerjee projects as one of her success stories. His roots are in Rajasthan’s Barmer, but he has been there only once in the past 25 years — when his grandfather died. His family, too, speaks fluent Bangla.
Both Singh and Gupta are aware that the spotlight is on them this election season with political parties going all-out to woo those from outside Bengal who have settled down in the state. Such migrants account for about 10% — or a little less than a crore — of the state’s population.
In a recent leaked audio — part of a Clubhouse chat between election strategist Prashant Kishor and a group of journalists — Kishor purportedly said “Hindi-speaking people” were a factor in the ongoing assembly elections and that they were “fully backing” Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). While the BJP later used the audio to claim the Trinamool Congress (TMC) would lose the elections, Kishor challenged the BJP to release the full conversation.
Nevertheless, the perception that the BJP, once considered a Hindi belt party, might benefit from the migrant vote has fast gained ground in Bengal in a fiercely fought electoral battle. On the other hand, a desperate TMC is pulling out all the stops to woo this section. And it is in this context that the so-called Hindi-speaking people have been catapulted to the political centre stage of Bengal, where an interesting game of perception is at play.
While the TMC has termed the BJP a party of “outsiders” and said its leadership knows nothing of Bengal’s culture, it has at the same time cosied up to migrant voters and stressed that they are no less than Bengalis living in the state. The BJP has rejected the TMC’s “outsider” charge and said a “son of the soil” will become the chief minister if the party comes to power. It has also cornered the TMC by asking if Bengalis working outside the state should be considered “outsiders”.
The BJP has tried to expose what appears to be a fault line in Banerjee’s messaging. The TMC’s repeated labelling of PM Modi and Union home minister Amit Shah as “outsiders” and tourists from Gujarat (both are from the western state) has sowed the seeds of doubts among many settlers.
“I thought I was welcome here. I never felt I was a Hindi-speaker or a Marwari. But she (Banerjee) keeps reminding me this, and now I am in a fix. Am I an outsider?” Gupta asks.
Singh echoes similar sentiments, and goes one step ahead to say he will not vote in this election. “I have decided not to vote. I shall go back to Bihar to transfer my vote there. I will continue to work here.”
But not all are like Singh. Hundreds of thousands of migrants are listening to the different sides of this narrative unfolding in Bengal and may have already chosen a side. It is this section that could play a key role in deciding the outcome in the state.
Bengal’s Hindi-speaking voters are concentrated in Kolkata and districts on its borders — Hooghly (an industrial belt) and North 24-Parganas — some places in North Bengal and West Bardhaman (it shares its borders with Jharkhand). Many Gujaratis, for example, are settled in Barrackpore in North 24-Parganas, while Kolkata has a sizeable Marwari population. Over the years, such migrants have made Bengal their home without much difficulties, contributing to the state’s economy and adding different shades to its cultural hues.
These colours appeared united. Until the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. With the BJP showing the first major sign of gaining a foothold in Bengal, a debate began over Hindi-speaking voters versus native Bengali voters. And after 2019, this debate, among other issues, took the political centre stage. The BJP’s spectacular success in Bengal — it won 18 of the state’s 42 Lok Sabha seats two years ago — was largely attributed to tribals, Matuas (Dalit refugees from Bangladesh), Hindi-speaking people and erstwhile Left workers who joined the saffron camp.
As the perception that Hindi-speaking people (who once backed the Left and then Banerjee) would go with the BJP became stronger and stronger, the CM herself took the lead to turn the tables. Last year, she announced a two-day state holiday during Chatth puja, which is hugely popular in Bihar. “Has anyone ever done this? Nobody asked me (to take such a step), but I did it. I also want colleges in regional languages come up in the state,” she said back then.
She also set up a Hindi department for the TMC under the chairmanship of Dinesh Trivedi, who would later join the BJP. Vivek Gupta, a Marwari, was made the president of the department. Gupta has been fielded as the party’s candidate from Jorasanko, which has a substantial number of Hindi-speaking voters. This neighbourhood is North Kolkata is known for the ancestral home of Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore.
Interestingly, Bhabanipur, CM Banerjee’s traditional constituency before she shifted to Nandigram in 2021, has several Hindi- and Punjabi-speaking voters. This is one of the reasons Banerjee keeps making the point that many in her personal staff are from Bihar and that she speaks good Hindi.
The BJP has not been sitting quiet. Both Shah and BJP president JP Nadda have reached out to migrants, telling them they are not “outsiders” and that they have contributed to Bengal’s economy. The party has chosen leaders such as defence minister Rajnath Singh and women and child development minister Smriti Irani for the outreach.
The TMC has, however, clarified that “we don’t consider those who settled down in Bengal” as outsiders, but “we can’t have people who come here just during and for elections and claim they understand Bengal”. But experts say the damage could have already been done.
“The BJP has already consolidated its grip on Hindi-speakers and tribals in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, and that will not change in this election. She (Banerjee) can’t expect Hindi-speakers to vote for her,” political analyst Subir Bhowmick says.
Banerjee held closed-door meetings with groups of Hindi-speaking voters late last year and even after the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, when it was evident that her party has lost the confidence of a large section among them. She vowed that she would make all efforts to make them feel at home. Not all were convinced.
“We don’t even speak fluent Bangla…But the thing about Bengal is that it accepts people from outside warmly. So many nawabs, for example, had settled here, and they only added to our culture. Today, Bengal is richer because of them,” a group of Gujarati traders in Kolkata says in unison, dismayed by the prevailing narrative.