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BJP’s north India caste formula may not work in Odisha and Bengal, writes Chandan Mitra

The party has reached saturation in most Hindi-speaking states and must focus on the east and south if it is to improve upon its 2014 tally

analysis Updated: Sep 20, 2017 07:42 IST
BJP,Amit Shah,Naveen Patnaik
Odisha chief Minister Naveen Patnaik greets his West Bengal counterpart Mamata Banerjee at his residence in Bhubaneswar. The popularity of powerful regional leaders like Mamata Banerjee and Naveen Patnaik shows no signs of waning dramatically even if fraying at the edges(PTI)

As it forays east in its quest to make India Opposition-free, the BJP faces formidable obstacles in two states – Bengal and Odisha. Of course it has not broken into some southern states either, but the challenge is bigger in the east on account of powerful regional leaders like Mamata Banerjee and Naveen Patnaik, whose popularity shows no signs of waning dramatically even if fraying at the edges.

So while strategising for its planned conquest of the east, the BJP needs to devise an approach very dissimilar to its strategy for the states of north and western India where the party dominates. Since caste is not a decisive electoral factor in the eastern states, the BJP’s caste-based winning formula of North India will not work here.

Ironically in both these states, the BJP has been in alliance with their current ruling parties – Trinamool Congress and Biju Janata Dal. Both parties were members of the NDA in Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s time and occupied positions in his ministry. They continued in the NDA even after Vajpayee became seriously indisposed and LK Advani took on the BJP’s reins. But in the run up to the 2009 general election, both parties unhitched from the NDA bandwagon to go their own way and were remarkably successful pursuing an “ekla chalo” policy.

After winning consecutive state assembly elections, they also withstood the Modi wave of 2014. Although BJP has inched forward during the last few years and its vote share has increased, it is not regarded as a ready substitute for the two parties in their respective states. In the barely 18 months that remain for the 2019 Lok Sabha election (in Odisha, Assembly polls will be held simultaneously), the BJP has its task cut out. But it is not an easy one.

With the Muslim population in Bengal hovering between 27 and 31%, the BJP starts with a huge disadvantage. Aggressive wooing of the Muslim electorate by Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee helped her wean the community away from the CPI(M) after 34 years and they seem firmly positioned with her party. Her excessive appeasement of the minorities may periodically antagonise urban Hindus, but that does not seem enough to galvanise the majority community fully behind the BJP.

However, this situation is similar to what prevailed in Assam till a few years ago, when the 30 per cent-plus Muslims’ support for the Congress ensured its victory in successive elections. But prior to the 2014 general election and thereafter, communal polarisation increased sharply enabling the BJP led by Sarbananda Sonowal to capture power a year ago. But will voters in Bengal polarise to a significant extent?

Despite undergoing the pains of Partition, Bengali society has resisted communal polarisation so far, The Bengali bhadralok or upper class,educated populace was readily swayed by Marxist rhetoric (as the youth was during the 1960s and thereafter) but the Jana Sangh/BJP was unable to occupy their mind space. This despite the Jana Sangh’s founder Syama Prasad Mukherjee and icons of the Hindu Right such as Bankim Chandra, Rishi Aurobindo and Swami Vivekananda being Bengalis.

Thus the battle to gain acceptance in the Bengali mindset, particularly among the bhadralok, is a humungous task for the BJP. Equally formidable is the challenge to dismantle the suburban and rural network that the Trinamool possesses. It is no secret that erstwhile CPM activists, including its musclemen, shifted en masse to Trinamool. Mamata Banerjee has cleverly patronised youth clubs all over the state, which are effectively extensions of her party. Unemployment being phenomenally high in Bengal, the well-funded clubs are a source of livelihood for the youth although ostensibly they spend their time playing football and carrom. The BJP can win them over but before that it must be seen as a serious contender for power.

Arguably, the BJP’s vote share has gone up significantly in recent years and it is being regarded as the principal Opposition but its grassroots strength is still far below that of the Trinamool.

While BJP has grown in a big way in North Bengal and some border districts where polarisation is apparent, it needs to consolidate in the state’s southern districts. It will need to attract more erstwhile CPM supporters who are frustrated that the party has hit a plateau. The failed experiment of the Left alliance with the Congress has left many former Communists thoroughly dispirited and the BJP can systematically win them over.

But that requires a credible leadership and a popular face, acceptable to the bhadralok in particular. That is a need the BJP would have to accomplish in the little time left before the next round of polls.

The “conquest” of Bengal is crucial to the BJP’s ambition to decisively win the 2019 Lok Sabha election. The party has reached saturation in most Hindi-speaking states and must focus on the east and south if it is to improve upon its 2014 tally, particularly as it may confront the law of diminishing returns in states it has ruled for the last 15-odd years.

Chandan Mitra is editor of The Pioneer and has been two-time Rajya Sabha MP from the BJP

The views expressed are personal

First Published: Sep 19, 2017 15:51 IST