Sabang bypoll: Trinamool’s win shows BJP’s yet to gain ground in Bengal
Trinamool Congress leaders point out the party’s popularity graph might have plateaued – the Gujarat polls are an indicator – and there is no reason why would anyone abandon Mamata Banerjee, who is at the pinnacle of her popularity nowanalysis Updated: Dec 26, 2017 22:28 IST
For a woman who single-handedly destroyed the 34-year-old Left government in Bengal, and predicted this destruction, reading political signals should be one of Mamata Banerjee’s core competencies. The Gujarat election results may not be exactly what she would have wanted for Christmas, but Banerjee is quite satisfied with the Bharatiya Janata Party ‘getting out’ in the nervous nineties. She has interpreted the BJP victory as ‘temporary and face-saving’ and said “Gujarat belled the cat for 2019”.
For the BJP in Bengal, 2018 is going to be an extremely crucial year, as the saffron party will lead a desperate thrust to build its organisation in a state where it has always remained a marginal force.
The BJP’s leaders are no longer going to be content with the creeping increase in vote share in Bengal. Party president Amit Shah now wants seats, and the test is only four-five months away when the panchayat polls will be held.
The party machinery is, however, light years away from gaining the muscle that is necessary to wrest seats from the Trinamool Congress that has 211 seats in a house of 294. Despite its vote share rising from 6% in 2009 to 16.8% in 2014 (both Lok Sabha elections), the BJP has only three Assembly and two Lok Sabha seats. In 2019 it wants 22 out of the 44 Lok Sabha seats in the state.
There are about 77,000 booths in Bengal and the BJP plans to set up a 10-member committee to secure each booth on polling day. It also wants to appoint a leader as a nodal person in each of the 294 Assembly constituencies. The progress on each parameter is nowhere close to target. The vistarak yojana, where BJP leaders are supposed to visit households and have meals with the family members – as Amit Shah famously does – has failed to take off in the state.
This is precisely the challenge for Mukul Roy. BJP leaders expect him to poach from the Trinamool pool and build booth-level machinery to establish a network among the electorate and deliver on polling day.
Roy is also expected to reach out to disgruntled Trinamool leaders, MLAs and MPs. But a lot of it will also depend on how the party fares beyond the borders of the state. The BJP has a vast machinery that is ruling at the Centre and 19 states, the Prime Minister has a very strong image and Amit Shah has the reputation of being a master strategist.
Trinamool leaders point out that the party’s popularity graph might have plateaued – the Gujarat polls are an indicator, they claim – and there is no reason why would anyone abandon Banerjee, who is at the pinnacle of her popularity now.
Roy, his former colleagues contend, is a paper tiger, whose mettle has never been tested since he has always functioned in the shadow of Banerjee.
If the Sabang assembly bypoll results are any indication, Roy has a near-impossible job on hand. Though the BJP’s vote share climbed from 2.6% in 2016 to about 18%, his party came a distant third behind the TMC and CPI(M).
Over the past few months, BJP leaders have indicated that the Narada investigation will pick up pace after the Gujarat polls. Some have said action on Narada – read arrests – should be timed in such a way that its effect is maximised before the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. With as many as a dozen prominent faces of the TMC facing charges of accepting cash, the arrests may severely tarnish Banerjee’s image of being ‘clean’ and ‘incorruptible’.
But then, the BJP will also face questions about Roy since he is one of the accused in the Narada scam.
Banerjee herself describes the BJP as embodying a culture that is alien to Bengal. Last week senior BJP leader Shiv Prakash told Bengal BJP leaders in a seminar that unless they can win the support of Bengali intellectuals, they should not nurture illusions of taking a shot at power in the state.
During its 34-year old rule, the Left enjoyed the support of the state’s academia, poets, writers, theatre workers and artists. Before the parivartan in 2011, intellectuals took to the streets urging people to throw out the Left. Their support swung the vote in favour of Mamata Banerjee.
So far, the BJP has drawn a near blank on this count.