The centrality of the West Bengal election
On the surface, it’ll be a fight between Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress (TMC) and Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). At its heart, however, this is a struggle for supremacy between two conflicting visions of India: Hindutva versus secularismUpdated: Aug 15, 2020 19:31 IST
I am not surprised by the increasing coverage of Bihar politics these days. After all, if the elections are on time, the state will be voting in about two months. What does, however, perplex me is the silence on West Bengal. Elections there may be nine months away, but they’ll certainly be both a cliffhanger and seminal. In fact, to use a woke phrase, they’re bound to be a game-changer.
On the surface, it’ll be a fight between Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress (TMC) and Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). At its heart, however, this is a struggle for supremacy between two conflicting visions of India: Hindutva versus secularism. Bengal is the ground on which perhaps the most serious battle between these conflicting political forces is likely to happen.
The BJP goes into this fight with considerable advantages. It has unparalleled access to financial resources. The TMC simply cannot compete. So, if it’s a virtual campaign, Mamata is likely to be at a significant disadvantage. Second, the Centre has the power to dismiss Mamata’s government if it wants and, in addition, a governor who would have no hesitation recommending such a course of action. Mamata has frequently riled both and will, no doubt, continue to do so. That could be provocation enough. Third, the BJP can command its nationwide leadership to campaign and canvass. In a tight contest that is not to be sniffed at. Mamata only has what she’s got in Bengal. I’m not sure how much help regional political leaders could be. They don’t count in Bengal and they might not want to offend the BJP either.
Mamata and the TMC also have to contend with Congress and the Communists. No doubt, they are shrunken forces but whatever support they retain in Bengal is likely to be at Mamata’s cost. They may be political flies compared to the BJP’s roaring tiger, but any time she spends swatting them away will detract from her focus on her main opponent.
Now, consider what a BJP victory in Bengal would amount to. It won’t be just another state for Narendra Modi. Bengal’s demography and politics suggest it will be much more than that. First, it’s a state with 27% Muslims. Only Assam has more. If Modi can win both, the Hindutva juggernaut will seem unstoppable.
Then there’s the politics of Bengal. This is a state which for nearly 35 years was under unbroken and unchallenged Communist rule. Since 2011, it’s been controlled by the toughest opponent Modi has had to face. No one has challenged him more than Mamata. Their rivalry is not just political, it’s personal. Therefore, a BJP victory would herald a seismic shift.
The fall of Calcutta-Kolkata — if it happens — could be compared to the conquest of Carthage and Constantinople or, if you prefer, the Communist takeover of China in 1949. Nothing will be the same again. If Modi and the BJP can win Bengal, they will seem unshakeable and their spread irresistible whilst the Opposition would be crushed and humiliated.
So, for the first time after 1911, Kolkata will be the cynosure of all eyes. The fight for Writer’s Building could seal the political future of the country.
This is why we need to be better informed about the “Battle for Bharat” that looms ahead. The next nine months aren’t going to be easy for Mamata. Under emotional pressure she can make mistakes. Even when she was riding high, she wasn’t free of faults.
Now, as she readies herself to face the formidable forces Modi can muster, the only powerful weapon in her armoury is possibly Prashant Kishor. He’s a political magician. Of that, I have no doubt. But can he pull it off yet again? He did it for Narendra Modi in 2014, Nitish Kumar in 2015, Amarinder Singh in 2017, Jaganmohan Reddy in 2019 and Arvind Kejriwal in 2020. They added feathers to his already crowded cap. Uttar Pradesh in 2017 was the solitary exception. Will Bengal be the second one?