BJP supporters at a rally in Kolkata on April 5. (AP Photo/Bikas Das)(AP)
BJP supporters at a rally in Kolkata on April 5. (AP Photo/Bikas Das)(AP)

West Bengal polls: BJP poll machine fails to deliver in its ‘final frontier’

  • In West Bengal in 2021, it didn’t. And it didn’t because the script collided with another script, offered by the All India Trinamool Congress (TMC) — of a woman chief minister who was rooted to the soil, of Bengali sub-nationalism resisting central encroachment
By Prashant Jha, New Delhi
PUBLISHED ON MAY 03, 2021 08:30 AM IST

In fighting elections, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) adopts a standard political script.

As a challenger to an incumbent government, focus on issues of discontent and constituencies which are dissatisfied; begin building the local organisation, both through party booth committees and the work of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh affiliates; promote Narendra Modi as the only leader committed to the state’s interests, capable of delivering development; tap into underrepresented political constituencies, including the subaltern castes; promise welfare and “ease of living”; and leverage and deepen existing communal fault lines in the state in a bid to polarise and consolidate the Hindu vote.

This script has worked well for the party in a range of elections, including most notably the Uttar Pradesh polls of 2017. But the script works till it doesn’t.

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In West Bengal in 2021, it didn’t. And it didn’t because the script collided with another script, offered by the All India Trinamool Congress (TMC) — of a woman chief minister who was rooted to the soil, of Bengali sub-nationalism resisting central encroachment, of state welfare schemes which have made a tangible impact on the poor, and of substantial minority consolidation coupled with inadequate majority consolidation. The fact that the BJP was not able to make up for the deficit in its local organisational strength, and did not have a credible chief ministerial face, left its election script with two major holes — which the incumbent was only too pleased to leverage.

And that is why the Bengal election results have shown the limits of the national hegemon. It is indeed true that the BJP’s performance improved substantially in a state where it barely had any presence till five years ago. But as party leaders are keen to remind interlocutors, they play to win — and win by all means. This objective was not achieved in either Bengal, or Tamil Nadu, where it was a minor player but in alliance with the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), or Kerala, where despite an improved vote share, it remains a distant third and can only hope to capitalise on the Congress’s weakness in the medium term.

To be sure, the BJP will have a post-results story — a narrative which, rightly, points to the difference between national and state elections; which points to the Congress’s defeat across the board and therefore leaves an even weaker national challenger; and which points out that this was not a referendum on the Prime Minister. But this story, like its election script, is partial. And it is partial because of the significance of the timing of the results.

India is currently confronting the most serious emergency in its independent history. The second wave of Covid has strained the health system, led to an unprecedented number of daily deaths, left patients and families struggling for medical support, and resulted in questions about the Centre’s management of the disease. At a time when the BJP-led Union government is under intense public pressure to beat back the second national wave, these results could not have come at a worse time for the party — even if the link between the Covid surge and results are not clear yet — for there will be enhanced political pressure too.

This political pressure will take two forms. The first is in the possible coming together of different state governments led by BJP’s adversaries, which will challenge the Centre on its Covid management, including, most urgently at the moment, oxygen supplies and vaccine delivery, and in the medium term, on state finances. The second is the emergence of a possible coalition of regional forces to take on the BJP. To be sure, this “third front” idea has old roots and has failed, especially in national elections. But there will be renewed momentum to bring the Opposition under one platform on at least a set of issues, especially in setting the narrative on Covid.

Narendra Modi and Amit Shah’s control of the party organisation is almost absolute. There remains no leader as popular as Modi nationally, even now. The possibility of intraparty questioning of the leadership is negligible to non-existent. There remains close synergy between the party and the Sangh. And the BJP has shown an ability to continue enforcing its agenda nationally, despite state-level setbacks. None of this is likely to change.

But there is a message in these elections — that voters arguably do not repose in the national hegemon the same faith that the BJP has been able to evoke in parliamentary elections . And it is a message that the party may want to heed as it manages Covid and prepares for future political challenges.

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