Trinamool Congress chief and West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee. (Samir Jana/HT file) Exclusive
Trinamool Congress chief and West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee. (Samir Jana/HT file)

The inside story of why the BJP lost Bengal

The official party line is that it is focused, at the moment, in protecting workers from a vindictive TMC’s violent attacks post elections, to do any in-depth review of the results
By Sunetra Choudhury
UPDATED ON MAY 17, 2021 01:57 PM IST

It’s been a fortnight since the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) fell short of its expected performance in West Bengal, winning 77 seats in the 292 assembly instead of the 200 plus seats the party had anticipated. This gave a clear and bigger victory to Mamata Banerjee and Trinamool Congress than in 2016.

While the party’s official post mortem is yet to begin, senior leaders and candidates now have a better understanding of what they suggest are five factors that led to the BJP’s defeat — the lack of a chief ministerial candidate; induction of too many turncoats leading to resentment within the ranks; rising fuel prices; consolidation of Muslim votes for the Trinamool Congress (TMC) even as a corresponding Hindu consolidation did not take place for the BJP; and the salience of the “outsider tag” and an overdose of Hindi.

“I would put it down to a few factors,” said star campaigner and BJP member of parliament from Delhi, Manoj Tiwari, who spent several days campaigning across the region, “But the main thing is that we haven’t won the real Bengali hearts yet. We are on our way but not there yet.”

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The official party line is that it is focused, at the moment, in protecting workers from a vindictive TMC’s violent attacks post elections, to do any in-depth review of the results.

But HT spoke to two candidates who lost the elections, three members of Parliament (MPs), a party worker from North Bengal who has traditionally been with the party, and a senior leader of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) to understand what went wrong and lessons the BJP has drawn from these elections. They all spoke on condition that their identities wouldn’t be revealed and with the hope that their organisation would learn from their mistakes.

Mamata’s welfare vs Centre’s rising fuel prices

On record, the BJP blames TMC’s aggression and intimidatory tactics as having deterred voters in many parts of the state from exercising their true political choice. However, what the Bengal BJP cadres point out is that while the Mamata Banerjee government bent over backwards with smooth delivery of welfare schemes, the rising fuel prices, especially LPG, dealt a major blow to the BJP’s appeal among its middle class voters.

The price of an LPG cylinder had risen to 845 in the state while it was less than 600 a few months earlier. The TMC really drove that home during the campaign, for instance protesting by cooking in wood-fired ovens. BJP leaders say that this is one factor that really turned women voters against the party as managing LPG usage is seen as the homemaker’s responsibility, and rising prices sent her budget haywire.

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“On one hand, you have Mamata Banerjee putting the homemaker’s photo in her family’s health card as part of the Swasthya Saathi programme, which gives an insurance cover of 5 lakh. It gives the woman a sense of pride and she feels empowered. Her interface with the Centre comes from LPG prices, which voters feel the Centre controls. So the contrast becomes too stark,” said one of the leaders.

They point out that the headlines about small savings schemes’ interest rates being cut on March 31 just added to the damage in the middle of election season, even though the Centre quickly clarified and rolled back the decision. However, at a time when Banerjee was handing out full meals at just 5 and bringing her government to people’s doorstep (with the very popular Duare Sarkar scheme), the BJP turned out to be at the receiving end of the April fool’s joke.

The ‘outsider’ tag and role of G-22

In the run-up to the Bengal elections, Amit Shah created an elite group informally called the G-22 for Bengal (incidentally, three members were added to it later and it became 25 members but the G-22 name stuck).

This was basically a group of Union ministers or state ministers from across the country and some handpicked members of Parliament or legislators, who were each assigned four or five assembly constituencies. Some of the members of the group included Gajendra Shekhawat, Prahlad Patel, Dharmendra Pradhan, Arvind Bhadoria, Nishikant Dubey, and Vishwas Sarang to give special focus to 120 seats, which the party assessed as challenging fights. Each of these members then spent a considerable amount of time in those seats and micromanaged the campaign with the help of their selected aides, that they had brought in from their own areas.

But this detailed planning had unintentional consequences. For one, the top leadership and decision makers listened to the feedback of their own aides, instead of listening to the feedback of their ground level workers. “It is possible that many of these people didn’t get the correct picture or that they surrounded themselves with sycophants which wasn’t useful in the long run,’’ said a party worker in the North Bengal.

The number of outsiders, which the TMC derisively called Bohiragoto, can be estimated by the fact that there was one chartered plane and three helicopters which brought in the visiting campaigners every morning from Kolkata to Bagdogra and then took them back every night, the BJP worker said.

Another candidate from South Bengal said that he had a state legislator from Madhya Pradesh campaigning for him, but even he wasn’t sure who the campaigner was and so his voters weren’t really impressed. “People would come to see Narendra Modi or maybe even Amit Shah or JP Nadda but why would they come to see people who no one knew in Bengal?” he said.

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The second problem with flooding BJP national stars in Bengal was a basic language problem. Whether they came from Delhi or from Uttar Pradesh, the star campaigners and most G-22 members spoke only Hindi. Some, such as party general secretary in charge of Bengal, Kailash Vijaywargiya, had managed an understanding of Bengali but none of the outsiders could speak in Bengali. And yet, this didn’t stop them from giving speeches in Hindi.

One candidate told HT how other than himself, all other persons on stage were Hindi-speakers, and this didn’t help establish the necessary connect with Bengal’s voters. An MP speaking to HT joked that even the person doing the warm-up act before him was speaking in Hindi. “I knew I had to speak in Hindi but I told them that at least you should have got some local to introduce me in Bengali,” he said.

In retrospect, the BJP now believes that the G-22 should have strictly played a behind the scenes role, strategising and advising the workers instead of putting themselves forward. That would have then rendered TMC’s campaign of “Banglar nijer mei ke chaye (Bengal wants its own daughter)” rather hollow. Instead, it became on point.

The proliferation of turncoat candidates

In the run-up to the election, the BJP was able to persuade many TMC leaders to join their ranks. Out of the 34 TMC and Communist Party of India (Marxist) leaders who joined the party in the last three months and were given BJP tickets, only five won. A BJP worker added that if the number of actors or other personalities who were given tickets was added to this list, it amounted to 149 out of 292 tickets going to those without roots in the party.

Insiders say that neither the grassroot worker nor voters were convinced by the new entrants to the party. “There were many actors who were given tickets but they couldn’t even give you the full form of BJP,” said one of the persons quoted above. “Suvendu Adhikari (former TMC minister) was able to draw in people from his party but they weren’t necessarily the right fit for us.”

Whether it was his choice or that of state president Dilip Ghosh, the distribution of tickets seems to have been far from ideal. For instance, in places where a party worker had been stabbed or attacked by TMC men, the newly inducted TMC person was given the ticket instead of going with the party loyalist. This wasn’t encouraging to those that had slowly played a role in enabling the rise of the BJP.

Take, for instance, the manner in which TMC leaders Rajiv Banerjee and Baishali Dalmia were inducted in January this year, as a narrative that TMC leaders were abandoning a sinking ship gained ground. The BJP, in order to cash in on it, flew Banerjee and Dalmia in a chartered plane to meet Shah in Delhi. As one Bengal worker said, this flashy jet-setting life left neither the cadres nor the modest Bengali impressed.

Incidentally, many point out that BJP vice-president Mukul Roy, who joined in 2017, was missing in action this time around, limiting himself to his constituency Krishnanagar while Adhikari became the star of this election. They say that Roy had managed BJP’s extraordinary performance in 2019 Lok Sabha elections where the party got 18 of the 42 seats, which really jolted Mamata Banerjee and forced her to hire strategists like Prashant Kishor. However, none of the persons HT spoke to were aware of why Roy was low profile this time. Roy didn’t respond to HT’s queries while an aide said that he was in isolation.

The leadership question

With Mukul Roy tucked away in Krishnanagar, the only local face that the BJP had was president of the state unit Dilip Ghosh. His party colleagues admit that Ghosh isn’t the most tactful.

His ‘Mamata should wear bermudas’ comment wasn’t something you’d expect a bhadralok to say or support, and embarrassed his colleagues. However, it was his word that the party gave weight to, when it distributed tickets. With Adhikari and Roy both being relatively new imports, the BJP also had little clarity on who would be the state’s CM, leading to competing and colliding ambitions.

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But this dithering seems to have cost the party. Party insiders point out that Modi, Shah and Nadda’s high-visible campaign confused the voter and made them accept TMC’s argument that there was no one in the BJP who could counter Mamata Banerjee. “In the end, the middle class did wonder who could be an alternative to Mamata and we didn’t give them an answer to that,” said one of the MPs that HT spoke to.

As the BJP now admits, the same tactics worked for the 2019 general elections, but for the assembly elections, they should have sent out a clearer signal. In the absence of that, Mamata Banerjee’s narrative of being a lone woman taking on the might of the Centre, managed to make an impression. A senior RSS functionary said that it had perhaps been an error to think that Narendra Modi’s flurry of public meetings would convert many into BJP voters. “I don’t think things work like that, growth has to be more organic.” Another Sangh functionary said that the BJP had wrongly anticipated a Modi wave in the state. He suggested that it would have been far more beneficial for the party if each person in Bengal knew their bandwidth.

“We will study all the factors in some time,” said state secretary, Rahul Sinha, “Let us first deal with the attacks on our workers.”

For the party, the silver lining

However, the outlook is positive for many in the larger BJP and Sangh camp. The senior functionary in the RSS, quoted above, who played a key role in the campaign, told HT, “Political and social support don’t always have to go hand in hand. Take for instance, Kerala, where we have a solid support base but haven’t reached that level politically yet. In Bengal, we are getting there.”

Others point out that reports of a loss were highly exaggerated. “From 3 to 77 is not a loss but a huge jump, where Left and the Congress could not even get a single seat,’’ said former TMC and now BJP leader Dinesh Trivedi.

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