Lok Sabha elections 2019: In West Bengal, BJP gains ground but hurdles remain
The party is emerging as the main challenger to TMC but it needs to evolve a more nuanced nationalistic discourse to appeal to Bengali electorate.Updated: May 18, 2019 08:16 IST
“We want to ask the BJP, where is the Ram Mandir you promised? Is it in Australia or America?” Tushar Singh, All India Trinamool Congress (TMC) chairman of the Baduria municipality under the Bashirhat Lok Sabha constituency told HT. The narrative was the same when we spoke to a young student wing worker of the TMC in the Jadavpur Lok Sabha constituency. “If the BJP says they are a Hindu party, why did they not lead a movement for renovation of the community temple and pond?” he said, pointing to the temple behind his small mobile repair shop.
Ward No 7 in Bagbazar locality of Kolkata, which comes under the North Kolkata Lok Sabha seat, is an interesting place. Bapi Ghosh, the current TMC councillor, won the elections as a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) candidate, but eventually defected to the TMC. Some people tell us that he would not have been allowed to work had he not done so.
The erstwhile secretary and president of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)’s youth wing have not just parted ways with the party but also with each other. One is now a local TMC activist, while the other, who is not a Bengali, has walked over to the BJP. The former is slightly worried about the BJP’s growth. It has not helped that the TMC candidate and sitting MP Sudip Bandopadhyay has not been keeping well and is out on bail after having been in a prison in Odisha for six months. The latter’s co-workers say they are scared of TMC’s intimidation. The secretary of the CPI (M)’s local committee is an octogenarian. Two women in their 60s were distributing voter slips for the CPI (M) candidate in the region — a task usually given to young workers.
Anupam Hazra, who was elected as a TMC MP from Birbhum in 2014, is the BJP candidate from the Jadavpur seat. Even BJP workers do not fancy their chances on this seat. The reason is a lunch attended by Hazra at Anubrata Mondal’s house in April. Mondal is a TMC strongman and, according to an NDTV report, told Hazra that he would not been able to win, and if he were to come back, Mandal would make sure Hazra at least went to Rajya Sabha. Jadavpur is one of the few seats in West Bengal where most people expect the CPI (M) to perform better than the BJP. These three anecdotal accounts from a visit to the state before the last phase of polling can help us understand the achievements and challenges of the BJP in a post-2014 West Bengal.
When Mamata Banerjee walked out of the Congress to form the TMC in 1998, she struck an alliance with the BJP. This ended in disaster in the 2004 Lok Sabha elections, when the TMC could win nothing except Banerjee’s own seat. Banerjee drastically shifted gears in the post-2006 phase. The Sachar Committee report was published months after the Left Front’s overwhelming victory in the West Bengal assembly elections in 2006. The report said that the condition of Muslims was among the worst in West Bengal and they had very little representation in government jobs.
Then there was the Rizwanur Rahman suicide case in 2007. Rahman was a young Muslim man from a lower middle-class family who married the daughter of a rich Marwari businessman. The girl’s family separated the two and Rahman committed suicide. The police, under a communist government, was seen as having sided with the girl’s family. These incidents created an impression that the CPI (M) was insensitive towards Muslims. Banerjee used this to the hilt. She did not stop at condemning the CPI (M) for such things. Her state government announced government payments for Islamic clerics. Her posters during this time would often show her in a hijab. Fundamentalist elements such as the current Bashirhat MP Idris Ali, who had led the anti-Taslima Nasreen protests in Kolkata in 2007, were promoted within the party. Between 2008 and 2016, the TMC pretty much consolidated the Muslim vote in the state, especially in the southern parts.
It is this past of the TMC that is being used by the BJP to portray it as a party which practices “Muslim appeasement”. That the TMC is trying very hard to buttress its own Hindu credentials and discredit the BJP’s commitment to the Hindu cause, shows that BJP’s polarisation strategy is having an impact.
The 2019 elections in West Bengal are not just about religious polarisation though. Most people believe that the TMC’s patron-client model of politics – what the Opposition likes to call “Syndicate” – and resorting to intimidation during elections is not very different from what the CPI (M) used to indulge in. It is the magnitude that might have changed today. The similarity in basic politics of the two parties attracted a lot of the erstwhile Left cadre to the TMC’s fold. However, after having spent eight years in the state government, anti-incumbency seems to be catching up with the TMC as well. Our travel in West Bengal made it clear that the 2019 debate is more a referendum on the TMC government and its leader than the performance of the Narendra Mod government.
Why is it that the BJP has been able to do what the Left could not? A big reason is the failure of the Left’s leadership to lead the charge. This is also rooted in the fact that the Left’s current leadership is also identified with the excesses and failures of the previous Left Front governments. They cannot take high moral ground vis-à-vis the ruling party’s excesses.
The BJP, on the other hand, is seen as a growing party across the country, and therefore better placed to challenge the TMC. Even BJP cadres and leaders admit in private conversations that the Hindutva rhetoric notwithstanding, a large part of traction for the BJP is coming from its being a better Opposition to the TMC than the Left, which has all but given up. The CPI (M) alliance with the Congress in 2016, which led to it becoming the number three party, was a key factor in diluting its position as the main challenger to the TMC.
By the 2018 panchayat elections, the BJP had firmly established itself as the number two political force in West Bengal. There is speculation that if the BJP gets a significant number of seats in the state, the TMC might offer an alliance to the CPI (M). Sitaram Yechury, the CPI (M) general secretary did not rule out such a possibility but made it conditional on the TMC changing its “whole attitude” of “virtually butchering democracy” in the state in an interview to Mint.
This is not to say that the Left will completely disappear, at least in terms of vote share, in the state in 2019. Bikas Ranjan Bhattacharya, former mayor of Kolkata and a lawyer, is seen as the main challenger to the TMC in the Jadavpur seat even by the BJP’s workers. Many BJP workers and leaders expect the Left to stay close to the 10% vote share mark, which would not shift to the BJP due to ideological reasons.
Although a pale version of what it used to be, the Left’s organisation is still bigger than that of the BJP in parts of the state. Marxism is not the only factor that has given an edge to the Left vis-à-vis the BJP here. The BJP is still trying to make a significant impact among Bengalis, as it is seen as a north Indian political force. This is why the controversy around alleged desecration of Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar’s statue by BJP workers has put the party on a back foot among Hindu Bengali middle class voters in Kolkata. Then there is the question of Muslims, who even if they do not vote for the TMC, are extremely unlikely to vote for the BJP.
The BJP will most likely do better in terms of seat share in West Bengal than what it achieved in 2014. However, whether or not it consolidates these gains in the future will depend on three key factors.
First is the ability or lack of it of Mamata Banerjee to reinvent her model of politics and ensure that anti-incumbency against her party’s local leadership, who might often be acting on instructions or wishes of the higher leadership, does not neutralise her continuing high personal popularity among the Bengali electorate.
Second, whether or not the CPI (M) is able to articulate an alternative discourse against the TMC which challenges the BJP’s strengthening right-wing politics. And last but not the least, is the BJP’s own challenge of evolving a more nuanced nationalistic discourse to appeal to the Bengali electorate rather than employ the usual Hindutva rhetoric used in the Hindi belt states. BJP leaders also admit that the Modi government returning to power is extremely crucial for the party’s prospects in the state. Whatever the outcome in 2019 is, the churning in West Bengal in unlikely to end with these general elections.