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Lok Sabha elections 2019: North Bengal, West UP could boost BJP’s national prospects

The BJP never got a foothold in Bengal, and even at the peak of its performance in 2014, it could win just two Lok Sabha seats, even though it got a respectable 17% of the vote share.

lok-sabha-elections Updated: Apr 22, 2019 11:37 IST
Kumar Uttam
Kumar Uttam
New Delhi
North Bengal and parts of west Uttar Pradesh are emerging as the bellwether regions for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the ongoing parliamentary elections.
North Bengal and parts of west Uttar Pradesh are emerging as the bellwether regions for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the ongoing parliamentary elections.(AFP)
         

North Bengal and parts of west Uttar Pradesh are emerging as the bellwether regions for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the ongoing parliamentary elections. There are some compelling reasons for this.

The BJP never got a foothold in Bengal, and even at the peak of its performance in 2014, it could win just two Lok Sabha seats, even though it got a respectable 17% of the vote share. One of these was won with support from a regional party, the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GMM).

Bengal is seen as one of the new green pastures for India’s ruling party and, several BJP leaders claim, whatever losses they take in north, central and western India — where it swept a majority of the seats five years ago — will be offset by gains in the eastern state.

 

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The BJP never got a foothold in Bengal, and even at the peak of its performance in 2014, it could win just two Lok Sabha seats, even though it got a respectable 17% of the vote share. One of these was won with support from a regional party, the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GMM).

The state remains under the dominant control of Trinamool Congress leader Mamata Banerjee and the BJP is largely dismissed as a party of India’s Hindi speaking population. If the BJP has to do well in Bengal, it must perform extremely well in the northern part of the state, where it has its largest support base.

Meanwhile, by virtue being India’s most populous state that accounts for 80 Lok Sabha seats, Uttar Pradesh is the most crucial because of its sheer size and because of the scale of the BJP’s triumph in the state in 2014 and in the 2017 assembly elections.

In simple terms, the party’s performance in Uttar Pradesh is the single largest factor that will determine its performance in these elections and whether it can win a majority in the Lok Sabha for the second time in a row. An alliance between the Samajwadi Party (SP), Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and the Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD) challenges the BJP in Uttar Pradesh this time. This pact is the most lethal in western UP, where the population of Muslim, Jats and Jatavs -- the mainstay of the grand alliance -- account for more than 50% of population in most of the parliamentary seats. Yadavs, the other major demographic group backing the alliance are present in a small belt in west UP, and largely in central and east UP.

So, how are western UP and north Bengal voting?

Travels across the two regions over the last fortnight shows there is a strong “Modi vote” in this election, as it was in 2014. It appears that the Prime Minister has managed to beat his personal anti-incumbency, and those who voted for him remain loyal to him. In both places, Modi’s name continues to evoke hope among BJP supporters. His position on nationalism has several backers, and Modi has managed to convince his supporters there are “achche din” (good days) ahead, if they have not arrived as yet. The lack of jobs, the initial hiccups in the implementation of the Goods and Services Tax are talking points, but not necessarily determining the voting pattern.

In north Bengal, the groundswell of support for Modi is visible, and the inability of the Congress and the Left parties to offer an alternative narrative to the Trinamool Congress adds more power to the BJP’s march. It is a repeat of sorts of some north-eastern states, particularly Tripura, where the BJP grew in size and usurped the space of many other regional parties.

The “Modi vote” faces its real test in western Uttar Pradesh belt, which the BJP swept in the previous elections. The coming together of the rival parties and the apparent transfer of votes between them will create trouble for the party. But while a DalitMuslim-Yadav-Jat consolidation should mathematically end the BJP’s dream run in India’s most populous state, the Modi factor may help the party survive the onslaught.

The BJP continues to hold sway over the upper castes and lower backward communities of Uttar Pradesh, and even among Jats and non-Jatav Dalits in most parts of western Uttar Pradesh. The rallying of these votes behind the BJP could well spring a surprise in the region on May 23.

If the BJP indeed makes substantial gains in Bengal and minimises its losses in UP, it would mean that Modi has managed to change the old caste-dominated equations of Indian electoral politics.