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Lok Sabha elections 2019: Will 2019 be the year of BJP’s rise in Bengal?

The BJP’s inability to find an electoral base in the “nationalist” state of Bengal has been a sore point for the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and its affiliates for decades.

lok sabha elections Updated: May 13, 2019 07:20 IST
Kumar Uttam
Kumar Uttam
New Delhi
lok sabha elections 2019,lok sabha elections,lok sabha
The BJP and RSS affiliates did all they could to position themselves as the main challenger to Banerjee(PTI)

A communist veteran who served in the Left Front government of West Bengal, voted out in 2011 after being in power for 34 years, says the Bharatiya Janata Party has Trinamool Congress leader and chief minister Mamata Banerjee to thank for its entry into the state. He is resentful of the BJP’s big-bang arrival in Bengal and the TMC remaining the largest political force and laments the decline of the Left and the Congress.

All three are interlinked in many ways.

The BJP’s inability to find an electoral base in the “nationalist” state of Bengal has been a sore point for the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and its affiliates for decades. The Sangh Parivar’s groundwork did not reap electoral benefits for the BJP and past alliances, such as with Banerjee, did not deliver a payback.The BJP remained a fringe player in the state until the 2014 parliamentary elections that gave it the first ray of hope in Bengal – two Lok Sabha seats out of 42 and nearly 8.7 million votes. It was the BJP’s best performance ever on its own in Bengal.

Today, it has grown in size, found a voice that’s louder than it ever was before, inducted a new set of local leaders, and is trying to consolidate the Hindu vote with a hardline approach as an answer to Mamata Banerjee’s politics.

The Banerjee regime – much like the Left Front when it ruled Bengal – banks on the support of the state’s 27% Muslim population. The Communists blame her for going too far – unlike the Left Front – to keep her hold over the minority vote, often mixing religion and politics that was alien to Bengal. There were controversies over a government ban on the immersion of idols after Vijayadashami during Durga Puja because it coincided with Muharram. The high court lifted the ban, and Banerjee did not shy away from expressing her displeasure. The daggers were out too when her government attempted a ban on the display of arms in Ram Navami processions. There were many more, and the BJP made the best of the Left Front leaders’ reluctance to take a position on religious matters. Under its current leadership, the BJP is aggressive and unapologetic about its Hindu credentials. The more Banerjee tried to keep her minority vote safe, the wider it left the door for the BJP to enter Bengal.

The BJP and RSS affiliates did all they could to position themselves as the main challenger to Banerjee; questioning her track record in government and policies towards the minorities, and taking on her TMC on the ground. Bengal’s politics eventually became a BJP versus TMC battle.

Banerjee stormed to power in Bengal in 2011 with a promise of “poriborton” (change). Her party today mirrors the Left Front in some ways. The involvement of the party cadre in government matters at the local level is rampant; and what Banerjee faced under Left Front rule, she unleashed on her rivals after coming to power. The chit fund scandal and allegations of political patronage that the suspects in it enjoyed took the sheen off Banerjee’s claim of change. Political violence in the run-up to elections and refusal to grant permission to opposition leaders to campaign exposed her vulnerability.

With its resources and cadre, the BJP managed to milk each of these to rise as a political force in Bengal. The shifting loyalties of TMC leaders added more muscle to the BJP, while the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the Congress struggled to stay afloat in the absence of a narrative and organisational structure.

In some ways, the BJP’s Bengal story mirrors that in Uttar Pradesh, which it won over by building a narrative, forging alliances and playing to the Hindu gallery. The result: BJP and its ally Apna Dal won 73 of the 80 Lok Sabha seats in 2014, and followed that up by storming to power in India’s most populous state in 2017. The TMC remains the largest force in Bengal, but the BJP has arrived as a contender. For the BJP, if Uttar Pradesh was the story of 2014, it is hoping that Bengal will be the story of 2019.

First Published: May 13, 2019 07:20 IST

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