In Bengal, the BJP’s now-or-never moment
As Narendra Modi addressed the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s mega rally at the Brigade Parade Ground in Kolkata on Sunday afternoon, a Bengali TV channel was showing, on a split screen, chief minister (CM) Mamata Banerjee’s meeting in Siliguri. When Modi raised the pitch on allegations of “cut money and syndicates” under the Trinamool Congress (TMC) rule, the channel switched its audio to Banerjee. At that moment, she was coming down heavily on the Modi government for its proposals of privatisation and corruption in central schemes.
Exactly a week ago, there was another large rally at the same Brigade Maidan. It was the coming together of three strange political bedfellows — the Left Front, Congress and the newly-formed Indian Secular Front (ISF) helmed by a Muslim cleric, Abbas Siddiqui. Their message was similar. Leaders of the new alliance spoke out against the misrule of TMC in the state and the anti-people policies of the BJP at the Centre, adding, for good measure, the BJP’s deficit on secular credentials.
Thus, at the level of rhetoric, West Bengal seems poised for a triangular contest. But, the actual state of play at the ground level is not so evenly balanced. That apart, Bengal has not seen such a high-stakes election in recent memory.
In 2014, the Modi tsunami that swept the country spared Bengal. Though the BJP won only two out of 42 seats, there was a surge in its vote share to over 16% in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections (from a paltry 4.1% in the 2011 assembly elections). But, along the way, it lost steam and its vote share slipped to 10.1% in the 2016 assembly polls.
Banerjee continued on her warpath. At some point during Modi’s first term, she appears to have begun nurturing national ambitions, envisaging the possibility of a third front wresting power from the BJP. While the 2019 results flummoxed pollsters and politicians, the results of Bengal were more astounding. The BJP’s vote share went up to 41%, and it won 18 seats, close to half the parliamentary strength of the state. The TMC drew solace from the fact that its own vote share also improved by three-odd per cent (from 40% to 43%). It rationalised that the gains of the BJP came from the decimation of the Left and the Congress.
It was true the bulk of the anti-TMC votes that earlier went to the Left and the Congress shifted en masse to BJP. But, less apparent was the shift of the non-Muslim subaltern classes, Scheduled Castes and Tribes, especially from south-west Bengal, towards the BJP. Two factors contributed to this change. The first was the incredible amount of groundwork done by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).
The second was the obvious disenchantment with the TMC in those belts. This was partly a fall-out of the TMC’s excessive focus on the border districts of South Bengal, which have a large minority population. In a flash, “Unish (2019)-e-half; Ekushe (2021)-e-Saaf” — half in 2019, wiped out in 2021 — sounded like a real possibility.
The TMC went on the defensive. Under Banerjee, the party operated as a federation of regional satraps. But, over time, new power centres developed. Following the setback of 2019, the younger cohort gained importance and the former stars were marginalised. This suited Amit Shah’s policy of “what you don’t have, you acquire”. The party general secretary in charge of Bengal, Kailash Vijayvargiya, went on an acquisition spree. The prize jewel came in the form of Suvendu Adhikari. Other leaders such as Rajib Banerjee were force multipliers. Their entry has strengthened the BJP’s presence in East Midnapore and Howrah. But interior South Bengal still remains a challenge for BJP due to its demographic composition.
The districts of 24 Parganas (north and south), and the areas adjoining Bangladesh going all the way to Malda and South Dinajpur, remain under the TMC’s grip.
These are also geographies where the new secular front (of Left-Congress-ISF) is hoping to score at the cost of Trinamool. But mired in internal contradictions, it is unlikely to make any significant dent. The TMC’s physical hold in these parts is strong, given its solid base among the dominant community. Phased elections may ensure a more disciplined ballot. But whether it can tilt the scales in favour of the BJP is not certain.
In Bengal, Banerjee is a phenomenon. She dons a teflon coating that might be even a shade stronger than what Modi enjoys in other parts of India. So, she needs neither the epithet of “Banglar Meye” nor the prop of “Bohiragoto” (outsiders). But faced with desertions, she has been forced to field many outsiders, a decision that may come back to bite her compounded by a weakened cadre base depleted by defections.
With successive state governments at perpetual loggerheads with Delhi for over 50 years, there is a widespread feeling that Bengal has missed the development train. Therefore, Bengal’s voters may like to give the BJP’s promise of a “Double Engine Ka Sarkar” a chance, turning this into a wave election. Like Banerjee’s call of “Ebar or Never” in the 2000s, the BJP is fighting this election based on a now-or-never spirit. For the Left and Congress, however, the writing on the wall appears to be never-ever.
Sandip Ghose is a political observer and commentator on current affairs.The views expressed are personal