BJP would do well not to underestimate Mamata Banerjee’s strengths while chalking up Bengal blueprint

West Bengal is witnessing the familiar cycle of violence that accompanies any political change in the state. If one were to go by the nature of bloodshed and the timing of it, an inescapable conclusion might be that Mamata Banerjee’s time is up. That could, however, be a premature conclusion.

The BJP has done exceptionally well in the just-concluded Lok Sabha elections. Getting 18 seats and witnessing Trinamool Congress’ tally crash from 34 in 2014 to 22 in 2019 may have beaten even its own expectations. While that gives the saffron unit a much-needed platform to build upon, it would do well to avoid the temptation for triumphalism.

 BJP would do well not to underestimate Mamata Banerjee’s strengths while chalking up Bengal blueprint

File image of West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee. PTI

The Lok Sabha tally of 18 seats and over 40 percent vote share was made possible despite BJP’s structural lacunas and rickety party organisation. It should not make the mistake of assuming that the Lok Sabha poll is a precursor for an equally impressive performance in 2021 Assembly polls. The reasons for this, despite BJP’s recent success, are many.

The first point worth noting is that the party rode piggyback on Brand Modi on way to recording its best-ever score in Bengal. This point has been discussed ad nauseam, but it still cannot be overlooked. Quite on the lines of US presidential elections, the Lok Sabha polls had become a mandate on Modi and India was asked to choose a prime minister.

Issues took a backseat and personality of the candidates came to the fore. The country decided that the incumbent was by far the best candidate, and his mass appeal and charisma overshadowed the perceived strengths and weaknesses of the candidates. Modi made it possible for the BJP to gain incremental vote share (the party secured 37.4 percent votes in 2019, up from 31 percent five years ago) and all candidates, weak or strong, benefitted from it.

Add to it the fact that Modi put in an extraordinary amount of effort in West Bengal. He visited the state 17 times during campaigning. In terms of rallies, that’s next only to Uttar Pradesh — a testimony to the fact that Bengal was high among his priority list and his hard work paid dividends.

That is not to say that the prime minister won’t put in such an effort during state Assembly polls but when the election is seen as an exercise to choose the chief minister, the lack of a popular local face who may rival Mamata Banerjee in a mass appeal may cost the BJP dear. Voters have repeatedly shown that they are discerning in exercising their franchise. The BJP suffered reverses in three Hindi heartland states in December 2018. Just a few months later, it completed a near-total sweep of Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh.

The second point worth noting, therefore, is that Lok Sabha performance is no guarantee for success in state elections where the dynamics are different. Expect quotidian issues to come to the fore and BJP to suffer from the fact that it has no chief ministerial face to speak of. This may not have been an issue for the BJP in Uttar Pradesh, for instance, in 2017 but in Mamata, Bengal has a chief minister who retains her cultish popularity. Unless BJP finds a leader, who may stand up to Mamata and pull her/his weight, it is difficult to imagine Mamata getting unseated in her backyard.

The third point that could become a factor and upset BJP’s calculation in 2021 is if Mamata succeeds in creating an impression that the BJP is trying to gain power in Bengal through Article 356 backdoor. The chief minister is already trying to ratchet up such a sentiment through her vituperative comments and conspiracy theories against the Centre. She has had two opportunities to do so.

The first was an advisory by the Union home ministry that took a grim view of the violence in Basirhat (a subdivision of North 24 Parganas district) where at least three people were killed (two BJP workers and one TMC activist) and many are allegedly “missing”. The Ministry of Home Affairs advisory noted that “The unabated violence over the past weeks appears to be a failure on the part of the law enforcement machinery of the state to maintain the rule of law and inspire confidence among people.”

In reply, Mamata promptly took a confrontationist stand by first denying point blank that law and order machinery has broken down in the state, and then declaring (through a party statement) that “the so-called advisory from MHA to the West Bengal government on the law enforcement machinery in the State is nothing but a political conspiracy.” One of the ministers in her cabinet said: “This is interference by the Centre in matters of the state. Law and order is a state subject. This is direct interference.”

The second opportunity that Mamata received to float her narrative of “Centre attempting to topple the state via President’s Rule” is the meeting that West Bengal governor Keshari Nath Tripathi had with home minister Amit Shah and Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the post-poll violence and spate of deaths in the state. The governor had a case.

Even though Mamata and the captive local media in Bengal have been trying hard in claiming that the scale of violence in the state is nowhere near as alarming as is being projected, the truth is that more than a dozen people have been killed and many more are “missing” since the Lok Sabha results came out. (See here, here, here and here).

In his meeting, Tripathi apparently apprised the prime minister and the home minister of the “situation in West Bengal” but did not file any report. He also clarified that no discussion has taken place to impose President’s Rule in the state.

While the governor was merely discharging his constitutional duty, Mamata touted this as a plot to “defame Bengal” and topple her. While unveiling a bust on Tuesday of Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar (that was recently vandalised), the Bengal chief minister said: “I respect the Governor but every post has its constitutional limit. Bengal is being defamed. If you want to save Bengal and its culture come together. There is a conspiracy to forget the rich legacy of Bengal. A plan is being hatched to turn Bengal into Gujarat. Bengal is not Gujarat.”

It is not hard to see what Mamata is trying. On the one hand she is propagating a narrative that a “desperate BJP” is trying to “topple her” through the backdoor because it can’t tackle her politically, and on the other she is trying to whip up a parochial sentiment of “Bengaliness under threat from gutkha-chewing North Indians” who understand little about the culture and ethos of Bengal. This campaign, bordering on soft-separatism, had been used by Mamata during the Lok Sabha polls too where she hoped to counter communal polarisation through a nativist narrative.

She apparently feels that this ploy has a better chance of succeeding in Assembly polls. It is possible that in floating such a narrative and embarking on such a campaign, Mamata is trying to appeal to the “Bengali sentiment” to counter BJP’s rise. It will be interesting to see if this works.

The BJP is apparently in the process of preparing a blueprint for the state Assembly polls. That is not surprising. Under Shah, the party pulls in one direction. Shah’s stamp is evident in the way BJP has established a seamless, two-way communicative mechanism between the party and the voter, in the way BJP has taken campaigning to the next level through available technological tools and in the way the party has become a relentless election-winning machine that is never flattened by losses and never satisfied in victories. Shah, however, will need to do more than triggering an exodus of TMC leaders to fortify BJP and gain over 250 seats. The real work will lie in strengthening the ramshackle grassroot structure and find a local leader with mass appeal. Till then, the game isn’t over yet.

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Updated Date: Jun 12, 2019 12:30:29 IST