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BJP's West Bengal ambitions may be marred by lack of popular local face, fissures in state unit

In 2011, one simple word — poribartan (change) — uprooted the 34-year-old Left rule in West Bengal as firebrand Trinamool Congress leader Mamata Banerjee came to power. The BJP believes that in the eight years that she has been in power, there is enough disillusionment and even anger on the ground against Mamata to usher in another wave of poribartan. The party’s assumptions would have got a boost at the way a vociferous and sizeable crowd greeted Prime Minister Narendra Modi during his twin rallies in the state on Wednesday.

 BJPs West Bengal ambitions may be marred by lack of popular local face, fissures in state unit

Prime Minister Narendra Modi during the election rally in Kolkata. Twitter/@BJP4India

It could be a misnomer though. Crowd enthusiasm is certainly one measure of voter interest, but it is not the only measure and it is not a reliable indicator of a party’s prospects at the electoral hustings. This is truer even more in West Bengal where BJP’s organisational strength and grassroots structure do not match its expectations.

This might sound surprising when it comes to the world’s largest political party known for its famed election management machinery: a network of grassroot volunteers, booth-level mobilisation through ‘panna-pramukh’ mechanism where one individual oversees a few booths in his area and visits the voters’ residences, ensures a direct two-way communication with people and encourages them to vote for the party.

These ‘panna-pramkuhs’, that are thought to be BJP president Amit Shah’s innovation, handle a page each of the electoral rolls and report to the booth in-charge to ensure seamless networking from the ground to the highest echelons of the party. Combined with the organisational strength and networking ability of RSS members through their numerous shakhas, the BJP’s political footprint undergoes a rapid spread. Discipline, rigor, innovative communication strategies and attention to detail that mark the election machinery keep the BJP ahead of its rivals.

As Dhirendra K Jha wrote in Scroll, BJP’s panna-pramukh strategy that is now being copied by its rivals which has given the party “immense reach among voters in the state the kind hitherto unknown in the electoral history of modern India. It also gave the saffron party an opportunity to directly involve a large number of RSS cadres for electoral purposes.”

Given the fact that the RSS has spread its wings rapidly in the state — it doubled its number of shakhas in 2015 over the previous three years and its membership strength in Bengal is the highest in the country — it is tempting to assume that BJP’s ascension in the state is just a matter of time.

This hypothesis —  shared by some political analysts — got renewed play Wednesday chiefly due to the optics of an electrifying crowd greeting the prime minister’s rallies in Siliguri and Kolkata where Modi laid into Mamata and her mahagathbandhan dreams. Apart from giving the crowd an account of the work that he has done, Modi focused on national security — BJP’s pet theme in these elections — and sought to portray the TMC chief as one of those leaders whose political compulsions have forced her to stand against national interest and security.

“Our forces give a strong reply to forces of terror but the pain in Didi’s mind was as much as the pain among the perpetrators of terror,” said Modi, adding: “TMC's lackadaisical attitude towards national security has angered the people of West Bengal.”

To the extent that Modi enthused the cadres and electrified the crowd who made apparent their enthusiasm for getting a glimpse of the prime minister and hearing him speak, the BJP should feel comfortable about the trajectory of its rise in the state. The turnout was unprecedented and the passion palpable. This was certainly not the case even in 2014 that is recognised as a wave election. The response prompted Modi to post a number of tweets.

It is no less significant that the state BJP unit apparently didn’t get more than 10 days’ time to prepare for the rallies. In a hostile turf where the administration is ready to lay every roadblock possible to dent the BJP’s plan, the attendance was well noted and should be read as a signifier for the future of politics in Bengal.

However, should we read more into the crowds in terms of whether the attendance and enthusiasm for Modi may translate into more seats this time than the three that BJP bagged even at the height of ‘Modi wave’ in 2014? The BJP may certainly expect an uptick in its fortunes in terms of increased vote share and greater number of seats compared to last Lok Sabha polls, but it would be folly to expect the BJP's local unit to compete with the formidable machinery of the TMC.

Chief among the many reasons that keeps BJP’s fortunes stunted in the state is the fact that it boasts of no local mass leader who can rouse the crowd and give shape to the prevalent undercurrent of disillusionment and anger against the chief minister. The greatest of undercurrents and disenchantments will remain untapped and won’t translate into a popular discontent unless it is weaponised into a mandate against the incumbent, and the BJP simply doesn’t have a leader suitable for the job.

BJP state president Dilip Ghosh is no public speaker, TMC import Mukul Roy is a backroom warhorse and its Lok Sabha MP Babul Supriyo lacks the charisma and skill of a Mamata. The Bengal chief minister could end the Left Front’s 34-year-rule precisely because she could give shape to the discontent. The TMC supremo is no greenhorn and understands the game well. She has run a parochial campaign and sought to paint the BJP as a party of ‘North Indians’ and ‘Hindi-speaking outsiders’ who can “never understand the ethos of Bengal.” She doubled down on this language gap by creating a “Bengali” vs “anti-Bengali” contest and has organised a number of socio-political programs centered around the theme of TMC’s compatibility of ‘Bangaliana’ (Bengaliness) and BJP’s lack of it.

Along with this political challenge, the BJP faces a number of internal challenges. Its organisation in Bengal is nascent and weak and given to frequent infighting. In different areas such as Cooch Behar, Malda, Basirhat, Bongaon — BJP is experiencing disgruntlement and rebellion over candidates’ list.

What is worse, the party appears unable to field 42 candidates for the seats in Bengal. Its first list of 29 has many greenhorns and disgruntled rebels from other parties and a popular graffiti and social media meme describes BJP’s predicament through a cartoon where a cow is being persuaded to become a candidate.

Beneath the barb, lies a stark reality. In Darjeeling, meanwhile, where the BJP won in 2009 and 2014, it may find the tables to have turned because former Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) chief Bimal Gurung, who was instrumental behind BJP’s wins, is now on the run and his replacement Binay Tamang is Mamata’s man. These realities collide with BJP’s ambition of garnering 23 seats in Bengal.

Your guide to the latest election news, analysis, commentary, live updates and schedule for Lok Sabha Elections 2019 on firstpost.com/elections. Follow us on Twitter and Instagram or like our Facebook page for updates from all 543 constituencies for the upcoming general elections.

Updated Date: Apr 04, 2019 18:14:48 IST

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