How Narendra Modi won West Bengal: Collapse of Left Front vote, Mamata's tactical errors, PM's brand delivered victory
The BJP has organisational deficiencies in the state, lacks a local leader who may take on Mamata in mass appeal and still remains alien to the urban Bengali middle-class
The total collapse of Left Front votes seem to have transferred en masse to the BJP
The BJP has been able to make massive inroads also due to the prime minister’s personal appeal
In the end the identity of the MP didn’t matter as long as he was contesting on a lotus symbol
BJP’s astounding performance in West Bengal has taken even its most optimistic backers by surprise. Latest available data shows the saffron unit has either won or is ahead in 18 of 42 seats, hot on the heels of the ruling Trinamool Congress which has 22 seats. In 2014, the BJP had only two seats in its kitty. Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee had been able to thwart the Narendra Modi wave at the doorstep of Bengal. What happened since? How did BJP make such huge inroads in the eastern state which was once a Left Front citadel before it became a Mamata fortress?
There are three broad reasons behind this saffron surge. One, the collapse of the Left Front vote leading to complete consolidation of Opposition vote share in favour of the BJP. Two, Mamata's tactical mistakes. Three, the appeal of Brand Modi. Let’s expand on these points.
It is hard to believe that the TMC has actually increased its vote share when its seat count slipped from 34 in 2014 to 22. And yet data shows that it secured 39 percent votes during Modi’s first tenure as prime minister and that number has been revised upwards to 43.3 percent in 2019. If that’s the case, how did the BJP increase its tally from two seats in 2014 to 18 seats five years later?
The answer lies in the manner and spread of rise in BJP’s vote share. During the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, the saffron unit secured 18 percent votes. This time, it has managed to increase its share by an astounding 22 percent to bag 40.1 percent votes. Where did the BJP get this from? The answer lies in the total collapse of Left Front votes, which seem to have transferred en masse to the BJP. This is one of the most fascinating features of this Lok Sabha election.
In 2014, the CPM-led Left Front still managed to hold on to 30 percent of the popular votes. Five years later, its share eroded to 7.5 percent. This is exactly the quantum of rise recorded in BJP’s vote share, indicating that the entire Left vote swung dramatically to the right. It would seem that even at the peak of its prowess, the Left Front that ruled over Bengal for an unabated 34 years never possessed an ideologically committed vote bank. This should be a note of caution for the BJP even in its hour of triumph because the share that swelled its ranks and made possible its meteoric rise in Bengal is essentially a swing share that may not be ideologically aligned to the BJP.
This is interesting because the BJP had always considered Bengal as an ideological project: a last frontier which remained out of reach due to the state’s affinity towards communism. Birthplace of Syama Prasad Mukherjee, the founder of Jan Sangh which later became BJP, Bengal was both a prestige battle and a tactical necessity.
The caving in of the Left and rise of BJP has been simultaneous since 2014, but never as dramatic as now. For the TMC, Kolkata and South 24 Parganas remain loyal even as it feels surrounded by the drumbeats of Jai Shri Ram elsewhere. The BJP bagged north Bengal, winning all six seats, and made major inroads into North 24 Parganas, agrarian and tribal belts. The Matuas, the Dalit community that consists of settlers from Bangladesh, was once considered a TMC vote bank.
The BJP has breached that as well, and nothing reflects that better than the contest in Bangaon constituency where Matua voters account for around 65 percent vote share. BJP’s Shantanu Thakur (who belongs to the Matua community) defeated TMC heavyweight Mamata Thakur who was quoted as saying in News18 that “the entire Left vote went to the BJP and that led to my defeat. Shantanu defeated me by nearly 96,000 votes.”
The second reason behind BJP’s geographical and ideological rise lies in the mistakes committed by Bengal’s mercurial chief minister. Mamata, after securing the state from Left Front in 2011, went aggressively after the CPM’s organisational structure to “finish” all resistance. In the badlands of Bengal where political violence is hardly reported except when it is attached to national issues, soon TMC managed to sanctify the state of Opposition. Power brokers and strongmen who were earlier sustained by the Left shifted en masse to the TMC. Everything went on as it always did in Bengal except the change in the colour of the flag from red to green.
While Mamata may have thought this to be the only way to consolidate power, she created a vacuum in the Opposition ranks that the BJP, which had better resources compared to the Left, filled in. The CPM cadres and support base that had been living in fear of TMC, dramatically came under the BJP umbrella for protection and sustenance. This was no political or ideological victory, but an existential need. The BJP has been ably assisted by the former Left cadres in a state where it lacked in robust grassroot structure.
Mamata also committed another error. To corner the Muslim votes that had been loyal to the Left Front during its 34-year rule, Mamata turned on the ‘appeasement’ tap and used the state administrative machinery as a tool to achieve her objectives. Infiltrators from Bangladesh were readily allowed perks of Indian citizenship in this border state and the politics of communal division took shape. Mamata did not understand that she was creating a fertile ground for the lotus to bloom.
The BJP exploited Mamata’s ‘minority appeasement’ image to engineer a reverse polarisation of Hindus that easily found expression in a state where the scars of Partition are still raw. Mamata’s ham-handed manoeuvres to change the timing of Durga Puja immersion schedules and controversy of Saraswati Puja or changing of school text books to include Urdu nomenclature reinforced further this polarisation. When she eventually understood her mistake and tried to mitigate it by launching a ‘Hindu appeasement’ policy, the ground had already shifted beneath her feet.
The third point, of course, is the appeal of Brand Modi that remains undiminished despite five years of rule. The mandate that Modi has secured for his second term — bigger than the first — wouldn’t have been possible had it not been a pro-incumbency vote that smashes most axiomatic assumptions about Indian politics.
Little wonder that Bengal would also indulge in romance with Modi. The BJP has organisational deficiencies in the state, lacks a local leader who may take on Mamata in mass appeal and still remains alien to the urban Bengali middle-class that has bought into Mamata’s parochial campaign. But leaving the pocket of Kolkata and its suburbs aside, the BJP has been able to make massive inroads also due to the prime minister’s personal appeal.
Modi held 15 rallies in the state — a huge figure — and all his rallies witnessed vociferous support and attendance that seemed largely organic because a) the state BJP remains a underdeveloped unit incapable of tiding over some structural lacunas and b) the crowds came despite dogged and petty obstructionism displayed by the state administration.
In the end the identity of the MP didn’t matter as long as he was contesting on a lotus symbol. Modi had turned the mode of election into presidential with some able assistance from Mamata whose foul-mouthed tirades against the prime minister only served to consolidate support behind him.
Mamata faces a tough challenge from BJP now in the run-up the Assembly polls. BJP will charge deeper and with more intensity and there could be even more violence.
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