Lines drawn for Didi of all battles in West Bengal

There was both an intended and unintended consequence of Mamata Banerjee’s curious dharna against the CBI’s attempt to question the Kolkata Police Commissioner in connection with the Saradha scam.

Swapan Dasgupta February 08, 2019 17:11:43 IST

There was both an intended and unintended consequence of Mamata Banerjee’s curious dharna against the CBI’s attempt to question the Kolkata Police Commissioner in connection with the Saradha scam.

What the West Bengal Chief Minister had hoped for, and successfully managed, was to be at the centre of a national storm that would bolster her credentials as an unrelenting opponent of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Regardless of the fact that the dharna fizzled out after the Supreme Court’s not-too-favourable order, Banerjee did strengthen her gains from the 24-party rally in Kolkata on January 19.

The unintended effect of the chief minister overplaying her hand and even equating her dharna with the freedom struggle was the acknowledgment that the BJP was now her foremost rival in West Bengal. When BJP president Amit Shah proclaimed six months ago that the BJP was targeting 22 of the 42 Lok Sabha seats in the state, it was greeted with scepticism. Today, after Modi’s two very successful rallies in Thakurnagar and Durgapur—no one will dismiss Shah’s assertion as an empty boast. The BJP’s challenge to the Trinamool Congress is real.

Lines drawn for Didi of all battles in West Bengal

West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee at the dharna. PTI

For the BJP, the strategic importance of West Bengal should not be underestimated. There is, of course, the emotional appeal of re-establishing the party in the province of Jana Sangh founder Shyama Prasad Mookerjee. However, more important is the necessity of the BJP bringing in a big haul of Lok Sabha seats from the four states of Assam, Tripura, Odisha and West Bengal to compensate for likely losses in northern and central India.

Yet, despite the determination and efficiency of the electoral machine that the BJP has built, winning West Bengal is certain to be exceptionally difficult.

To begin with, Banerjee has built a political organisation that replicates the old Communist penetration of every locality and every institution in the state. Just as the Left allowed no space for alternatives, the Trinamool Congress has pursued a policy of absolute hegemony. Additionally, the political culture of West Bengal has remained faithful to the violent norms that have been in existence since the mid-1960s.

Some 50 BJP activists have been killed in political violence since last summer’s violent Panchayat polls in which some 30 per cent of the seats were won by the TMC without a contest. Any effective BJP campaign for the 2019 general election will be disproportionately dependant on a strong-willed Election Commission.

Politically, the BJP’s organisational penetration is still weak and patchy. Its ability to ensure a cadre presence in all the booths is in doubt. The party’s central leadership, however, believes that ground-level deficiencies will be ironed out if the BJP is perceived as the real alternative to the TMC. In that event, it believes, the spontaneous resentment of people against the TMC’s high-handedness will manifest itself.

At present, the odds favour Banerjee. The TMC has begun its election campaign with the reassurance that the state’s Muslims population will be firm in its opposition to the BJP. On its part, the BJP is equally optimistic that Banerjee’s perceived pro-Muslim tilt will trigger a Hindu backlash.

To offset this possibility, the chief minister is setting the stage for a campaign that will project the BJP as a party of Hindi-speaking outsiders. That may help the TMC in the short run but it could ruin Mamata’s national prospects in the event of a hung Lok Sabha.

In short, all indications are that West Bengal will see the fiercest battles of the 2019 election: a mahayudh involving Narendra Modi and Mamata Banerjee.

(Swapan Dasgupta is a Rajya Sabha MP and a resident commentator for CNN-News18)

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