Lok Sabha election result demolishes myth of BJP-proof West Bengal, but party's journey from No 2 to No 1 won't be easy
The Trinamool fortress had proved impregnable during the last Lok Sabha elections and its Modi wave. They had withstood the BJP in the 2016 Assembly elections despite the Saradha-Narada scandals
If nothing else, the results in West Bengal had demolished some beloved myths in the state about what makes Bengali politics unique and intrinsically BJP-proof.
This was a wake-up call and a stinging one. But it’s not a bad thing.
The rise of a strong opposition in Bengal might just make Mamata’s Trinamool a better, more responsible party.
If nothing else, the results in West Bengal have demolished some beloved myths in the state about what makes Bengali politics unique and intrinsically BJP-proof.
No Non-Bengalis Please
The BJP might have its roots in Syama Prasad Mukherjee and the Jan Sangh but in Kolkata, SP Mukherjee is just the name of another busy thoroughfare. The prevailing wisdom was BJP was a north Indian cow belt party that had little purchase in a state snooty in its sense of Bengali exceptionalism. Back in 2014, Ranabir Samaddar of the Calcutta Research Group had said "I am not sure Bengal will go for a pan-Hindu identity that BJP offers transcending a Bengali identity." Even in this election, the BJP was ridiculed when its state president Dilip Ghosh, an old RSS-hand mixed up his Vidyasagar with his Rabindranath, or rather their books. Amit Shah called Birbhum Rabindranath Tagore’s pavitra janmabhoomi when Tagore was born in the heart of Kolkata. Despite those bloopers, the BJP managed to entice voters because in the end Tagore and Vidyasagar are about nostalgia for a golden yesterday. The BJP dangled the promise of a golden tomorrow if Bengal only aligned with the winner in Delhi instead of being in constant fractious opposition to it. At the same time, it played up the bogey of Mamata Banerjee pandering to her Muslim votebank and their imams and reactionary elements and Bangladeshis coming across the border. "Do you want Urdu teachers in Bengal or Bengali teachers?" asked Amit Shah at a rally in the state as he promised to make Kangal Bangla Sonar Bangla again.
Follow the leader but who’s the leader?
It’s true the BJP has no mass leader in the state yet. But it turned out, that in a Lok Sabha election, it didn't matter. It became a Mamata Banerjee versus Narendra Modi contest. Swapan Dasgupta put it bluntly at a rally meant to shore up support for Locket Chatterjee, erstwhile actor and BJP candidate. "Every vote for Locket Chatterjee goes directly into Narendra Modi's account," he told the crowd. It worked. Locket Chatterjee dislodged veteran Trinamool MP Ratna De Nag and is headed to Delhi. The mass leader was Narendra Modi. That might not work in 2021. "In Bengal, you need a mass leader to be a game changer. Mamata Banerjee and Jyoti Basu were not built in a day," said Maidul Islam, assistant professor at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences. "You still need a mass leader to be a game changer in Bengal." In 2021, they will need to project a CM-face to counter Didi and it can't be Modi again.
The Communist babus still red at heart
34 years of Communist rule had given the state and the bhadralok Bengali a redder than-thou reputation. But as this election showed the Left vote pretty much seamlessly transferred over to the BJP. While the Left's erosion was clearly benefiting the BJP "no one predicted such a total collapse of the Left vote," said Maidul Islam. Ranabir Samaddar said the Communists had given up hope of winning and were trying to play "moral guardian" in the state wagging their fingers at others. BJP candidates on the campaign trail openly asked for Congress and Left votes, positioning themselves as the only party with the might to challenge Mamata. Mamata Banerjee in her own rallies accused the CPM of doing Congress in the morning, CPM in the afternoon and BJP by night. While the Left has come in for huge criticism for acting as the wind beneath BJP's wings, Mamata cannot escape responsibility either. The buck stops with her. Her relentless and ruthless campaign to uproot the Left from the state helped exacerbate this situation. It was both personal and political for her. This is the party that was responsible for stitches on her head, the party whose leaders disparaged her as a low class woman, a "Kalighater mynah" (a talking bird from the slums of Kalighat) and even in this election mocked her pronunciation skills in a tweet. There was a time when her party leaders warned their workers to not even drink with Communists. Stories were rife about Trinamool cadres, many of them ex-Left cadres, terrorising what remained of the Left in the villages. This election was the Left’s revenge. But to what end remains to be seen. In the state's north, in the erstwhile bastions of the Left and Congress, the slogan was aagey Ram tarpor baam (first comes Ram, then the Left) writes Samyak Ghosh in The Wire. The logic is the old Bengali proverb kaanta diye kaanta tola (use a thorn to pull out the thorn). But kaanta can also mean fishbone. And this fish bone could well get stuck in the throat of the Left.
Dilli Door Ast
Maidul Islam has written that Tamil Nadu and West Bengal with their strong regional roots have traditionally resisted the dominance of national parties. He has pointed out that from the late 1990s, the big national parties have "been trapped in selected pockets of the state." The BJP has been growing but largely on the back of the RSS. Islam points out in 2011, there were 580 shakhas in West Bengal. By December 2016 there were 1,492 many of them working in tribal areas.
However the BJP still was a weak party organizationally in Bengal. I remember meeting Aniket Mitra, a young college lecturer in Krishnagar. He said he once saw a young woman distributing BJP campaign literature in his college which is dominated by Trinamool unions. When he asked her if she felt safe doing it, she said "It's ok. Pechhoney lok aachhey (There are people who have my back)." Whether they did literally or not, Modi and Amit Shah helicoptered into the state again and again to assure the party workers they had their back. They were not just campaigning but also doing confidence building measures in a state where the party was still weak.
The Trinamool fortress
The Trinamool fortress had proved impregnable during the last Lok Sabha elections and its Modi wave. They had withstood the BJP in the 2016 Assembly elections despite the Saradha-Narada scandals. Even now experts point out that Mamata Banerjee has held on to her vote share. The BJP’s rise has been because it has gobbled up the Left votes. As Ranabir Samaddar said "The BJP can become the main opposition but it still has to beat Mamata." And Mamata has said as long as her party is No. 1 she does not care who is No. 2. But there are chinks in her fortress.
In the 2016 Assembly elections the BJP fielded 17 SC/ST candidates from unreserved constituencies, far more than Trinamool or the Left. "The BJP is clearly sending a message of reaching out to significant sections of non-upper caste voters," said Islam. This time five of the 10 seats reserved for Scheduled Castes in West Bengal went to the BJP. One of them is Cooch Behar which has over 20 percent Muslim population. Bengal has a 23.5 percent Dalit population reports The Times of India. This election saw the BJP eat into Mamata’s Dalit vote bank despite all the bounties she had showered. At his election rallies, Shah promised the crowd they would root out the ghuspetiyas (infiltrators from across the border). They promised citizenship to migrant Hindus. Modi, reports The Times of India, drove a wedge by using “religion as a part of Dalit identity.”
All of this does not mean it’s doomsday for Didi. The BJP still has to find a mass leader. It still has to match Trinamool’s strength on the ground. But it has money power and central clout and the CBI in its arsenal. Mamata’s challenge will be to hold her party together in the face of that. In forming Trinamool, Mamata poached many leaders. Politicians once poached can be poached again by a higher bidder. On top of that, many of her lieutenants are unhappy about the rise of the nephew.
But if nothing else, this election proved that her conviction that whoever she nominated, whether a Moon Moon Sen or a Sandhya Roy could win, just because of Didi's charisma does not work anymore. "She will have to be much more discerning about her candidates," said Ranabir Sammadar. "She will have to be a leader and deal with infighting in Trinamool and not just bypass it by nominating some celebrity as an MP."
This was a wake-up call and a stinging one. But it’s not a bad thing. Trinamool is smarting but some of its supporters are not so unhappy. The rise of a strong opposition in Bengal might just make Mamata’s Trinamool a better, more responsible party.
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