On TMC turf, local issues threaten BJP's prospects in West Bengal civic polls; party’s ‘goli maaro’ sentiment will hurt it politically

Whether a poor showing in the municipal elections will augur a comfortable return to power for the Trinamool Congress is a matter of speculation.

Suhit K Sen March 02, 2020 15:25:02 IST
On TMC turf, local issues threaten BJP's prospects in West Bengal civic polls; party’s ‘goli maaro’ sentiment will hurt it politically
  • Whether a poor showing in the municipal elections will augur a comfortable return to power for the Trinamool Congress is a matter of speculation.

  • The Assembly elections are more than a year away, but the municipal elections will be held in under two months.

  • Even though BJP emerged as the single largest party in Haryana and Maharashtra, its performance was a significant comedown compared both to its Lok Sabha results and its own expectations.

Union home minister Amit Shah virtually kicked off the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP’s) campaign for the 2021 Assembly elections in West Bengal on Sunday with the resounding declaration that his party would capture the state with a two-thirds majority.

It wasn’t Shah’s prognosis at his central Kolkata rally that caught the ear, however. What almost drowned it out was the recrudescence of a slogan previously heard at several places in the National Capital over the past month or so: ‘Desh ki gaddaron ko, goli maro salon ko.’ There are two theories about who shouted this slogan. The obvious one is that members of the BJP on their way to the rally venue raised the slogan. The other, offered by Subhash Sarkar, party MP from Bankura, is that it was raised by Congress and Left members who had infiltrated the BJP ranks.

On TMC turf local issues threaten BJPs prospects in West Bengal civic polls partys goli maaro sentiment will hurt it politically

Union Home Minister Amit Shah during a rally at Shaheed Minar Ground in Kolkata, Sunday, 1 March, 2020. State BJP President Dilip Ghosh, BJP national general secretary Kailash Vijayvargiya, National Secretary Rahul Sinha and others are also seen. PTI

On the face of it, the latter sounds a bit stretched. If that had, indeed, been the case, one would have expected that BJP members would have apprehended the agents provocateurs and either ejected them or handed them over to the police. But these are matters the police must investigate. Idle speculation would not take us very far.

The Telegraph published pictures of two men, both obviously part of a procession, who, the paper claims had shouted these slogans. It also claims that a source within the party has confirmed that members of the south suburban unit raised the slogan. Sayantan Basu, the BJP state secretary, has been quoted in The Times of India, Kolkata, as having defended this particular instance of sloganeering, saying, "They have been instigated over propaganda and fake news over the past few weeks. That has sparked anger among them and they are now identifying anti-national forces." Figure that out.

The publication of the photographs affords an opportunity. It should not be too difficult for a half-decent police force to run these two people down to the ground and ascertain their affiliation. If they are found to be BJP members, Sarkar’s contention falls partially at least. If they are not, the infiltration theory holds, again partially at least.

At any rate, if BJP members, or leaders, raise such slogans it is more likely to hurt the party, rather than help it win next year’s elections. The kind of polarisation that can be created in north India will likely not materialise in Bengal, where the atmosphere is not as charged. This is not to suggest that people in north India are more susceptible to communal thinking, but to point to a different kind of political dynamic in the state. In any case, Shah has himself said that intemperate slogans contributed to the BJP’s debacle in Delhi.

The BJP leadership at the Centre and in the state can indemnify the party from any damage from such obnoxious slogans, and clear the air, simply by unequivocally and unambiguously distancing itself from such slogans. One easy way of doing that is taking action against people raising objectionable slogans, regardless of what the Supreme Court rules on the matter.

The vulnerability of the BJP will become apparent when the elections to 110 municipal bodies, including the Kolkata Municipal Corporation (KMC), will be held. As of now, a mid-April date has been proposed, though Opposition parties, including the BJP, want them to be held somewhat later to allow for robust campaigning.

It would make sense to examine the current situation without trying to offer a prognosis with regard to both the municipal and Assembly elections. The BJP performed sensationally in last year’s Lok Sabha elections, upping their tally of seats from two in 2014 to 18 and their vote share from around 17 percent to a shade over 40 percent in 2019. In between, it polled around 10 percent in the 2016 Assembly elections. In 2011, it got 4 percent of the vote in the Assembly. The BJP’s performance shows a rising graph in both Assembly and Lok Sabha elections, but its numbers have been significantly lower in state elections compared to parliamentary elections.

This should cause the BJP some disquiet, especially if one looks at its recent showing in Assembly elections. Since its thumping victory in last year’s Lok Sabha elections, the party seemed to have assumed that it would wipe the floor with the Opposition in subsequent state elections. It hasn’t. Even though it emerged as the single largest party in Haryana and Maharashtra, its performance was a significant comedown compared both to its Lok Sabha results and its own expectations. In Jharkhand and Delhi, it came a cropper, woefully.

The Assembly elections are more than a year away, but the municipal elections will be held in under two months. Significantly, media reports said that Shah had held several meetings with a raft of state leaders, until almost midnight, to strategise for the Assembly elections. The municipal polls seemed not to have figured.

What does that signify? That the BJP is not particularly hopeful about pulling anything off in April? The question then would be: Why are the municipal elections being almost side-stepped. Is it because the party figures that the more local the issues the greater is its disadvantage? The next question would be: Would it not be demoralising for the party to begin its preparations for the Assembly elections on the back of an under-par municipal showing?

There does seem to be some disquiet over the municipal elections. The pointers are ambiguous, but taken together seem to acquire a critical mass. Sample these. Early last month, it was reported that though the BJP wanted to field some ‘heavyweights’ for the KMC elections, many of them made it clear that they didn’t want to contest. Among the reasons cited was that given the movement against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019, they weren’t sure of their ground. They felt that a poor showing could jeopardise their chances of getting a ticket for the Assembly polls.

There is also the curious case of Sovan Chatterjee, former Trinamool Congress leader and Kolkata mayor from 2010 till the end of 2018, who at that time left the party to join the BJP. It was reported then that he would lead the BJP charge in the KMC elections. Chatterjee seems, however, to be in limbo. It has been reported that he is not comfortable in the party and may rejoin the Trinamool Congress. Whatever the case, he seems to be flying under the radar and his name does not seem to be cropping up very often in connection with the elections.

Finally, we have to note that the BJP has suffered serious reverses on the municipal front. In North 24 Parganas, for instance, the party had captured several municipalities in the wake of Trinamool defector Arjun Singh’s victory in the Barrackpore constituency, with Trinamool councillors defecting. But soon after, in the latter half of 2019, these councillors returned to their parent party and Trinamool recaptured these municipalities. Among the string of reversions were Bongaon, Bhatpara, Halishahar, Kanchrapara and Naihati. Bhatpara, Halishahar, Kanchrapara were part of the home turf of arch-defector Mukul Roy.

Added to these reversions, was the BJP’s Assembly by-election losses in Kharagpur and Kaliaganj last November after huge swings away from it using the Lok Sabha elections as a base. The loss of the Kharagpur seat would be especially alarming for the party, given that it was held by state party president Dilip Ghosh before he got elected to the Lok Sabha from the Medinipur constituency.

Given this situation, there is a pretty big question mark hanging over the BJP in the immediate term. Whether a poor showing in the municipal elections will augur a comfortable return to power for the Trinamool Congress is a matter of speculation. But it certainly would not help the party’s cause even if, as apparently planned, Shah visits Bengal once every month from April to October and subsequently spends a week every month till the 2021 elections.

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