How BJP Changed the Rules to Defeat Mamata Banerjee at Her Own Game

File photo of West Bengal Chief Minister and Trinamool Congress supremo Mamata Banerjee.

File photo of West Bengal Chief Minister and Trinamool Congress supremo Mamata Banerjee.

This is the Trinamool's worst defeat since the 2004 Lok Sabha election when, in spite of polling 21.04% of the votes, the party got a solitary seat.

Aniruddha Ghosal
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There are two aspects to the Bengal election story. First that Mamata Banerjee-led Trinamool Congress’ vote-share has actually increased, although the party has lost 16 seats, while the BJP’s share has increased seven times — from 6.14% to 40.25% in just a decade.

Secondly, this is an almost exact mirror of what happened to the Left Front in Bengal in 2009, as the TMC was rising.

To put the extent of the TMC’s losses in perspective, consider this: since coming to power, Banerjee has not lost an election, her seats have not dipped and no party has been able to hold on to its ground, let alone make inroads in her bastion.

This is the worst defeat that the Trinamool Congress has faced since the 2004 Lok Sabha election (when Banerjee had ironically allied with the BJP) when in spite of getting 21.04% votes, the party got only one seat.

However, what exactly went wrong for Mamata Banerjee? Why was the TMC unable to stem the tide of saffron in its backyard? Was it the unprecedented mobilisation of Hindutva, or was it the failure of her party’s lieutenants. Alternatively, did the BJP just outsmart the TMC, lulling them into a false sense of confidence? The answer lies somewhere in between.

Consolidating the ‘Minority’ Hindu Votebank

Over the past five years, the BJP has put up a straight-forward argument — under the TMC, Hindus of West Bengal have no “self-respect”.

The period has also seen unprecedented communalisation of politics, while the state has been marred by riots (which have increased annually since 2014 – the first time since the turbulent post-Partition years) and the BJP has highlighted the alleged cases of Mamata’s Muslim appeasement.

As a BJP leader explained, "This was rooted in ground realities. Mamata was in a hurry to never lose power after winning… Hence, to cement position, her bid to woo Muslims irked everyone else. That was always our starting point.”

From there till now, Bengal has been polarised like never before and the BJP’s greatest advantage, somewhat counter-intuitively, came from Muslim-dominated seats.

Take for instance, the district of Malda. Dominated electorally by the family of late Congress leader ABA Ghani Khan Choudhury, the district has an estimated 55% Muslim population.

The BJP leader said, "Once it was clear that the Congress and the Left were not going to work together... it was just a question of consolidating the Hindu votes.”

However, it is the extent of this consolidation that has stunned the BJP. Even in 2014, the TMC’s vote-share consisted equally of Hindu and Muslim votes.

BJP's Khagen Murmu won from the Malda North constituency by a 6% margin over former TMC MP Mausam Noor and her cousin and Congress candidate Isha Khan Choudhury.

"The BJP won about 37.6% of the total votes polled in the seat, which, we think, is about 90% of the total Hindu votes polled.”

Taking politics away from the street

Often described as a street fighter, the 2016 Assembly election had underscored the fact that "it was impossible to win in Bengal" if the BJP were to follow the rules of engagement set by Banerjee.

“She outsmarted us again and again and again,” a BJP candidate during that election told this reporter at the time.

The same candidate has now won in an unprecedented election. The MP told News18 that many were dissatisfied with the distribution of tickets since it went against “conventional, political logic”.

The MP explained that ahead of polling, the BJP’s state leadership had hired a private company to conduct extensive data analysis of seats and draw out probability scores for each candidate from each seat.

The leader added, “This was the basis for seat distribution – and we have all won.”

In her last campaign rally in Cooch Behar ahead of the 2016 Assembly election, Banerjee had stunned an audience at Tufanganj by remembering the names of the six party workers who had come to welcome her.

She had last met them during the 2011 Assembly election. A BJP source said, “She has experience on her side and she knows the state like the back of her hand. So we had to arm our candidates with raw data — who the voters were, who were most likely to favour the BJP and how best to approach them.”

Add to all this, the BJP’s sheer and almost unchallenged might on social media in the state. The BJP urged voters to vote ‘silently’, to keep their allegiances to themselves, its campaign over WhatsApp was much larger.

A BJP IT cell leader from Howrah told News18, "We knew that we couldn't match up to the TMC's organisation capacity that would look to cajole or intimidate voters. Instead, we got into their phones... and their homes and their heads. We argued our point when no one else was looking.”

Leaving the Left for dead

The final nail in the TMC’s coffins in the seats it lost was the fact that the Left Front was unable to get over 10% vote share.

The front’s largest party — the CPI(M) — got 6.2%, while the rest – the CPI, AIFB and RSP – were unable to get even 1 percent of the total votes polled in the state.

The Trinamool Congress, since coming to power, had begun attacking the Left. Its cadres joined the TMC, while senior leaders found cases being slapped against them.

The 2016 Assembly election saw the Left and Congress join hands in a bid to foil Banerjee’s reclaim to power – a move that eventually decimated the Left further.

Meanwhile, the Congress (which received around 5% of the votes in 2019) continued to hold on to its relative areas of strength on the basis of regionally strong leaders.

The BJP has won in exactly the same cluster of seats that the Left clung onto in 2009 — in the north like Cooch Behar and in the south and south-west like Purulia.

The panchayat election in the state were marred by violence, with many not being able to vote after nearly a third of the seats went uncontested.

“This was the most concentrated here. The TMC didn’t want the panchayats to be held by opposition parties as it would give them something to work with ahead of the Lok Sabha election. So the voters had their revenge,” said a BJP source.

TMC leaders have also admitted, in private, that the violence during rural poll hurt the party.

The result, traditional Left voters and some party functionaries actively voted for the BJP to “teach the TMC a lesson”.

While confirming the transfer of votes, BJP MP Dilip Ghosh said, “People will vote for change, when they feel so. We respect democracy.”

Using Mamata Banerjee’s playbook against her

Ahead of polling, the BJP reused and revitalised the TMC’s iconic slogan against the CPI(M) — ‘chup chap, phoole chap’ (quietly vote for the flower). This time, it was — silently vote for the lotus.

The party argued that people should (as they did) vote silently, to try and ensure that there is no backlash.

It was this same formula of reusing aspects from Banerjee’s playbook (the BJP strategy was being designed by Mukul Roy, once Banerjee’s closest aide) that was repeated again and again during the election. Take for instance, the use of caste as a political factor.

A BJP leader said, “The use of caste didn’t yield the sort of results we had hoped. But we won the Bongaon seat. That was incredible in itself.”

According to the 2011 Census, the Dalits account for 23.49% of the state’s total population and 12.88% of the country’s.

Banerjee, aided by Roy, crafted a plan to fracture the mobilisation of Dalits by political parties, along the lines of sub-castes, instead of their Dalit identity.

Key to this were the Matua community, members of the Namasudra sub-caste who have a significant sway over six parliamentary seats, with an estimated population of over 3 crore.

Electoral gains followed — first in the 2008 panchayat election, then the 2009 Lok Sabha poll, the 2011 and 2016 Assembly election.

But this also opened the gates for the BJP. Throughout the 2019 campaign, the BJP has made a distinction between the ‘Hindu’ refugee and the ‘Muslim’ infiltrator.

“Infiltrators are gnawing away at our country like termites,” it said.

A TMC leader said, “The BJP promised these mostly Dalit refugees post-Partition rights. But in doing so it also conflated the Dalit identity and the Hindu identity. That helped them… but we were able to counter the NRC narrative to some extent.”

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