For the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), winning this state is of paramount importance. Though Jana Sangh founder, Dr Syama Prasad Mukherjee, won the South Calcutta seat in the first general elections, of 1952, yet the party vanished from the political map of Bengal after his demise the next year at the age of 51.
The state's close proximity to Bangladesh, a porous border, growing radicalisation, and the prospect of conquering and converting what was once a stronghold of an ideological nemesis is a big motivation for the BJP and a prize catch. No doubt, the central BJP leadership is not leaving anything to chance. Amit Shah himself has taken up the mantle to confront the might of Mamata Banerjee’s formidable Trinamool Congress.
We highlight and dissect the factors, the issues and the poll arithmetic that could be the difference between the BJP getting its first chief minister in the state and the party sitting in the opposition.
Why Left’s vote share will make or break BJP’s fortunes
The incremental decrease in Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Front’s vote share is directly linked with the rise in the BJP’s vote share. While the saffron party's vote share rose in every constituency from 2014 to 2019, that of the Left nosedived. The communists' votes fell from 29.9 per cent to around 7.5 per cent (between 2014 and 2019) – a drop of more than 22 percentage points – while the share of the BJP jumped from 17 per cent to 40.2 per cent – a gain of 23.2 percentage points.
A study by researchers Deepankar Basu and Debarshi Das, published in The Wire, shows that every percentage point loss in the Left’s vote coincided with a 0.89 percentage point gain by the BJP. Though the BJP also benefitted by 0.71 percentage point for every percentage point loss of the TMC, the saffron party only gained in 16 constituencies where Trinamool lost its votes. Mamata Banerjee’s party actually increased its votes in 26 constituencies, particularly in South Bengal and North Bengal. Lokniti’s post-poll survey also shows that around two-fifths of traditional Left votes shifted to the BJP. Reports have also emerged that in many places, the middle and lower-rung cadres of the Left strategically voted for the BJP to oust Trinamool.
Theoretically, if we assume that the Left will hold onto its vote share of 7.5 per cent, then the BJP would need a third party to eat into the TMC’s votes if it has to conquer Bengal, and this is where Asaduddin Owaisi’s All India Majlis-e-Ittehad-ul-Muslimeen (AIMIM) will be the deciding factor.
The ‘O’ factor
Hyderabad-based Asaduddin Owaisi’s announcement of contesting the polls in West Bengal has sent the TMC into a tailspin with the Trinamool indirectly calling the AIMIM a party with an extremist ideology. Though AIMIM has no base in the state, even a small dent into the Muslim votes can be the difference between Mamata getting her third term and the BJP taking the reins of the state for the first time.
Muslims constitute around 30 per cent of the state's voters and they hold sway over 120 assembly seats. The TMC, despite losing 12 seats in the 2019 parliamentary elections compared to 2014, when it won 34, increased its votes by around 4 percentage points, from 39 per cent to 43 per cent. This became possible as the Muslim community voted en masse for Mamata’s party, a fact supported by Lokniti’s post-poll survey, which showed that 70 per cent of Muslims voted for TMC as compared to 40 per cent in 2014.
According to media reports, Owaisi’s party plans to contest on 70 of the total 294 assembly seats. If it manages to do a Bihar – bagging 5-10 per cent votes in seats it plans to contest – it will be the end of the road for the TMC.
Ideologically, while Bengal has been under a veneer of Bhadralok-esque secularism for decades, it does have a history soaked in communal bloodshed. West Bengal and East Bengal (now Bangladesh) saw one of the worst riots in history, marked by the infamous Calcutta Killings or Direct Action Day of 1946. Those killings and the parallel political discourse does have some resemblance with the Razakar-led separatist movement in the erstwhile state of Hyderabad, which wanted to join Pakistan. In those days, MIM, which later became AIMIM, under the leadership of one Qasim Rizvi, formed the militia of Razakars, stormtroopers, who resisted merger with India and wanted to form South Pakistan with Hyderabad as its centre. The riots in Bengal were also a direct fallout of the demand of two dominions based on religion.
With a rising BJP in Bengal promising implementation of the National Register of Citizens and Citizenship Amendment Act, a section of Muslims would surely look at the AIMIM to take on the saffron forces.
‘Amra’ vs ‘Ora’: Bengali sub-nationalism vs outsiders
In its pristine glory, Kolkata and its adjoining areas have always been cosmopolitan with not only people from different parts of the country pouring in but also from Europe, Asia and Africa. Even a few years back, one would have been called out for lacking basic knowledge of the state’s prevalent political culture had he or she suggested that Bengali sub-nationalism will be an issue to garner votes and create an ‘us vs them’ divide. Bengalis took pride in their ‘liberal, broad minded’ culture and looked with disdain when the Shiv Sena took on the Gujaratis and Tamils in Mumbai, which was then called Bombay. It is as if the binary never existed in Bengal's capital, and even if it did, it existed within the periphery of a private space.
But things have dramatically changed since the BJP’s meteoric rise in the state. The more popular the party became, the more it was attacked with the tag of ‘outsider’ – a party alien to Bengal’s tradition of social reformers and intellectuals. The tag of ‘outsider’ has been used to label the BJP and its supporters – a subtle hint at the Biharis and UPites – who have settled in the state and who are perceived to be voting for the saffron outfit.
This is despite the TMC having a number of important Hindi-speaking leaders. Even a year and a half ago, Arjun Singh, a strongman from North 24 Parganas, was close to the party’s highest leadership. Dilip Yadav took over the reins of the party in Hooghly district and the TMC still has a number of non-Bengali MLAs.
And here the saffron party has done little to help itself and actually made some mistakes. The BJP was blamed for vandalising the statue of Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar – the 19th century social reformer, who was instrumental in ensuring the Hindu Widows' Remarriage Act – in the run-up to the 2019 Lok Sabha polls. Recently, union minister of home affairs, Amit Shah, came under a barrage of criticism from TMC leaders for apparently mistakenly garlanding the 'wrong statue' of tribal freedom fighter Birsa Munda. The party’s whole campaign for the state polls is run by central leaders.
The internal fight in the party's state unit, now out in the open, also makes it difficult to project someone who would be the ‘face’ in the run-up to and during the assembly polls.
TMC’s soft underbelly: The bane of corruption and cut money
This is the soft underbelly of the TMC as the party has failed to extricate itself from the image of being controlled by syndicates and extortionists. Though there hasn't been much progress in the Saradha, Narada probe, yet it has remained a blot for Didi. The misappropriation of funds during distribution of post-Cyclone Amphan relief has further dented the party’s image. Even the chief minister was forced to admit some of the charges. But, apart from this occasional big-ticket corruption, what has smeared the image of the TMC is the charge of extortions, and syndicates involving its mid and lower-level members. This has weighed down the party like an albatross, forcing Mamata to issue an ultimatum to those indulging in such activities to leave the party. But despite her and poll strategist Prashant Kishor’s best efforts, it’s hard to counter the charges of corruption.
Here, being in opposition and having greenhorn leaders, the BJP finds itself in an enviable position. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, home minister Shah, BJP chief JP Nadda are viewed as clean and ideologically strong opponents. Even the two central ministers from the state – Babul Supriyo and Debasree Chaudhuri – do not have any such baggage with them.
The great communal divide: Advantage BJP?
It was Mamata Banerjee’s alleged minority appeasement that provided the first push towards the BJP capturing the opposition space in the state. It all started with the TMC government announcing a stipend for the imams in the state, a year after coming to power. During Eid, one had to be blind not to notice the billboards and cut-outs of the chief minister and other senior leaders wearing the skull cap and offering namaaz. The BJP seized upon the opportunity and started attacking the Trinamool for what it referred to as minority appeasement. And as the saffron outfit’s charge of appeasement gained currency, the TMC was forced to do a balancing act. Post the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, as the BJP’s vote share rose by almost 300 per cent, Mamata started doling out public money to Durga Puja committees. Recently, the government has started a stipend for priests, similar to the imam bhata (allowance).
Mamata also made some tactical blunders in this matter. In the run-up to the 2019 elections, short video clips went viral in which the West Bengal chief minister was seen charging at some people – ostensibly BJP supporters – who chanted ‘Jai Sri Ram’ while her convoy was passing through Paschim Midnapore district. Some locals were detained and later let off after being questioned. None other than Prime Minister Narendra Modi had recalled this event and chanted “Jai Sri Ram” at a public rally, daring Banerjee to arrest him. The episode was used against Banerjee and her government to show how the ruling dispensation was stifling Hindus and preventing them from practising their faith openly.
The BJP has found quite a lot of support, particularly in the rural and the semi-urban areas, where a section of the populace has severed its secular ideological moorings in favour of a political Hindutva.
Now, with AIMIM joining the fray, TMC’s tightrope walk might prove to be ineffective.
Why BJP needs grassroots-level leaders from TMC
Despite making unprecedented gains in terms of votes, organisational weaknesses may still prove to be the BJP’s Achilles’ heel. That’s why the saffron outfit is looking to embrace disgruntled TMC leaders, who either hold a considerable clout among masses or are known to be ‘organisation men’ – someone who can build up the party’s organisation at the grassroots level and pose a challenge to the TMC's might.
In India, the shifting of political allegiance by leaders before polls is considered a sign of which way the electorate might go. And if it is indeed a sign of things to come then it can be said that the winds are now favouring the BJP.