Modi vs Didi: Saffron surge in Bengal raises questions on Trinamool's politics and tough choices for BJP
While the saffron surge in West Bengal raises questions about Mamata Banerjee’s style of politics, the BJP, which borrowed from her playbook, also faces tough choices.
The first rumblings in political circles of West Bengal after the Lok Sabha polls hint at the possibility of early assembly elections. After the strong showing by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, where the party improved its tally in the state from two in 2014 to 18, while the All India Trinamool Congress (TMC) tally dropped to 22 from 34, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee may find it hard to complete a full term.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself had spoken about 40 MLAs from TMC being in touch with BJP. Mukul Roy, the former man Friday of Banerjee and now a BJP organisation man, would put the figure at more than 100. The biggest challenge for Banerjee, therefore, is now to keep her flock together, and her track record here is not glorious. Saumitra Khan, Nisith Pramanik and Arjun Singh, all with the TMC till recently, have now been elected to the Lok Sabha on BJP tickets. However, without early elections, defections may be difficult to engineer. Also TMC has a brute majority of 211 in the 294 member house and most MLAs, unless the trade-off is attractive, will choose to continue with TMC as they would not like to forgo the benefits of office that they now enjoy.
But Banerjee also faces another challenge — holding on to her voters. The TMC has been quick to blame the shifting loyalties of the supporters of the once-invincible Left Front for BJP’s ascendance in the state. However, the numbers do not quite add up. The Left Front’s vote share had dropped by around 16% between 2014 and 2019 and during the period, BJP’s vote share rose by around 24%.
Definitely the BJP has consolidated opposition votes from other sections. To set her house in order, Banerjee needs to tackle the extortion regime, often referred to as the syndicate-raj that has flourished under her rule in the state. There’s often intense infighting in the lower rungs of the TMC, often for the spoils. Add to that the disquiet about the growing stature of Banerjee’s nephew Abhishek Banerjee. Today Banerjee appears helpless. The local party overlords who deliver on polls through fair or sometimes foul means are not prepared to accept diktats from above.
Their power was in full display last year when nearly 40% of the TMC candidates in state Panchayat elections were declared elected unopposed. While TMC celebrated its dominance, it may have sown the seeds of the present Lok Sabha debacle. Reports suggested roughly two and a half crore people could not vote or were turned away from polling stations, by muscle-men. Many of these voters were TMC supporters too, and complaints went unheeded.
The bad press about the state’s law and order around the Panchayat Polls brought in heavy deployment of central forces and the electorate too came out to vote with a vengeance. While it celebrates its success in West Bengal the BJP too is not without problems. It now has a clear shot of dominating the East as well as the Northeast, with governments in place in important states like Jharkhand, Bihar, Assam and Tripura, and emerging as the principal opposition in West Bengal and Odisha.
However, BJP’s West Bengal playbook borrows heavily from Banerjee’s — a hand-me-down from the Left Front. If Banerjee successfully polarised the Muslim vote in the state, BJP went ahead and counter-polarised the Hindu, Dalit Hindu (Matuas) and non-Muslim tribal votes. The BJP also seemed determined to meet political violence with strong arm tactics of its own, pulling in manpower from other states if necessary. West Bengal has a history of ruling parties using state machinery to constrict the space for political opposition.
However, today the practice seems to have run its course. The bigger challenge before the BJP is now to build its own narrative in the state. But before that it needs do some housekeeping.
The current president of the state BJP, Dilip Ghosh, has been elected to the Lok Sabha now and will need to move to Delhi. He has already completed a three-year term as the party state president.
Whether he gets another term or someone else is chosen, that person will be the face of the BJP against Banerjee in the assembly polls, whenever they are held. Ghosh has himself spoken about the dearth of talent in the state BJP, and had a trying time nominating candidates to all the 42 Lok Sabha seats in the state. It had to induct potential candidates into the party— many from the TMC—at the last moment.
But pursuing such a policy has its own pitfalls. A prominent defector from TMC, Anupam Hazra, for instance, was a sitting MP of Bolpur, who was rejected by the local BJP and had to contest from Jadavpur instead. And then of course inducting too many people from the TMC makes the BJP, in many ways, look very much like its adversary.
And this two-horse race in West Bengal, and the rough and tumble of the next two years (or less) up to the assembly polls, will likely see real issues like unemployment, farm distress, anarchy on education front and lack of investments take a back seat.