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View: Bypoll results show BJP can’t bank on Modi-Shah magic to win West Bengal

The BJP may be well entrenched in large parts of the country but — as an effective mass party — it is relatively new in Bengal. Prior to 2014 it had operated as a fringe outfit, basking in the reflected glory of the national party.

Dec 01, 2019, 10.30 AM IST
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The mismatch between how states vote in a national election and assembly polls has been apparent for some time. In the course of the past two years, states such as Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh have expressed divergent preferences in assembly and Lok Sabha elections. To that extent, the resounding win of the Trinamool Congress in last week’s three by-elections of West Bengal need not be viewed as exceptional.

This is more so since by-elections often produce odd outcomes that don’t get repeated in a larger exercise. The SP-BSP mahagathbandhan, for example, registered successes in the Lok Sabha bypolls in 2018 which prompted the opposition to believe that Narendra Modi’s rule at the Centre was coming to an inglorious end. The General Election corrected that impression.

Historical precedent does not, however, detract from the credit due to Mamata Banerjee for reversing the voting patterns of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections in which the TMC suffered significant losses. In an over-politicised state such as West Bengal, the results of every election — whether for Parliament, assembly or local bodies — tend to get minutely dissected. After May 2019, there was a widespread perception that the TMC state government was fast running out of steam and that an ascendant BJP was waiting in the wings to assume charge. In overturning the BJP’s massive leads in two of the three by-polls, Mamata has successfully sent out a clear message that she has enough political reserves to mount a successful fightback.

Although the state assembly elections are not due till May 2021, she has overturned the belief that she is beleaguered. In the past six months, West Bengal had experienced a relatively subdued chief minister. After her clean sweep in the by-elections, the return of the flamboyantly aggressive Mamata can be expected. Unfortunately, in a state where political violence has become the norm, this often translates into bloody encounters. Reports from the districts suggest that recriminations have already begun as a triumphalist TMC targets dispirited BJP activists.

The dissection of the results has inevitably focused on Mamata’s success in creating alarm over the possible fallout of the nationwide National Register of Citizens promised by the Modi government. This involved a deft sleight of hand. Whereas the BJP promised an NRC after the passage of the Citizenship Amendment Bill in the ongoing session of Parliament, TMC propaganda focused on the Supreme Court-monitored NRC in Assam. It was suggested that the NRC would not only discriminate against Muslims but would end up making Hindu refugees, including communities of Gorkhas and Rajbanshis, stateless. In short, the flawed NRC in Assam was equated with a proposed NRC that would automatically include all Hindu refugees from Bangladesh.

The extent to which this quiet but highly effective campaign created concern among those Hindus who had supported the BJP in the General Election is difficult to quantify. Anecdotal evidence suggests it played a role in swinging voters to Mamata who was loud in proclaiming she would not allow any NRC in the state under any circumstances. By contrast, the BJP was lax in mounting any counteroffensive and publicising the proposed CAB. Indeed, by constantly harping on a future NRC, local BJP leaders fell headlong into Mamata’s trap.

The BJP may be well entrenched in large parts of the country but — as an effective mass party — it is relatively new in Bengal. Prior to 2014 it had operated as a fringe outfit, basking in the reflected glory of the national party. Its orientation was that of a cosy club and a hospitality outfit for visiting national leaders. Although this is no longer true, the party is beset with conflict between those who see it as a small, cohesive but essentially non-political outfit and those who have imbibed the individualism associated with the TMC. This tussle has not been resolved and the absence of a local leadership has meant that undue importance is attached to interventions by the central leadership. Ironically, this in turn has bolstered the stereotype of the BJP lacking Bengali cultural moorings.

None of these are insurmountable problems but they clearly indicate the importance of blending the national approach with the regional. In the Lok Sabha elections, the TMC attempted a clumsy national approach that included projecting Mamata as the next PM. It didn’t work. If the BJP repeats that mistake in obverse and banks on Modi and Amit Shah to prevail in an assembly election, it will be handing the advantage to a Mamata who combines determination and ruthlessness with coarse localism.

Bengal can be a laboratory for creative politics that goes beyond money and muscle power. That, however, involves trying to break the mould.

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