Home Minister Amit Shah’s rally in central Kolkata yesterday (1 March) effectively blows the poll bugle for the West Bengal assembly election campaign, directly challenging Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress (TMC).
Among other things, Shah promised that the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) will be implemented in the state despite the TMC’s opposition. He reiterated the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP’s) promise to deliver justice to persecuted religious minorities from three Islamic states in the neighbourhood who have sought refuge in India. He also claimed that the BJP would get a two-thirds majority in the assembly elections.
The next Chief Minister would be a son of the soil, and not a dynast – the last being a snide reference to Banerjee’s nephew Abhishek, who is playing a larger role in the party now than before. The justice theme of Shah marches under the banner “Aar noi anyay” (No more injustice).
As a challenger rather than the incumbent, the BJP in West Bengal has an advantage, for it has no track record to defend and can choose offence as its strategy. However, it would be foolhardy to pretend that a popular leader like Mamata Banerjee can be dislodged purely on the basis of anti-incumbency and discontent against her rule. Even though most Hindus resent her Muslim appeasement politics, their vote will split, and with minority votes largely consolidating in her favour (as we saw in Delhi), it is Banerjee who has the edge.
In Delhi, people voted for the man they knew would be chief minister rather than the party with no potential chief minister to offer. The BJP gained vote share but lost badly still. In West Bengal too, the BJP will pay dearly if it repeats the mistake.
It is, of course, possible to point to states like Uttar Pradesh, where the BJP won a landslide in 2017 despite having no chief ministerial candidate, but we should not compare apples to oranges. The BJP could win Uttar Pradesh despite not having a CM face because that state identifies closely with national politics. The Prime Minister is a member of Parliament from Varanasi with a demonstrated interest in helping the state develop. The voters knew that the PM would do something for them even if his choice for chief minister was a nobody.
This is far from being the truth in West Bengal, which has a strong tradition of cocking a snook at the Centre, and does not want a Modi-Shah yesman or a non-entity to be foisted on them after the elections, assuming the BJP actually gets a majority.
If Amit Shah wants to win West Bengal, he has to take two big risks, avoid one potential mistake, and adopt a slogan that caters to Bengali pride.
First, he has to choose the best possible face among existing BJP leaders for the chief ministership, and give him (or her) a year’s time to become the face of the party. Even if the man chosen happens to be the gaffe-prone Dilip Ghosh, he should be backed to the hilt by the central leadership. To ensure that the chosen leader does not continue making gaffes by making outlandish statements (see here and here), he can be given a political mentor or coach who can help him avoid putting his foot in the mouth.
The problem for the BJP in virgin territories like West Bengal is that it does not have an established leadership grounded in local realities, or the administrative and political experience to develop one. This is why any CM face needs a minder or mentor, who can be aided by a small policy team that can develop policies tailored to the state’s needs. It might be worth creating a major shadow cabinet which can tear apart Mamata Banerjee’s economic and political policies over the next one year.
Announcing a leader upfront can be a risk if he keeps making a fool of himself (or herself, if is the case, but right now none of the women leaders of the BJP don’t look like measuring up to the task), but if you want to win the state, this risk is worth taking. It may make all the difference winning in 40-50 seats in the assembly or getting 150+ and forming a credible government.
The second risk to avoid is giving Mukul Roy – a TMC import – a larger role in the party even at the cost of losing him. Roy is not exactly the kind of leader to inspire the BJP’s cadre and new support base of Hindus in West Bengal. At best, he can be a useful go-between with people outside the Hindu vote base, including some Muslims. But the BJP is not going to win by pretending to have a neutral agenda that it does not really believe in. The outreach to Muslims can happen after it wins the assembly elections. Roy’s ambitions need to be managed and kept under watch so that there is no internal sabotage of the chosen chief ministerial candidate.
The mistake to absolutely avoid is to parachute a leader at the last minute (even if it is the widely popular Sourav Ganguly) – as done in the 2015 Delhi elections with Kiran Bedi – and unsettle the party hierarchy.
Lastly, the BJP slogan “Aar noi anyay” is a good one, but it has a tendency to bring its Hindi belt DNA with repeated chants of Jai Shri Ram. The average Bengali understands that in this election Jai Shri Ram is a protest slogan to counter the TMC’s appeasement politics, but if the party has to win hearts and minds it must adopt Ma Durga and Ma Kali as its mascots in addition to Shri Ram.
In the next election, Mamata Banerjee will do everything in her power to paint the BJP as an outsider and alien to West Bengal, and it is in the BJP’s interest to counter this by adopting emotive Bengali themes and local icons as its own.
The Indian freedom struggle had Bengali spearheads; the next clarion call for Indian renewal can also come from Bengal, and for that the BJP must allow the Bengali to come into her own, with pride, with self-confidence. What Bengal does not need is a Hindi-fication of its politics. Hindi can, however, work with the large labour class from Bihar and Jharkhand that considers Bengal its second home.
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