Make No Mistake, The Battle For Bengal Has Only Begun 

Make No Mistake, The Battle For Bengal Has Only Begun Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
  • West Bengal needs Narendra Modi now more than ever, for the TMC has criminalised the idea of being a BJP supporter.

    TMC made history once, and now, BJP is on the path to repeating that history. For Modi, Bengal 2021 is a speedbump, not a political dead end.

If some primetime anchors, observers, and critics, operating from the comfort of their studios while choosing not to acquaint themselves with the political realities on the ground, were given a dollar every time they said that the Narendra Modi wave was over and that the Bharatiya Janata Party's (BJP’s) days were numbered, they all would be millionaires.

Such is the nature of politics and election results in India. Conveniently, when the BJP wins a difficult election, they dismiss the victory as not being a reflection of the work done or the perception of the government. However, one weak performance in any local body polls of any state, and the Modi phenomenon is threatened.

Today, using West Bengal election results, the argument is being repeated again to make a case for a coalition, led by Rahul Gandhi, to emerge against the BJP they believe is faltering. For some, Mamata Banerjee is also the ideal candidate for the job in 2024 while they turn a blind eye to the violence unleashed by her party in the last few years.

However, the victory of Trinamool Congress (TMC) cannot be used to dismiss the ground realities across India, starting with West Bengal itself. For the same reason, the gains made by the BJP in the state cannot be discarded either.

A fair idea of BJP’s growth in the same can be derived from their performances between 2016 and 2021 in West Bengal.

Firstly, the party, under the leadership of Narendra Modi-Amit Shah, has gone from three seats in 2016 to 77 in 2021. TMC, on the other hand, after a political lull in 2019 where it won 164 seats, did better in 2021 winning 213 seats, beating their own tally of 211 in 2016. In three years between 2016 and 2019, BJP went from three to 118 assembly seats.

The vote share is also important. BJP’s vote share increased from 10.2 per cent in 2016 to 40.6 per cent in 2019 and then declined a bit to 38.1 per cent in 2021. While there has been only one national election in between, the BJP’s lion share of the vote share in 2019 and 2021 cannot be dismissed.

Interestingly, the media, while pushing the idea of Rahul Gandhi as the next prime minister of India with his love for socialism, contempt for everything entrepreneurial, and other far-left inclinations, has been silent on the decimation of the traditional Left voter share in the state.

The Left, which ruled the state with an iron fist between 1977 and 2011, along with the Congress, had a collective vote share of 37.9 per cent in 2016.

By 2019, this declined to 12.8 per cent, and in 2021, it fell to 8.4 per cent. In terms of seats, the Left and Congress have gone from a stellar 76 in 2016 to nine in 2019 to a golden duck in 2021.

The gains made by the BJP are important for a number of reasons.

One, BJP is no longer a marginal player in West Bengal, for it is the key opposition party.

Two, the voters in the state have embraced the ideology and the individual - Modi.

Three, the vote share for the BJP has only come down by 2 percentage points between 2019 and 2021. The party may not have grown its vote share in the last two years, but at the same time has not been severely impacted by state politics, as it was in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh in 2019, and in Delhi in 2020.

The Left and Congress voters have gone to TMC, yes, but the BJP voter is as loyal as they were in 2019.

A comparison of BJP’s rise in Bengal with TMC’s rise before 2011 is inevitable.

In 2001, TMC had won 60 seats in the assembly with a vote share of 30.6 per cent.

In 2006, the TMC came down to 30 seats with a vote share of 26.6 per cent.

Eventually, in 2011, the TMC came to power with more than 38 per cent vote share. That year, NDA had three seats.

In the face of demographic changes ushered by unchecked illegal immigration also have a role to play post-2016 in the state’s elections, BJP’s growth has been stupendous.

The state’s politics is also moving from Left versus non-Left to a polarised one between Hindus and Muslims, another consequence of the generosity shown to the Mamata Banerjee regime to illegal migrants from Bangladesh post-2011.

But the polarisation will only increase if the violence last week is any indicator. Supporters of the TMC may argue that political violence is a cultural phenomenon, but the violence is now stemming from religion, and not politics. The difference must be acknowledged.

West Bengal needs Modi now more than ever, for the TMC has criminalised the idea of being a BJP supporter. People supporting the party found their homes vandalised, burned and decimated. Men were killed, women were gang-raped, and even an old woman was not spared in the run-up to the elections.

BJP, in the Centre, must respond to the violence with all the constitutional means. While losing an election is no grounds for considering Article 355 or 356, the communication from the Centre must be straightforward - rein in the violence or we rein you in.

If the makers of the Constitution could imagine a complete breakdown of law and order in the state and put a system for checks and balances, nothing must stop the BJP from employing it.

It is imperative to ensure the state of West Bengal does not end up becoming like Kashmir which saw the unfortunate exodus of Kashmiri Pandits.

It may seem an exaggerated comparison today, but no one in the early 1980s imagined an exodus of the valley as well. A day after the violence, Assam CM

Political violence can be controlled, but as history suggests, communal violence needs an iron fist. Some pockets in West Bengal warrant that treatment already.

For Modi, the focus must now shift to 2024. Against 22 MPs of the TMC, BJP has 18 MPs in the state. Khela Hobe 2.0 must be about BJP focussing on consolidating its cadre and voters while getting the traditional Left, INC, and some TMC voters on its side.

For BJP stalwarts, the state must be a subject of constant focus and attention, and for the next two years, all hands must be on deck to ensure BJP outnumbers the TMC MPs in 2024, thus setting a strong foundation for 2026, assuming the Centre does not have to use 356 by then.

At the same time, a strong BJP leadership in the state must be cultivated. A lesson can be taken from Assam here.

Modi is also important to the state of West Bengal for development. From an economic perspective, the state, even with its location and geography, is lagging in essential parameters.

While Modi got Gujarat on the global stage and transformed it into one of India’s biggest industrial hubs, with impeccable rural and urban development, Banerjee’s reign has seen investments leaving the state, mafia getting stronger, increased polarisation, and stagnant growth prospects.

In terms of foreign direct investment (FDI), between October 2019 and December 2020, West Bengal received 1 per cent of the total FDI coming to India while Gujarat’s share was 32 per cent. This is when the state is a gateway to the North-East, has a coastline, and a population of 10 crore.

Modi must challenge the politics of violence and appeasement with that of economic progress and development. West Bengal’s employment rate, as per some surveys, may look better than the national average, but the questions around the quality of jobs and wages remain. The state’s infrastructure needs an overhaul as well.

To conclude, it cannot be overstated that West Bengal needs Modi more than Modi needs West Bengal, for a state that has been under the Left and TMC for 50 years (1977-2026), will need more than just illegal immigrants filling up the electorate to take the state forward.

Banerjee may have won another political lease of life by swinging the vote of the Left, but the BJP has made a thumping entry into one of the most backward states of India, and from here, it can only improve, and that is where the Modi factor comes into play.

TMC made history once, and now, BJP is on the path to repeating that history. For Modi, Bengal 2021 is a speedbump, not a political dead end.

Make no mistake, the battle for Bengal has only begun.

Tushar is a senior-sub-editor at Swarajya. He tweets at @Tushar15_

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