The Winner’s Curse In West Bengal: Why ‘Ashol Poriborton’ Will Be A Steep Challenge Even If BJP Wins

by R Jagannathan - Mar 8, 2021 11:42 AM +05:30 IST
The Winner’s Curse In West Bengal: Why ‘Ashol Poriborton’ Will Be A Steep Challenge Even If BJP WinsThe Prime Minister at a Bengal election rally.
  • There is no way West Bengal’s politics and administration can be set right in one term no matter who wins.

    The BJP needs a gameplan for better governance over the long term, and not just a winning formula for 2021.

With Prime Minister Narendra Modi formally launching his party’s campaign in West Bengal with a frontal attack on Mamata Banerjee’s government, it is obvious that we are going to witness the most bitterly contested election in the state since 2011, when Didi dethroned the Left after the latter’s 34 years in power.

Between now and results day on 2 May, which will come after an unprecedented eight phases of polling, we are going to witness a no-holds-barred contest, complete with obnoxious verbal attacks and physical violence in many parts of the state.

While Narendra Modi has promised “ashol poriborton” (real change) and an end to “tola baazi” (cuts for politicians on deals or extraction of protection money from citizens and businesses), Banerjee has pitched herself as the daughter of Bengal fighting external forces.

She has clearly staked her all in choosing to fight from Nandigram, where her former political strongman and now bitter rival Suvendu Adhikari is the BJP’s candidate.

Three things can be said before the voting ends.

One, the BJP’s fortunes are clearly on the upswing, but it is far from certain that it will win. Banerjee’s election adviser, Prashant Kishor, has promised to give up his profession (which seems to be about aiding political parties to develop winning strategies) if the BJP crosses the 100-seat mark. Home Minister Amit Shah has said that the party will cross 200 seats, but one cannot assume this to be a realistic assumption for the BJP is really pitching for the 73 per cent non-Muslim vote which is angry about Didi’s minority appeasement.

Two, the real joker in the pack in the Left Front-Congress-Indian Secular Front (ISF) alliance which is largely pitching for minority votes, but could end up denting both the Trinamool Congress and the BJP’s Hindu vote. It is certainly not clear who will lose more from this third front, except to say that it could be a force for the future. The Left and the Congress have no problems aligning with Islamist forces.

Three, whoever wins will actually be stuck with the winner’s curse. The Trinamool Congress, which can win only if the minorities back her fully (and not the Left-Congress-ISF alliance) and the Hindu vote splits vertically, will face a tough balancing act. She will be torn between her core Muslim vote and expectations from Hindus that she will stop pandering to the minorities and address their concerns on demographic change. She will not be able to govern, let alone deliver on development.

But the winner’s curse will be worse for the BJP, for any win would have come about only because the Hindus voted strongly for it. This would mean the BJP will start with a hostile 27 per cent Muslim population, and even if it reaches out to them, it cannot count on any real “poriborton” given the completely broken administration and policing capabilities that it will inherit.

West Bengal’s babudom and the police are arguably the most politically-compromised in the country. And in large parts of the state, thuggish gangs and party enforcers are a law unto themselves.

Any political violence that will happen after a BJP win will be difficult to contain or manage without serious police reforms and a steady elimination of private law enforcers and hafta extractors. That parallel power structure, originally created by the Left Front and then taken over by the Trinamool, could conceivably be willing to work a deal with the BJP if it comes to power. But this means there will be no “ashol poriborton”. It will be more of the same, only this time donning saffron colours. From red to blue to saffron, the only thing that will change will be the political colour or violence and lawlessness.

The BJP will face not just one beaten opposition force, the Trinamool, but another potentially violent grouping, the Left-Congress-Muslim alliance.

There is no way West Bengal’s politics and administration can be set right in one term no matter who wins. For the BJP, the best bet would be to emerge as the main opposition to Trinamool after the elections, and prepare the ground for a better leader and major reforms from 2026. It needs a gameplan for better governance over the long term, and not just a winning formula for 2021.

If any party will be dogged most by the winner’s curse, it will be the BJP. It’s not a situation it should want to be in. It’s main focus should be to occupy the entire opposition space, and bide its time for a more complete takeover of West Bengal in 2026.

Jagannathan is Editorial Director, Swarajya. He tweets at @TheJaggi.
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