These Are The Hard Lessons That Karnataka Poll Outcome Holds For BJP In Bengal

Jaideep Mazumdar

May 14, 2023, 05:49 PM | Updated 05:48 PM IST

BJP in West Bengal.
BJP in West Bengal.
  • From settling the debate around leadership to mounting an effective counter to the opposing side's propaganda.
  • The results of the Karnataka elections hold very important and urgent lessons for the BJP in Bengal. 

    The party ought to have learnt these lessons after it failed to dislodge the Trinamool from power in 2021. But that failure still hobbles the BJP in Bengal.

    The outcome of the Karnataka polls should drive home the point to the BJP leadership that if it is serious about Bengal, it can no longer procrastinate and shy away from taking hard decisions that will stand the saffron party in good stead in the Assembly elections in 2026. 

    The few lessons, and corrective measures, that the BJP central and state leadership ought to take, and learn from, are:

    Keep it local

    The BJP could not win in Bengal because it lacked a strong charismatic state leader who could have given Mamata Banerjee a run for her money. 

    Modi or Amit Shah cannot substitute for the absence of a strong state leader with the requisite appeal among most sections of the people.

    Mamata Banerjee played the ‘outsider’ card to the hilt and succeeded in projecting the BJP as a party of North Indians who understand little about Bengal and Bengalis. 

    The overbearing presence of leaders and cadres from the Hindi heartland in Bengal in the run-up to the 2021 polls created a negative impression in the minds of the people, especially the Bengali middle-class. 

    Unfortunately, the BJP does not seem to have learnt any lessons from that. Fielding Amit Shah the ‘star attraction’ at the ‘Rabindra Jayanti’ celebrations (last weekend) does not impress Bengalis at all. The BJP leadership would do well to recognise and accept that.

    Sort out the state leadership issue

    The BJP central leadership has to take a decision on projecting one leader as the chief ministerial candidate in 2026 and groom that person from now on. Having a clutch of leaders who pull in different directions and snipe at each other will not win the party any support.

    The only BJP leader who has a lot of appeal among the masses right now is Suvendu Adhikary, but many among the party’s old guard, including the RSS, have reservations about him since he was once close to Mamata Banerjee and had defected to the BJP from the Trinamool. 

    But the reality is that the BJP in Bengal does not have any other leader with even a modicum of charisma. BJP leaders in Bengal, with the sole exception of Adhikary, have zero appeal among the masses and the middle-class Bengalis (or Bengali bhadraloks). 

    Most of the BJP leaders in Bengal are not the best orators and are known for their indiscreet and even outrageous utterances.

    The BJP Himanta Biswa Sarma, who switched to the BJP from the Congress, the face of the party in Assam, and the resounding success of that move is there for all to see.

    The BJP central leadership has to take a call on making one person, and just one person, the face of the party in Bengal. If it decides on Suvendu Adhikary, as it should, it has to allow him complete freedom to shape the party’s campaign. 

    And all other leaders of the party have to be told, in strong and unequivocal terms, to accept Adhikary’s leadership. Inner-party dissidence has to be put down with a very firm hand. 

    Rejuvenate party cadres

    The abandonment of many party cadres by the party leadership immediately after the 2021 polls has caused lasting damage to the BJP’s organisational strength and structure. 

    Cadres and supporters were left to face horrific attacks by a vengeful Trinamool after the last Assembly polls. No senior leader stood by them and nothing at all was done to protect them or provide succour to them.

    This led to thousands of ground-level functionaries of the BJP either dissociating themselves from the party or joining the Trinamool to protect themselves and their families. 

    The BJP will face an uphill, but not impossible task, in regaining the confidence of its workers and making them work once again for the party. 

    But this can only happen if there exists a strong state leader who displays the resolve to stand by them through thick and thin and, thus, gains their confidence and unwavering support. 

    Induct young and articulate professionals

    The BJP in Bengal surfers from a serious image problem. It is widely perceived to be a party of aged, uncharismatic and bumbling leaders and functionaries who know how to play only the ‘Hindutva’ card. 

    This perception has to change if the party wants to have a winning chance three years from now. 

    The only way to do so is to induct a fair number of young and even middle-aged educated, well-qualified, urbane, articulate professionals, both men and women, who can connect with the Bengali middle-class and, more importantly, with the younger generation. 

    This is not to even remotely suggest that the party needs to have a westernised, English-speaking lot to change its mage. Not at all. Young men and women rooted in Indic heritage and culture, but who are charismatic, articulate and successful in their chosen careers is what the party in Bengal needs now. 

    The BJP leadership has to make a conscious effort to induct such people and change the party’s image in Bengal. 

    Some from this lot of inductees can be groomed as the party’s second line of leadership. Having an effective second line of leadership comprising young charismatic leaders is very important, and the results of the Karnataka elections only underlines this. 

    Design an effective campaign to fuel anti-incumbency against Mamata Banerjee

    Mamata Banerjee and her party are now buffeted with serious allegations of corruption and misgovernance. 

    The many scams in Bengal--the chit fund scam, the illegal coal mining scam, the cattle smuggling scam and the cash-for-jobs scam, to name a few--have brought serious disrepute to the Trinamool and landed quite a few leaders and functionaries of the ruling party behind bars. 

    The BJP has to craft and carry out an effective, high-decibel and 360-degree campaign to highlight the Trinamool’s corruption and misgovernance. This campaign has to target the top leadership of the Trinamool and dent Mamata Banerjee’s ‘clean’ image. 

    The implementation of many welfare schemes and projects wholly or partially funded by the Union Government in Bengal have ground to a halt because of non-disbursal of funds by New Delhi. 

    The Union Government has stopped the disbursal of funds due to widespread corruption and anomalies in the implementation of these schemes and projects. And this has fuelled anger, especially among the rural masses. 

    Mamata Banerjee has been accusing the Union Government of discriminating against Bengal by depriving the state of funds that are due to it. Her nephew, Abhishek, who is on a tour of Bengal, has been repeating this allegation at all his meetings. 

    This false narrative is, unfortunately, gaining traction (read this). 

    Unfortunately, the Union Government has done nothing to counter this allegation. It should issue a white paper to inform the people about the corruption and anomalies committed by the Bengal government and Trinamool functionaries at various levels in implementation of these schemes and projects. 

    This is one issue that the BJP can capitalise on to put the Trinamool government, and Mamata Banerjee, in the dock. But once again, except for Suvendu Adhikary, no BJP leader has thought it fit to take the Bengal government and the Trinamool to task over this issue. 

    The Congress drafted an intelligent campaign that fuelled anti-incumbency against the Bommai government in Karnataka. The BJP in Bengal needs to do the same to fuel anti-incumbency against Mamata Banerjee in Bengal.

    Steer clear of hardcore Hindutva

    There are few takers for hardcore Hindutva in Bengal, as the BJP discovered after the 2021 Assembly polls. 

    This does not mean that Mamata Banerjee’s blatant appeasement of Muslims has not angered Hindus. It has, and the anger is latent and simmers under the surface among many, especially in areas where such appeasement has led to muscle-flexing and attacks on Hindus by Muslims. 

    But the BJP should not play the aggressive Hindutva card like it did in the runup to the 2021 Assembly elections.

    Large sections of Bengalis, especially the middle-class and the youth, get put off by overt attempts at religious polarisation.

    Offer alternate model of governance and welfare schemes

    The BJP in Bengal has to present itself as a viable alternative to the Trinamool. 

    For that to happen, it needs to offer an alternate model of development for Bengal. It has to launch a campaign on what it intends to do for the state. The BJP has to draw up a concrete manifesto for Bengal, and it should do this now. 

    This manifesto ought to contain promises of various welfare schemes that are an improvement on but different from the current doles and handouts from the Trinamool government. 

    The BJP has to differentiate between doles and welfare measures, and enlighten the people of Bengal about it. 

    These are some of the many measures that the BJP needs to adopt if it wants to win Bengal in 2026. And also put up a good show in the state in the Lok Sabha elections a year from now. 

    It took 13 years for the Trinamool to dislodge the once powerful Left Front government from power in Bengal. 

    The Trinamool will complete 15 years in government in 2026. Fifteen years is enough to generate enough anti-incumbency to give the BJP strong tailwinds and propel it to power in Bengal. 

    Jaideep Mazumdar is an associate editor at Swarajya.

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