Wanted In Bengal: A Strong State BJP Leader To Challenge Mamata Banerjee’s Might

by Jaideep Mazumdar - Dec 25, 2017 10:20 AM
Wanted In Bengal: A Strong State BJP Leader To Challenge Mamata Banerjee’s MightFormer Trinamool Congress leader Mukul Roy’s (2nd left) first public meeting in Kolkata, present with (L-R) BJP leaders Dilip Ghosh and Kailash Vijayvargiya. (Samir Jana/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)
  • A groundswell of resentment is building up against the Trinamool Congress. But for that to translate into votes for the BJP, the party has to show the electorate it can be an alternative to the Trinamool.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s political acumen is believed to be sharper than that of most political leaders in India. Thus, when he tweeted a congratulatory message to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Bengal on Sunday (24 December) over the good show by the party in the by-elections to the Sabang assembly constituency, he sent a significant political message to the BJP unit in Bengal.

The Trinamool Congress won the seat by a handsome margin and got 51.2 per cent of the votes polled. The Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPI(M), candidate was the runners up with 41,897 votes, and the BJP candidate came third with 37,484 votes. But for the BJP, a very compelling and positive message lay in its electoral performance. In the assembly elections held 20 months ago, the BJP candidate from Sabong polled only 2.6 per cent of the (5,610) votes. In the 2011 assembly polls, the BJP got just 2,507 (1.3 per cent) votes.

The rise in the BJP’s vote share in Sabong (in West Midnapore), where the party has little organisational base, from 1.3 per cent in 2011 to 2.6 per cent in 2016 and then to 18.08 per cent this time, is consequential. The BJP has little organisational base in the western part of Bengal, which has been a citadel of the left and, for nearly two decades now, the Trinamool Congress. Sabang itself has been a Congress stronghold amidst a sea of (communist) red for many decades now. The Congress (and twice its splinter group, the Bangla Congress) has won uninterruptedly from this constituency since 1951. The by-election was necessitated by the defection of Manas Bhunia, a senior Congress leader who had represented Sabong since 2001, to the Trinamool Congress and his subsequent resignation from the assembly. This time, his wife Geeta won the seat. Bhunia has been elevated to the Rajya Sabha by the Trinamool.

The fact that the BJP candidate in Sabong could poll more than 18 per cent of the votes, just 4,500 votes less than the CPI(M) candidate, is cause for cheer for the party. But there is another powerful message that the results of this by-election gave out – the ground in Bengal is turning ripe for the BJP, but the party will have to get united and aggressive and position itself as a credible and viable alternative to the Trinamool Congress. The BJP can now no longer afford to be complacent and depend on central leaders, especially Modi, to get votes in Bengal. The state unit of the party will have to chart out a strong narrative for itself and also find clean and credible faces it can successfully project to the electorate.

The Sabong by-election results send out the message that a growing number of people in Bengal, especially in rural Bengal, are getting impatient with Mamata Banerjee’s divisive politics and blatant minority appeasement. The Bengal electorate are also realising the hollowness of the Trinamool’s development claims. People have also realised that the Trinamool’s loud boasts about job creation and getting investments are patently false, and the plight of farmers have remained the same. Realisation has also dawned on a large section of the people that Banerjee has made only cosmetic changes and has been content with giving out massive doles which yield no long-term benefits.

While the poor in Bengal continue to remain poor with no hope for improvement in their economic plight, the middle classes are plagued by joblessness, rise in crime, a stagnating economy, the rise in lumpenism encouraged by the Trinamool, the rule of musclemen and the stranglehold of the ruling party over their lives. The Trinamool has become quite like the left that the people of Bengal had voted out of power in 2011. Add to all this the policy of appeasement of minorities being pursued aggressively by Banerjee; this has led to the minority community asserting itself, especially in rural Bengal, and targeting Hindus who are feeling helpless. The Hindus in rural Bengal have realised that they will be subjected to more attacks by the increasingly assertive minority community that has realised that it is their votes that help the Trinamool win the polls and, thus, in the Trinamool’s scheme of things, it is they alone who count.

A groundswell of resentment is thus building up against the Trinamool. But for that to translate into votes for the BJP, the party has to show the electorate it can be an alternative to the Trinamool. Unfortunately, the BJP does not have a single face that can mount a challenge to Banerjee and whose appeal will cut across all sections and classes of the electorate. The BJP in Bengal has to realise that such a face would have to be suave enough to appeal to the genteel upper middle classes in the urban areas and, at the same time, rooted in Bengal’s culture and ethos to be attractive to the poorer sections in rural Bengal. The BJP’s leaders in Bengal will also have to sink their often public differences and project a united face.

The BJP will never be able to win an election in Bengal if it cannot project a single individual as a challenger to Banerjee. There is no point in the party saying it has a pool of talented leaders and one of them will become the chief minister as and when the party posts an electoral win. Bengal has always been drawn to charismatic leaders starting from Bidhan Chandra Roy and Siddhartha Shankar Ray to Jyoti Basu and now Banerjee, and if the BJP cannot find someone it can build up to match Banerjee’s charisma, it can never hope to win the polls in Bengal. The concept of a ‘collective leadership’ that the BJP mouths does not work in Bengal and is seen as an excuse on the part of the BJP for its failure to come up with a single leader who will be the face of the party in Bengal.

The BJP also has to aggressively build its organisational muscle. It is an undeniable fact that in Bengal, elections have never (since the late 1960s) been beyond manipulation. Even in the Sabong bypolls, the Trinamool stood accused of using muscle power to intimidate opposition candidates and their polling agents and also creating a sense of fear among voters. The BJP has to match this organisational strength and the Trinamool’s muscle power. To put this in perspective, resentment against the CPI(M)-led Left Front had peaked long before 2011 when they were finally voted out of power. But the Trinamool did not have the organisational might to challenge the left’s mighty poll machinery and it was only in 2011, by which time a large section of the CPI(M) cadres had abandoned the party, that the Trinamool could mount a challenge to the CPI(M) and ensure free and fair polls. Since then, the Trinamool has appropriated the CPI(M)’s tactics to cling to power.

The BJP is, right now, riding on the growing wave of resentment among Hindus against Banerjee’s minority appeasement and, to a lesser extent, her failure to bring about development, create jobs and boost the state’s economy. While that may help the BJP win some seats, especially in rural Bengal, it won’t be good enough for the party to come to power in the state. For that to happen, the BJP will have to frame alternative strategies and convince all sections of the people that it has a plan to improve the state’s economy. Such a master plan has to be crafted and sold to the people of the state. The people of Bengal will have to be convinced that the state unit of the BJP is competent enough to handle the ‘sabka saath, sabka vikas’ plan of Modi and be seen as capable enough of bringing this plan to fruition in the state. The Bengal BJP’s current anti-Banerjee rhetoric alone will not help it come to power in the state.

It is high time that the BJP central leadership acts decisively to not only get the state leaders to sink their petty differences, but also nudge the party unit to find a charismatic leader whose appeal will cut across all sections of the people of the state. True, the present crop of state BJP leaders have been working hard to challenge the Trinamool, but none of them have the charisma and chutzpah to match Banerjee’s. Modi’s congratulatory tweet on Sunday was a message to his party leaders in Bengal that he is keeping track of political developments in Bengal. It was also a morale-boosting message to them; but buried in the tweet was the deeper message that they (the Bengal BJP leaders) will now have to perform and win the state.

Jaideep Mazumdar is an associate editor at Swarajya.

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