Why Bengal Represents The Last Frontier For A Battle-Readying BJP

by Minhaz Merchant - Dec 14, 2020 06:39 PM +05:30 IST
Why Bengal Represents The Last Frontier For A Battle-Readying BJP(Bengal)
  • There are four states that go to elections in the first quarter of 2021. While each has its own set of battles unfolding, for the BJP, Bengal represents the last frontier.

Four states go to the polls in the spring/summer of 2021: West Bengal, Assam, Tamil Nadu and Kerala.

Bengal will, however, be the most incendiary.

Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee is fighting both growing dissent within her party and a resurgent BJP. After 10 years of violence-filled, corruption-tainted misgovernance by the Trinamool Congress (TMC), West Bengal appears ready for a change.

Bengal has had the misfortune of being governed since Independence by three political parties — Congress, the Left and Trinamool Congress — all of which have collectively ruined it.

During the Congress’ long tenure, the state fell victim to violent Naxalism. President’s rule was imposed four times between 1968 and 1971. Industries fled Bengal.

Aditya Birla, whose biography I wrote, told me that doing business in the lawless state was becoming impossible. He shifted, along with his young family, to Bombay (as it then was). So did dozens of other industrialists.

The Left assumed power in 1977 and damaged Bengal’s economy further. Violence was mainstreamed. Chief Ministers Jyoti Basu and Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee presented a liberal face to the world. But they presided collectively over 34 years of political violence and industrial stagnation.

Mamata Banerjee copied the Left’s playbook when the TMC took office in 2011 — but Mamata wasn’t satisfied. She injected a dose of virulent communalism to capture the state’s 27.5 per cent Muslim vote bank. It helped her win a landslide in the 2016 assembly poll.

The BJP, no slouch at counter-polarisation, has over the years breached Mamata’s defences, one by one. First, by drawing away top TMC leaders like Mukul Roy with a little nudge from investigative agencies. Others have followed. Dissent within the TMC continues to simmer.

The BJP has relentlessly targeted Bengal’s 70 per cent Hindu vote. In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the strategy helped it win 40.64 per cent vote share, just a sliver behind the TMC’s 43.69 per cent, and 18 of Bengal’s 42 parliamentary seats against the TMC’s 22.

Assembly elections obviously are fought on different issues. But the gauntlet has been thrown. The Left-Congress alliance will divide the TMC’s Muslim vote. Asaduddin Owaisi’s AIMIM will split it further.

In the 2019 Lok Sabha poll, the BJP led in 125 Assembly segments of the state’s 294 seats. It believes that in a four-cornered fight with the Left-Congress, AIMIM and TMC, it has a real chance of seizing power in a state that could give it a lock on the east (Bihar, Bengal and possibly Odisha in 2024) as well as the northeast.

For the BJP, Bengal represents the last frontier. It has set a target of winning 200 of the state’s 294 Assembly seats. Like all targets, that is meant to fire up the cadre. A defeated Mamata will have ramifications nationally.

The BJP, of course, has an Achilles heel: lack of a chief ministerial face. It will again rely on Prime Minister Narendra Modi to counter Mamata Banerjee’s waning popular appeal, following corruption scandals and the Trinamool’s gratuitous violence.

There is a precedent though. In the 2017 Uttar Pradesh election, the BJP campaigned without a chief ministerial face and chose Yogi Adityanath after its landslide win.

The second key Assembly election in 2021 is Assam. The BJP has lost ground over the botched National Register of Citizens (NRC) conducted in Assam in 2018-19 under the supervision of the Supreme Court.

The alliance between the Congress and the AIDUF, led by the controversial Muslim cleric Badruddin Ajmal, will pose a challenge to Sarbananda Sonowal’s government.

With the Assam NRC discredited and abandoned, and a new NRC still being formulated, the linguistic and ethnic fissures between Bengali-speaking Assamese migrants from Bangladesh and local Assamese speakers make Assam a hotbed of contesting identities over religion, language and ethnicity.

Two important battles, meanwhile, loom in the south: Tamil Nadu and Kerala. The Congress will hope to recapture Kerala from the Communist government that has been rocked by a series of corruption and other scandals.

The proximity of these scandals to Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan has eroded his authority.

The Congress-led UDF will extract full toll. It is likely to maintain Kerala’s tradition of swapping power in the state with the Left Democratic Front every five years. BJP remains a bit player in Kerala where Muslims and Christians form 45 per cent of the population.

Meanwhile, Tamil Nadu presents a mixed picture. The entry of Rajnikanth’s new party has the potential to garner 15-20 per cent vote share. Sasikala’s early release from prison in January 2021 will complicate matters for the largely faceless AIADMK.

Rajnikanth’s party could well form a pre-poll or post-poll alliance with the BJP-AIADMK front. That would be a game-changer and throw the election wide open.

The two Dravidian parties have historically shared power between them. The late Jayalalithaa broke the cycle by winning successive Assembly elections in 2011 and 2016. She died in December 2016, seven months later.

Can a putative AIADMK-BJP alliance pull off a hattrick with the BJP as a junior partner and Rajnikanth as a force-multiplier? The DMK-Congress alliance led by MK Stalin has the momentum and the ground game. But until Rajnikanth shows his hand, all bets are off.

For the BJP though, it is West Bengal that matters. It should keep in mind that the Nawab of Bengal, Siraj ud-Daulah, was betrayed by Mir Jafar in the battle of Palashee (Plassey) with Robert Clive in 1757.

The British conquest of India began from here. The BJP would be wise to keep a watch on modern-day Mir Jafars who lurk in the dark recesses of Mamata Banerjee’s Bengal.

Minhaz Merchant is an author and publisher. 

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