The BJP’s strong performance in the recent panchayat elections has boosted the party’s morale.
The Bharatiya Janata Party is facing three challenges in West Bengal ahead of the general elections in 2019. First, it has to choose a prominent face from Bengal to lead the campaign in the state; second, deploy polling agents to almost all the booths; and third, create a divide in the Muslim vote bank of chief minister Mamata Banerjee by drawing Muslim women to the party on the issue of triple talaq.
The morale of the BJP leaders in West Bengal is high, especially after the panchayat elections where the party came second to the ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC). Around 34 per cent seats were uncontested giving the TMC a decisive lead, but the BJP registered real success by emerging as the main opposition.
But now, the big worry for the BJP is that it lacks a prominent leader in West Bengal who is popular and acceptable to not only its supporters, but also has a broader audience. The ruling TMC has Mamata Banerjee who has a solid track record of long struggle against the Left rule, but neither the BJP, nor the Left-Congress combine have any heavyweight leader to lead the electoral battle.
BJP state vice-president Jay Prakash Majumdar admits this lacuna, but says that Prime Minister Narendra Modi is their best bet for the 2019 election. “It is true that Mamata’s image as a fighter is an asset for their party, but we have Modi on our side. So, we are keen to position our party in a way that the elections in Bengal in 2019 could be turned into Mamata vs BJP,” says Jay Prakash.
As the support base of the Left and the Congress erodes, the TMC’s vote share in the 2014 general election and 2016 state assembly election has grown to nearly 40 and 45 per cent respectively. The total opposition vote is more than 50 per cent, which the BJP is eyeing.
The BJP in West Bengal in 2018 is not very different from the TMC in 2009 during the Lok Sabha elections. The TMC had a ramshackle organisation at the time. But, it had Mamata Banerjee and the CPM was fast losing popular support. This time also, the BJP hopes to benefit from the growing disenchantment with the ruling party and the state government.
Unlike local bodies’ election, the general elections would be conducted by the Election Commission of India, and the BJP government at the Centre would provide all necessary help by deploying paramilitary forces. So, Bengal’s ruling party’s muscle power won’t have that much of an impact, the BJP hopes.
After first appeasing the Muslims with the introduction of regular allowance to Imams and Muezzins, the Mamata Banerjee government had to balance it out with a cash dole to all community Durga Puja committees last month. The BJP calls it “sub-polarisation” at the grassroots level. According to the BJP circles, Hindus are questioning Mamata Banerjee’s motives and the BJP is engaging in smart propaganda to cash in on the sentiment.
Yet, the BJP’s weakness at the booth level is visible. Around 77,247 polling booths are spread across West Bengal. No party other than the TMC can man all these booths easily. In the recent panchayat elections, of the total 58,674 seats, the BJP could put up candidates in 31,000, which comes to roughly 60 per cent.
The daunting task before the BJP is to organise the party to fill this gap. For that, district-wise booth-level meetings are now being organised regularly. The BJP state leadership is confident it can cement the gap, and it has the adequate financial muscle to fight the elections.
On the top of that, the party has made Mukul Roy the convener of the election management committee in the state. Roy was instrumental in building the famed election machinery of the TMC. He has contacts even in remote areas of the state. The BJP is now hoping to reap the dividends in the coming election. What’s important to note here is that in a conservative party like the BJP, which usually has an incubation period of 3-4 years for a newcomer, Roy has been given an important position.
In West Bengal, the BJP’s traditional support base was the urban and semi-urban trading community, a bulk of them being non-Bengalis. Occasionally, when the communal tension was on the surface, a section of the Hindu Bengali voters, mostly refugees from erstwhile East Pakistan, tilted towards the BJP, as was evident in 1991, 1998 and 1999 general elections.
This time, the BJP is trying to make inroads into the Muslim support base with the issue of triple talaq. While there was a considerable stirring among the Muslim women in the state in favour of banning the practice, Mamata Banerjee and her party took a cautious stance and tried staying away from the debate. Since the TMC relies heavily on Muslim votes, (the Muslim population in the state is 27 per cent) and cajoles the religious heads of the community (allowance for imams etc.) regularly, it became difficult for the party to support the Muslim women’s cause. Now, the BJP hopes to get their support. And for that, Mukul Roy is actively networking with Muslim religious leaders like Pirzada of Furfura Sharif and others.
The BJP knows that the Bengal battle is going to be difficult. It won two seats in 2014: Asansol and Darjeeling. While the result in Asansol was a close one, the Darjeeling seat was gifted by the hill people’s support to the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) backed-BJP candidate. But this time, Mamata Banerjee has taken the GJM under her wing and is likely to snatch that seat back.
But the BJP is also growing in a number of cities and districts: Alipurduar and Coochbehar in north Bengal, Krishnanagar and Jaynagar in south Bengal, all bordering Bangladesh, and Jhargram in the west. All these seats have a significant tribal population.
The recent partially successful ‘bandh’ organised by the Santhal community in south Bengal, and the growing discontent among the people of Jangalmahal (part of West Medinipur, Bankura, Purulia) are indications that the BJP has been able to grow roots there. But the support of the tribal community is not enough to see the BJP through the Lok Sabha elections where average voter turnout for each constituency is 15.6 lakh voters.
BJP state president Dilip Ghosh has made a tall claim of targeting 24-26 seats in the upcoming Lok Sabha elections in the state, which to say the least is unrealistic. Seats do matter in the short term. But for the BJP, the crucial question is whether it can establish the party in people’s minds as a real aspirant to the seat of power in Bengal.
The author is a journalist and political analyst.