BJP National President Amit Shah | Swapan Mahapatra/PTI
BJP National President Amit Shah | Swapan Mahapatra/PTI
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BJP hopes to keep Mamata Banerjee busy in Bengal, leaving her less time to be a mover and shaker in national politics ahead of 2019 election.

If Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Midnapore outing last month was a curtain raiser, then Amit Shah’s Kolkata speech Saturday was a bugle call for the 2019 campaign in West Bengal.

Though the crowd was nowhere close to the Trinamool Congress’ massive show of strength at its annual “Shahid Divas” event on 21 July, it was still sizeable considering the BJP’s relative position and fledgeling organisation in the state.

The BJP also billed its roadshow as “Shahid Divas”. Constantly on the look-out for local heroes, the BJP chose the martyrdom anniversary of Khudiram Bose, a Bengali revolutionary freedom fighter who was hanged to death by the British in 1908 at the age of just 19.

Modi’s speech had set the tone of the election narrative on expected lines with allusions and innuendos on corruption — chit-funds and syndicates — and minority appeasement. He went a little over the top saying that even the Bengali festival of Durga Puja was under threat, but Amit Shah threw the gauntlet deeper into the ring with a direct reference to the Assam NRC (National Registry of Citizens), which has been vehemently opposed by the Trinamool.

Invoking the term “Ghuspaithiye” (infiltrators), his contribution to the political lexicon of India, Shah accused the Trinamool of using the illegal immigrants from Bangladesh as a vote bank. Local BJP leaders built the tempo with fiery speeches displaying far greater aggression than one has seen from them before. The theme and tenor for the election seems set.

On the face of it, Shah may not have said something new. A journalist remarked that Shah had merely called out the elephant in the room. A large section of my Twitter followers came down heavily on me for expressing concern about religious polarisation.

They said that the simmering problem cannot be wished away by looking the other way. Someone wrote: “He just stated a reality! For how long can we pretend all is well?” Others chastised me saying, “Polarisation cannot be a one-way street”.

But his speech was a carefully considered and calibrated move with a clear understanding of the possible costs and consequences. What kind of calculations could have gone through Shah-Modi minds before pulling the plug off the communal cauldron?

If the objective is to raise the BJP’s seat tally in West Bengal, then it is a high-risk, low-return game that the BJP is playing. Consolidation can see the BJP’s vote share rising significantly, but it is unlikely to reach the tipping point. It will not translate into a large number of wins in our ‘first past the post’ election system. This was evident in recent panchayat and local body polls. Besides, the BJP will not grow alone. The Trinamool will also gain the anti-BJP votes from the Congress and the CPI(M), who are becoming increasingly irrelevant in the state.

Shah called for a second round of “Poriborton” (or change) claiming that the first did little good for Bengal. This does not carry much conviction because development has indeed happened under the Trinamool, especially in deep rural areas. People’s disenchantment is primarily with the local bosses of Trinamool. Taking them on could lead to the kind of violent precipitation one had witnessed during the transition from the Left to the Trinamool. With the Trinamool party machinery remaining fiercely loyal to Mamata Banerjee’s iron grip, this could turn out for the BJP to be a typical case of ‘biting more than it can chew’. A misadventure that Shah and Modi would be well advised to avoid at this juncture.

Surely the BJP’s top leadership realise the odds they are up against. So, what is their game plan?

Mamata has made no secret of her ambition to play a bigger role on the national scene and her pathological hate for the BJP, which is threatening to make inroads on her home turf. She has taken her battle out of Bengal as a prime mover of the opposition unity. In the event of an opposition alliance coming to power, by scoring over the BJP’s number, people see her as a serious contender for the Prime Minister’s post.

By upping the ante, the BJP can hope to keep her busy in Bengal – wishing that it would leave her less time to be a mover and shaker in national politics. But Shah and Modi may be underestimating Mamata’s tenacity. She can match Modi’s energy and the BJP will need to think of other ways to contain and neutralise her.

She is too astute a leader to allow her image to be sullied nationally with unrest at home. There is a visible course correction with calibrated messages of inclusiveness in her speeches. During the festive season of Durga Puja and Kali Puja, she will no doubt amplify this articulation of “soft Hindutva” and demonstrate it through some visible action.

During the assembly elections, Mamata reached out to the electorate apologising for the mistakes of the local party leadership. She has her ears on the ground. So, she will rein in the lumpen elements to ensure that they do not queer the pitch by intimidation.

In its enthusiasm to conquer new geographies, to compensate for the anticipated losses in other states, the BJP should be careful to ensure the trumpet does not sound like a “dog whistle” for miscreants.

Sandip Ghose is a writer and blogger on current affairs. Views expressed are personal and does not reflect those of his employers. He Tweets @SandipGhose

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