The West Bengal assembly elections in April-May 2021, a little over a year from now, will likely be the most important turning point for Narendra Modi’s second term.
Narendra Modi and Amit Shah have made Bengal a matter of prestige. The idea of a nationwide National Register of Citizens (NRC) to verify the citizenship claims of all Indians is actually about the BJP’s efforts to win West Bengal. In fact, President Ram Nath Kovind in his address to Parliament in the first session after Modi’s re-election said the National Register of Citizens would be created in bordering areas, implying that it may not take place across the country.
Why punish the entire country just to label every Bengali Muslim a Bangladeshi?
And yet, Bengal is so important for the BJP that fears of an NRC have been allowed to create panic across India, protests across the world. Modi’s global image has been allowed to take a severe blow. The openly stated “chronology” between the Citizenship (Amendment) Act and the NRC have been allowed to mess with peace and stability in the northeast, especially Assam.
What is it about West Bengal that the BJP appears to be willing to sacrifice so much for it?
Put plainly, West Bengal is the new Uttar Pradesh.
If the BJP could win West Bengal, it will have created a sense of invincibility, and thus a sense of the inevitability of the BJP’s return to power at the Centre for a third consecutive term.
When Modi wanted to become prime minister for the first time in 2014, the state he needed to crack the most was Uttar Pradesh. He himself decided to contest from a second seat in Varanasi, and made Amit Shah in-charge of the state.
That kind of special effort is now being put into Bengal – the bastion of secularists and the Left, a state with 27 per cent Muslim population, the state with the biggest metropolitan city in east India, a state decidedly outside of the Hindi belt with its own sense of regional pride and identity, even superiority. If the BJP wins Bengal in 2021, it will be difficult to imagine the BJP lose India in 2024.
The new semi-final
The Uttar Pradesh assembly election is usually seen as the ‘semi-final’ before the Lok Sabha election. It happens exactly mid-way between two Lok Sabha elections. What happens in Uttar Pradesh is often taken as an indicator, rightly or wrongly, of what might happen in the next Lok Sabha elections.
When Narendra Modi became Prime Minister, the BJP started to win assembly elections such as in Jharkhand and Haryana with clear majorities, and managed to form a stable government in Maharashtra even before it could have ally Shiv Sena come around on its terms.
Those victories created a sense of a BJP juggernaut with the real possibility of Modi-Shah creating a new one-party system akin to the Congress rule of yesteryears. However, the BJP juggernaut was halted by Arvind Kejriwal in Delhi and the Nitish Kumar-Lalu Yadav alliance in Bihar. The year 2015 was bad for Modi-Shah’s expansionist plans.
However, the BJP learnt from those mistakes and changed strategies to win Assam in 2016. The BJP wasn’t in the race in other state assembly elections that year: Kerala, West Bengal, Puducherry, and Tamil Nadu.
The BJP’s invincibility or lack thereof was an open question. It was in early 2017 that the BJP’s clean sweep in Uttar Pradesh that silenced all the doubting Thomases. Despite demonetisation or because of it, thanks to a “surgical strike” on Pakistan or the promise of a farm loan waiver, the BJP was able to do the unthinkable – install a fringe Hindutva extremist as chief minister of Uttar Pradesh.
The victory in UP, the widely accepted semi-final, came like a force of nature. It killed any sense of challenge to the BJP’s open efforts to establish one-party rule. Critics and dissenters, corporates and media, opposition parties and global community, all accepted it as fait accompli that Modi was too popular to lose 2019.
This had an effect of demoralising the opposition and making it surrender. Nitish Kumar, while dumping Lalu Yadav and joining forces with the BJP in mid-2017, famously declared there was no chance anymore of anyone defeating Modi in 2019. That’s how invincible the BJP became with UP.
The BJP actually did very poorly in state assembly elections after that. It just about scraped through on its home turf of Gujarat. It couldn’t win a majority in Karnataka despite an anti-incumbency campaign against the ruling Congress and Janata Dal (Secular). It lost its strongholds in central India, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh, and couldn’t stop the inevitable ‘turn of the roti’ in Rajasthan. The idea that the BJP had changed the rules of the game, that anti-incumbency didn’t apply to it and no one could get the better of Amit Shah’s Chankayaniti, all lay in tatters.
And yet, it was that sweep in UP that nullified any suggestion that Modi could lose the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.
This time it’s different
The 2022 Uttar Pradesh assembly election, similarly, is no challenge for the BJP. The Samajwadi Party, Bahujan Samaj Party, and the Congress will make sure the state sees a four-cornered contest in which the opposition vote will be divided and an unpopular Yogi Adityanath will return as CM.
There is, therefore, little element of surprise in UP this time. It is a foregone conclusion. The surprise will be if there is an upset for the BJP thanks to factors that are not in play as of now, such as a drastic and sudden increase in inflation, or the emergence of a disruptive new party.
The BJP’s return to power in UP will not have the same effect on the national political conversation that it did the last time. We are in a post-expansion phase of the BJP in north India, where the party has reached saturation point. The only question is, how long it will stay at that point.
Similarly, the BJP is likely to retain Bihar under the leadership of ally JD(U)’s Nitish Kumar in November 2020.
The BJP may be in quite some trouble in Assam but is likely to return to power because the Congress doesn’t have a game there anymore. The Assam Congress is in such disarray that the viral three-term ex-chief minister Tarun Gogoi is publicly appealing for the state to have a new party.
The re-affirmation of status quo in UP, Bihar, Assam and other states won’t be enough to create a sense of invincibility about the BJP. By now we have seen the party’s mixed performance in state elections. By now we have seen how Modi has separated state and national elections so completely that the narrative about 2024, even from the opposition, may develop regardless of what happens in state elections.
The game-changer for the BJP this time will be West Bengal. It will be more dramatic and shocking to see a BJP chief misuser in Kolkata than it was to see Yogi Adityanath occupy 5 Kalidas Marg in Lucknow.
But Mamata Banerjee isn’t going down without a fight. She’s not a lazy north Indian drawing room politician. She fights on the streets, leads from the front.
The game is on. Keep the popcorn ready.
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