The Bharatiya Janata Party must fight the West Bengal assembly election next year by disclosing its chief ministerial candidate and not by over projecting Prime Minister Narendra Modi. It will be in the interest of fairness to voters and the BJP’s political rivals.
The BJP has become quite used to fighting assembly elections in Modi’s name, riding on his massive popularity and goodwill, and ending up winning difficult turfs — from Assam in 2016 to Uttar Pradesh in 2017 and Tripura in 2018.
And just as the voter thinks she will get ‘good governance’ and Modi’s promised ‘vikas (development)’, she is handed over duds, at least in terms of governance and administrative experience, like Yogi Adityanath and Biplab Deb. Modi, then, merely comes across as the mukhauta to mask the hollowness of his party’s bench strength in newly acquired territories, a bait to attract voters.
What happens in the process is that the opposition, whether Akhilesh Yadav (in UP 2017) or Manik Sarkar (in Tripura 2018), is given an unfair playing ground, having to beat the prime minister and not who their real rival should be — the BJP’s CM candidate.
West Bengal, which votes next year, should be told who will replace Mamata Banerjee if the BJP was to pull off the big win, and that Narendra Modi will only remain an influence, not the campaign’s driving force.
A national party will quite naturally use its top national leaders extensively during campaigns in assembly elections — organising rallies, plastering their faces on posters and hoardings and coining slogans around them. But what the BJP does in states where it does not have established regional leaders is very different. It makes the election entirely about Narendra Modi, spinning the entire campaign around him and giving an illusion to the voters that they would be in Modi’s ‘safe hands’ if the BJP is voted to power. In reality, Modi’s policies can’t treat a BJP-ruled state any different than it would an opposition-ruled state.
The way Home Minister Amit Shah is used by the BJP in state elections is the usual, routine manner in which parties utilise national leaders. What Modi has done is create a new-normal, in which the PM becomes the face of even a municipal election.
In the 2017 Uttar Pradesh assembly election, Modi was such an overbearing force that nobody else quite mattered. I had travelled extensively across the state then and found ‘hum Modiji ke naam pe vote denge (we will vote in Modi’s name)’ to be a common refrain. Many voters didn’t even know the name of the BJP candidate in their constituency. Not just the outgoing CM Akhilesh Yadav, every candidate was fighting Modi.
Tripura was no different. My travels through the state revealed a similar voter sentiment. With no CM face, the BJP fought the election entirely in Modi’s name and managed to oust a jaded, though still popular, Manik Sarkar from his turf.
The decision to bring in Yogi or Biplab was taken ex post facto, and both were unexpected choices. The result? Good governance became an illusion with Adityanath’s highly problematic record of maintaining law and order in UP and Biplab Deb’s incessant foot-in-the-mouth episodes as the CM of Tripura. While Yogi Adityanath is more of a saffron face than sushasan brand, Biplab is largely a comic relief.
Were there options for BJP?
Would the results have been any different if the polls were fought, say, as an Akhilesh versus Yogi or Manik Sarkar versus Biplab Deb battles and with Modi merely in the background? Hard to say, because a lot goes into the BJP’s poll wins, including an excellent ground strategy and micro-level voter management. But it is hugely possible the BJP may not have won the kind of mandate it did in both states.
To be sure, in Assam, the BJP did announce Sarbananda Sonowal’s name as its CM candidate in advance and he has been a popular regional leader, but there is little doubt the election was fought almost entirely in Modi’s name. Sonowal, meanwhile, has turned out to be every bit the administrative greenhorn. The BJP government is avoiding major embarrassments in Assam only because it has an experienced hand in the form of Himanta Biswa Sarma.
Even the 2017 Gujarat assembly election was all about Modi, who built his political heft in the state, and less about Vijay Rupani, an obvious weak link.
The pattern, of course, has been different in states where the BJP has strong regional leaders — be it Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh or Chhattisgarh. All three states in which voters rejected the BJP’s CM faces.
Of course, fighting with Modi as the main face does not always yield desirable results for the BJP, the 2020 Delhi election being a case in point, when voters reelected Aam Aadmi Party and its convener Arvind Kejriwal.
West Bengal 2021
In West Bengal, there is a high-stakes political war unfolding. Trinamool Congress supremo and two-time Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee will do all she can to protect her turf from being invaded by Modi-Shah’s expanding kingdom. And if the 2019 Lok Sabha election is anything to go by, Mamata does have enough and more reason to worry.
To fight Modi will be an onerous task for Mamata, and she knows it. He continues to have a ‘clean’ image and uses ‘integrity’ and ‘vikas with a welfare face’ as his key cards, with even the sorry state of the economy not harming him as much as it would any other politician.
It’s not like the BJP isn’t looking for a CM face. There have been murmurs of the BJP looking to rope in former Indian cricket captain Sourav Ganguly as its CM face in Bengal to make it a ‘dada versus didi’ fight. But things towards that end look fuzzy for the BJP right now. The BJP knows it has no strong or overtly capable leader in the state and lacks depth in the human resource department as well.
It also becomes a big dilemma for the BJP — to risk going with a new name and face a drubbing like it did with Kiran Bedi in the 2015 Delhi assembly election, or to go with the more tested option of playing it safe and making Modi the focal point.
It certainly isn’t unusual for political parties to announce CM candidates post elections. The Congress did that with Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. The difference, however, is that the voter is aware of who the possible CMs could be and the options on the table — unlike in UP or Tripura where the BJP threw a surprise.
West Bengal will also be similar, given the absence of strong regional leaders and the unlikely chance of BJP’s lightweight state president Dilip Ghosh being looked at as a possible CM candidate.
As they say, a known devil is better than an unknown angel. But a battle between two known devils will always be more equal and just.
Views are personal.
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