The Bharatiya Janata Party’s quest for a formidable face in West Bengal ahead of the assembly election has hovered around former India cricket captain Sourav Ganguly. But the question remains — with Prime Minister Narendra Modi as its main weapon, does the BJP even need another face? Although, given the high-stake battle between Modi and Didi, the BJP can’t risk pitching the PM against Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and end up facing a situation where ‘mighty Modi’ stands defeated.
Since the 2014 Lok Sabha victory, Modi as the BJP’s trump card has largely worked for the party electorally in states where it didn’t have a primary leader. The one time when the BJP experimented and roped in a ‘celebrity’ face to take on a strong opponent — Kiran Bedi in the 2015 Delhi assembly election — it suffered a drubbing so humiliating that it is unlikely to forget easily.
But once again, the BJP finds itself caught in the same dilemma – pick a CM candidate and not be able to fight the election in Modi’s name or enter a high-risk, direct battle between Modi and Mamata.
As things stand, just a few months before the Bengal election, it is clear that the BJP is yet to take a call on its strategy, unlike in Uttar Pradesh, where it was clear from the get-go that Modi will be the only prominent face of the party in the 2017 election.
The advantage of ‘Modi mask’
I have argued in the past that it is only right for the BJP to contest assembly elections with a clear CM face so it does not dangle the ‘Modi carrot’ and then give voters governance-amateurs like Yogi Adityanath or Biplab Deb upon winning.
The propriety of it aside, this strategy has worked well for the BJP electorally.
In the 2017 Uttar Pradesh election, the BJP fought entirely in Modi’s name and while travelling around the state, I found his presence to be so overpowering that in several instances, voters didn’t even know who their immediate candidate was. The verdict was a stunning mandate for Modi, despite the recent demonetisation hiccup.
Before that, the 2016 election in Assam — an uncharted territory for the BJP — was as much about Modi’s name as about Himanta Biswa Sarma’s electoral management, with CM candidate Sarbananda Sonowal being an understated presence. The BJP managed to oust the Left Front government in Tripura in 2017, once again, contesting the election with Modi as its focal point.
Meanwhile, the big states that the BJP ended up losing – Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, and Maharashtra – were those where the party had sitting chief ministers.
All in all, the BJP’s gamble of using Narendra Modi as its mask across elections has worked for it. So why should the party try to digress from this tried-and-tested strategy in West Bengal? When my colleague Moushumi Das Gupta travelled through the state in the run-up to the 2019 Lok Sabha election, she found the PM to be extremely popular, a fact that would have got further cemented with time.
The risk factor
Top BJP sources tell me the party feels “West Bengal is as ripe as Assam, Tripura and UP were in the last election” and that the voter wants ‘poriborton‘ (change). It is also true that Mamata Banerjee is facing a tough election — with deeply set-in anti-incumbency, a host of key leaders deserting her party, and a patchy governance record.
No election, however, is free of risks. And elections rarely come with a set-in-stone certainty. As confident as the BJP may seem, Mamata Banerjee is not one to give up without a fight and the next few months are crucial in determining which side emerges stronger.
Modi and Mamata have had a bitter history for some time now. The 2019 Lok Sabha election saw an acrimonious campaign, with the two leaders hurling accusations and jibes at each other. The PM, just recently, went all out against the West Bengal CM and said she was “destroying” the state.
Given how belligerently the two sides are fighting this battle, a loss for either would be a political embarrassment that won’t easily die down. This is precisely what makes it a gamble for the BJP to make this a Modi vs Didi fight. Don’t forget, in the 2020 Delhi election, the BJP eventually decided to go without a CM face and lost to Arvind Kejriwal, once again. In the Modi vs Kejriwal war, and with nobody else in the BJP to take the fall unlike in 2015 – when Kiran Bedi was its face – the Delhi CM was the clear winner. In fact, it’s a formidable achievement for Kejriwal — the ability to hold his turf even against the very popular and powerful PM.
While BJP leaders say a face isn’t really needed since the coming election is about change, the party’s recent political approach has been about fighting around personalities. In the case of West Bengal, the opponent is a formidable personality, someone who single-handedly raised a new political party and brought down an over three-decade-old Communist government. The BJP will match that with a personality of its own, the only question being whether that would be the tested trump card Narendra Modi or a fresh challenger like Sourav Ganguly. For now, the BJP’s search is on.
Views are personal.