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Why Bengal can vote for BJP, even though Mamata Banerjee is still invincible

Successful CMs like Nitish Kumar and Naveen Patnaik have managed to hold onto power for three or four terms, but Mamata Banerjee’s position appears vulnerable after only two.

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Mamata Banerjee is still invincible but the Trinamool Congress is not. Because, the TMC ain’t just ‘Didi’ anymore. Mamata Banerjee’s own image of a mass leader who truly cares for her people is, arguably, intact. The original Trinamool workers and local leaders still worship her. They would move mountains for Didi, if only she asks. But, they feel marginalised today.

After 34 years of Left rule that reduced West Bengal to ashes and an industrial graveyard, things could only look up for the state after Mamata Banerjee stormed the red bastion in 2011. And, look up it did. It was the culmination of a solo battle she fought against the formidable Left Front machinery and grassroots organisation built one village and ward at a time over six decades since Independence. She created history and a green revolution of a different kind in the name of “Ma, Mati, Manush” that resonated as much with the people as the Communist call to the proletariat in the ’60s.

Also read: Ghosh, Roy or Adhikari? Why BJP brass wants no talk on Bengal CM contender as murmurs grow

Pushing the needle of development

If Narendra Modi talked of “Saaf Niyat” after taking over at the Centre, by all accounts, Mamata Banerjee’s intentions were no less sincere. Acutely aware of the lack of depth in talent within her own party, she mobilised the bureaucracy that was stifled under the previous dispensation and also inducted some technocrats in her team like Amit Mitra. She dipped into her own political capital accumulated during her stints at the Centre in the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government and later in the Manmohan Singh government to reach out to potential investors such as the Ambanis, Jindals, and even mend fences with the Tatas. Her political opponents in the state, both from the Left and Congress, were reduced to a rump. Thus, towards the middle of her first term, the needle of development began to show some signs of positive movement.

Economic statistics apart, there were concrete improvements in rural infrastructure. Many of the state governments welfare programmes seemed to work. Flagship schemes such as ‘Kanyashree‘ (scholarship for girls) caught the imagination of the people. For the first time in several decades, a chief minister was seen to be interested in giving the state a visual ‘facelift’. Though there could be differences in opinion about the TMC’s sense of aesthetics, visitors to the state did not fail to notice the changes. To be fair, the improvements were not merely cosmetic. The inexorable decline of the state that began with the ultra-Left movement in the late ’60s showed signs of being arrested. Bengal was back in the national consciousness, in a manner of speaking.

Also read: ‘Feel mental pain’ — Trinamool MP posts cryptic FB message as protest chorus grows in party

Didi had bigger ambitions

So, why is it that successful chief ministers like Nitish Kumar, Naveen Patnaik and Shivraj Singh Chouhan have managed to hold onto power for three or four terms, but Mamata Banerjee’s position appears vulnerable after only two?

In my view, the reasons have more to do with politics than governance. Unlike some of the other chief ministers named, right from the start, Mamata Banerjee was not content to limit her ambitions to being the unchallenged queen of West Bengal. Like most non-BJP politicians, Banerjee too believed that the era of coalitions was here to stay. In such a scenario, with a weakened Congress, she saw a bigger role for herself in national politics. Using ‘resurgent Bengal’ as a springboard, she saw herself doing a Narendra Modi-like leapfrog onto the national political scene. As a plus over Modi, she had the additional ‘secular’ badge to flaunt with a consciously cultivated left-of-Centre image.

Readers may recall that in his run-up to the 2014 campaign, Narendra Modi had offered an olive branch to Mamata Banerjee — with his remark in his first election rally in Kolkata of “Dada (Pranab Mukherjee) at Rashtrapati Bhavan, Didi (Mamata Banerjee) in West Bengal and (Narendra) Bhai in Delhi” as the best formula for Bengal. But, this offer was spurned.

One cannot fault Mamata Banerjee’s political instincts in not being able to anticipate the 2014 saffron tsunami that swept India. At that point, she was apprehensive of jeopardising her minority vote bank by playing footsie with the BJP. So, she willingly gave up space to manoeuvre in the middle and, in a way, allowed the BJP its first toe-hold in the state. This was reflected in the BJP’s vote share jumping from 6 per cent in 2009 to 17 per cent in the 2014 Lok Sabha election.

Also read: Not West Bengal, but it’s the Assam polls that is most crucial for Modi-Shah this year

Faults develop in TMC plan

The BJP’s rise in West Bengal was a cause of alarm for the TMC. In what was viewed as a defensive move, instead of straddling between two constituencies, the TMC focussed on consolidating its hold on the minority community, while for the rest, it adopted the CPIM’s tried-and-tested strategy of booth-level micromanagement through cadres. Only difference being that the ward-level committees were replaced by para (local) clubs, which received largesse from the government and were given a carte blanche for resource and ballot mobilisation.

Meanwhile, Amit Shah and Narendra Modi, realising that no understanding or compromise with Mamata Banerjee was possible, turned the heat on the state. What happened with Saradha, Narada, ED and CBI does not bear repetition. Action against the moneybags, like the chit-fund owners, to cut off the gravy train and the subsequent impact of demonetisation were straight out the Shah-Modi playbook.

These string of events set Mamata Banerjee on a warpath with the Centre that reached a point of no return. She was further egged on her crusade by fallacious calculations, peddled by some members of her party whose strong suit was neither politics nor mathematics, of how Narendra Modi can be dislodged by a united Opposition. She increasingly saw a bigger role for herself in the national pantheon. With a floundering Congress under a juvenile leader and other Opposition leaders close to their sell-by dates, her hopes could only soar.

Not seen by many, the bigger casualty of the Centre’s offensive against the state government was not Mamata Banerjee’s image, but the tremors it caused in the second rung of the TMC leading to stalwarts like Mukul Roy deserting ship. Prior to this, Mamata concentrated, much like Modi, on being the public face and focused on administration, leaving the organisational nitty-gritty to Roy and a few other trusted generals like Suvendu Adhikari. With the exit of Mukul and disengagement of heavyweights like Suvendu, new power centres emerged and alternate axes of command began to develop. But, the rising stars did not have either the maturity or the acceptability of the veterans who had fallen out of favour with Didi.

Following the unexpected reverses of May 2019, for the first time, cracks were visible in the TMC and an impression started gaining ground that Mamata Banerjee’s writ was no longer ubiquitous within the party. The import of election strategist Prashant Kishor further queered the pitch.

Also read: Matuas key to BJP breaching Mamata’s south Bengal fort, but support hinges on CAA promise

Enter BJP

True to the Amit Shah-style of political management, the BJP policy is unabashedly ‘what you don’t have, acquire’. The gloves and masks are all off and, notwithstanding tangential references to secularism, Bengal’s history and culture, the fight is one of money and muscle power on the ground. Those who are surprised by the increase in violence in Bengal as the election comes closer, should look into the political history of the state. Power in Bengal has always moved along with the lumpens. By siding with the BJP, they may help it tilt the scales in the forthcoming election. But, in the absence of leadership bench-strength, for West Bengal, it may just be a change of direction from one mirage to another.

With greater mobility across the country, children going to other states for higher studies and jobs, there is a growing sense among ordinary Bengalis that Bengal has lost out on development by being continuously at loggerheads with the Centre. Some think that having the same party in power at the state and Centre might see an end to the long history of neglect West Bengal has suffered over the years (surprisingly, even during the Congress rule post Independence, when Bengal was the victim of the infamous freight equalisation scheme). Some Bengalis see a ray of hope in Narendra Modi’s Look East policy and increased economic activity in the North East since the BJP came to power.

This could well turn out to be a winning card for the BJP in the 2021 election if it plays it right without harping on Bengali sub-nationalism alone.

Sandip Ghose is a writer and blogger on current affairs. Views are personal.

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  1. There are several bunch of reasons why Bengal vote for BJP:
    1 ant incumbency
    2 100 killings of BJP leaders
    3 Prashant Kishore factor
    4 much stronger ground root reach of BJP in west Bengal
    5 ignorant and rude mentality of left that have shifted it’s votebase to Bjp.
    6 vote cutting muslim alliances such as asadduddin’s party and other muslim votebanks

  2. Thank you for the wonderful analysis. Due to the articles like these, I have grudgingly come to like Shekhar Gupta even though I still hold it against him how he tries to play both sides and sells himself out by giving platform to regressive left funded by zakat who write their articles in the burqa of secularism. Good analysis. Thanks you.

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