New Delhi, Kolkata: On 12 April, at a rally in West Bengal’s Bardhaman, PM Narendra Modi said, “In the four phases (out of Bengal’s eight polling phases), the Trinamool Congress (TMC) has been wiped out by people. People have hit so many boundaries and over-boundaries that the BJP has slammed a century already.”
A week later, on 18 April, Shah said the BJP will win at least 122 of the 180 seats where elections had been held in the first five phases.
“Mamata Banerjee’s defeat is inevitable. She has been chief minister for 10 years. So, we cannot offer her an ordinary farewell. It must be a grand affair and you can ensure that by giving the BJP more than 200 seats,” Shah added.
Cut to 2 May, and Bengal appears to have thrown up a completely different outcome from what the BJP seemed so sure about.
The BJP’s hopes of forming its first government in West Bengal this year crumbled Sunday as trends for the 2021 assembly elections pointed to a clear victory — third in a row — for Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s TMC.
According to Election Commission trends as of 3 pm, the TMC had a lead in over 200 seats, with the BJP leading in 77.
The BJP’s tally marks a vast improvement over its 2016 total — three — and points towards the inroads it has made in a state where it was a negligible force until recently. It now looks set to emerge as principal opposition to the TMC, leaving behind the Congress and the Communist Party of India (Marxist), veteran political players of the state.
However, the fact that it wasn’t able to score a win despite putting together an aggressive campaign was cited as a “major setback” by party leaders.
In an official statement, the BJP said it “accepts our defeat” but took a jibe at Mamata. “We contested elections with the best of our might but the new phenomena that has been witnessed is that you can build a cadre of cut-money. At the same time we have come a long way from 2011, 2016 as our vote share has increased drastically,” said BJP national spokesperson R.P. Singh.
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What went wrong
The BJP’s poll preparation on the ground began over two years ago. Realising that West Bengal would be no mean task, the party assigned senior leaders like Kailash Vijayvargiya, Shiv Prakash and Arvind Menon to the state. Apart from state chief Dilip Ghosh and other Bengal leaders, these BJP members travelled across the state to strengthen the organisation.
During the campaign for the 2021 election, PM Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah addressed multiple rallies in the state.
According to sources, Shah addressed over 50 public meetings, rallies and road shows, while PM Modi conducted over 20 physical and virtual rallies.
Many of the party and central government’s most high-profile members — Union ministers Smriti Irani, Rajnath Singh, and Dharmendra Pradhan, as well as Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath — joined in as well, and BJP president J.P. Nadda is believed to have addressed over 40 public meetings.
MPs Swapan Dasgupta and Locket Chatterjee were fielded as candidates, as were some other senior leaders who were expected to give the TMC a strong fight in its strongholds. Yesteryear’s dancing superstar Mithun Chakraborty was brought in for a last-leg push.
Fuelling the BJP’s ambitions was its performance in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, when the party won 18 of the state’s 42 seats, as compared to 2 in 2014.
At the end of it, say BJP leaders, they were probably done in by the absence of a CM candidate, and what they describe as an excessive focus on Mamata Banerjee.
Comments about the injury she sustained during an alleged accident in Nandigram in March — an incident the TMC has described as a conspiracy — are seen to have worked in her favour as well.
Throughout the campaign, the TMC’s poll strategist Prashant Kishor insisted that the BJP would not be able to win more than 100 of the state’s 294 assembly seats.
Speaking to ThePrint, a senior BJP leader who didn’t wish to be named said the party was “relying on the silent voter as was the case in Bihar and support from women voters”.
“Though the results are yet to be declared, it seems we have not got the kind of support we had expected. At the same time, Mamata Banerjee’s charisma seems to have worked,” the senior leader added.
Said a second senior leader, “We might have won more seats compared to 2016 but at that time we were just starting off. For the past few years, the central leaders have invested all their energy and time in ensuring a BJP win, so this is a major setback. Right from inducting leaders from other parties and trying to strengthen the party at the organisational level, the party had high hopes.”
According to a third leader, the BJP kept its focus on the state “right from assigning leaders since the beginning, despite winning three seats in 2016”.
“A battery of ministers, MPs and other leaders were given charge to ensure the focus never shifted and it kept the workers motivated,” said the leader.
Asked why the campaign didn’t yield the desired result, BJP leaders cite the absence of a CM candidate and focusing the entire election on PM Modi.
“Mamata Banerjee is a strong and fierce leader. To counter her, we needed to have a face but we did not. PM Modi can’t always rescue us. There is a marked difference between state and national elections,” said another BJP functionary.
A fifth leader added that “targeting Mamata Banerjee for her injured leg and at one level making the entire elections about her was not good strategy”.
“Later on, state leaders were asked not to make comments about her injury, and to target her government at the level of policies, but it seems the CM ended up getting the sympathy votes too,” the leader said.
The leader also pointed to suspected resentment among local party cadres about the inductions of TMC and Left leaders. “Some of the BJP’s own workers felt demotivated. Many had protested after the ticket distribution too,” the leader said.
Behind BJP strides
The strides the BJP has made in the state can be attributed to the support it gets from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), which has consistently built on its presence in the state since 1939.
Another factor often cited in discussions about the BJP’s rise in Bengal is Mamata Banerjee’s alleged Muslim appeasement.
The BJP is believed to have started getting a foothold in the state after the Mamata Banerjee government took a decision to restrict Durga idol immersion for a day in 2017 to allow processions for Muharram, which coincided with Durga Puja that year.
The directive was challenged by some RSS-backed organisations and individuals in the Calcutta High Court, which issued a stay.
This, according to political analyst Biswanath Chakraborty, was the beginning of the rise of saffron forces in the state. The episode found mention in each of Union Home Minister Amit Shah’s political rallies in Bengal over the past four years.
The polarisation factors on which the BJP thrives were presented to them on a platter, said Abdul Matin, another analyst.
“The BJP got entry into Bengal because Mamata Banerjee prepared the ground for them by announcing financial assistance for Muslim clerics, by prioritising Muharram over idol immersion and sheltering criminals, who happened to be Muslims. This is how the divide was created and the BJP flourished on that,” he added.
CM Mamata Banerjee, however, seemed to have caught on to this and sought to counter the allegations by emphasising her Hindu identity on more than one occasion during the campaign.
At election rallies, the BJP dismissed Mamata’s conduct as an acknowledgment by the Trinamool Congress of its imminent defeat. But the trends that have emerged seem to tell a different story.
“The BJP needs to work on its strategy and move away from one-size-fits-all. West Bengal is a big state and every region has its own concerns. The party’s experiment of fielding its MPs in West Bengal elections appears to be failing too, Locket Chaterjee and Swapan Dasgupta have been trailing for a while,” said a BJP leader.
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Violence, cut money, defections
Violence has been a scourge of Bengal politics for decades.
In the 2018 panchayat elections alone, approximately 40-50 people were killed in clashes. Thirty-five per cent of the seats went uncontested in the election, which Banerjee’s party eventually won.
However, the election also marked the first signs of the BJP’s ascent in the Bengal grassroots.
The BJP, which had no presence in the three-tier panchayat framework in rural Bengal until then, won 633 of 3,276 seats across 19 districts. The Trinamool Congress won 871 seats, while the CPM-Congress combine got 865 seats.
The Trinamool Congress has also found itself surrounded by allegations of extortion — seeking “cut money” from beneficiaries of state government schemes — and irregularities in the distribution of the Amphan relief fund.
Even so, it is backed by a strong organisational framework down to the grass roots.
To counter the TMC cadre, at the organisational level, the BJP applied a two-pronged strategy: Increased its own organisational network at the booth-level and opened the gates for TMC and Left defectors. The induction of senior TMC leaders like Suvendu Adhikari into the BJP served as bad optics for Mamata’s party.
As the BJP’s profile rose, over two dozen MLAs from the Trinamool Congress defected to the party after the 2019 elections.
“Right from dividing the West Bengal unit of the party into five zones, creating shakti kendras (comprising around 5 booths) and appointing vistaraks, who would take up the responsibility in a district apart from their district of residence and would be asked to spend their time in a new place… to strengthen the organisation at the booth-level,” said a BJP leader.
“We got support from the Sangh in achieving this target, but we could not match the TMC’s organisational strength as they are in power,” the leader added.
(Edited by Sunanda Ranjan)
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