Can the BJP rise in Bengal? Here is a strategy.
A year ago, I had argued that BJP has the potential to fill an existing political vacuum in Bengal, generated by the demise of the Left and disenchantment with the anti-development and minority appeasement agenda of Trinamool Congress (TMC). At that point, none but its diehard supporters gave the Bengal BJP the time of the day – its central unit was not counting on winning any Lok Sabha seat in the state either, and had disbursed only limited amount of funds to the state unit. Yet, despite large scale voter intimidation and rigging, starting from a meagre 6 per cent votes in the previous Lok Sabha polls, BJP fetched more than 17 per cent, and won two seats.
BJP’s rise was remarkable because it was organic; the state BJP lacks both organization and dynamic leadership. Continuing this trend, in the recent by-poll, BJP has won Basirhat South all by itself, and emerged as the runner-up in Chowringhee. Buoyed by this sequence of unexpected successes, BJP is hoping to emerge as the main opposition in the assembly polls due in two years. My thesis however, is that the euphoria is premature, as yet.
The challenges ahead
The task of emerging as the main opposition would require BJP to substantially enhance its vote share beyond the 17.6 per cent it obtained in Lok Sabha polls. This is challenging, as national parties traditionally perform better in Lok Sabha polls, particularly in states with dominant regional parties. More importantly, the demographics of Bengal constitute a fundamental stumbling block.
A quarter of the population comprises minorities and a very small percentage among them will vote for the BJP in 2016, no matter what (an analysis of the by-poll results, which we present later, will support this contention). The remaining three quarters is split among farmers, urban underclass and urban middle class. The first category lives in villages, while the second and third groups live in cities and small towns. Throughout the history of Bengal, the last category has been the most receptive to political changes, but had counted the least owing to its limited numerical strength. For example, the Left had lost significant parts of the last category long before it did the first two—Kolkata had not exactly been a left bastion for a while. This is the segment that BJP can have a significant impact on, in the remaining time, but it won’t suffice by itself.
A brief digression into the history of political transitions in Bengal is in order to elucidate the challenges that confront BJP in its journey towards Mahakaran (Writer’s Building, the seat of the state government in Kolkata).
The farmers, urban underclass and the minorities, who constitute the bulk of the Bengal population, solidly backed the Left for the most part of its 35-year regime, despite the fact that Bengal consistently economically regressed during Left rule. The agrarian support was earned through the land reforms instituted by the Left, which guaranteed tilling rights to landless farmers, and was sustained through the deep-rooted organization the Left built in Bengal which acted as dual governmental administration.
The urban underclass was also won over through this organizational network. This happened as the real government administration was dysfunctional, and it is the assistance of the cadres from the local party offices that enabled folks to get through basic civic necessities, such as opening bank accounts, registering names in employment exchanges, availing of medical attention in government hospitals etc. Even such routine chores would not be smooth unless accompanied by local comrades. Thus, citizens got used to accepting as charity, what were their dues, and unaware of their rights, developed a sense of gratitude towards a party that in reality did not deliver. Finally, intimidation of political opponents through gruesome violence in rural Bengal, which went unreported in the national media, also generously furthered the left cause.
Paribartan (Change, Mamata Banerjee’s electoral slogan in the last state elections) was ushered in when the farmers deserted the Left, as the latter, in one of its rare pro-development moves, sought to acquire agricultural land for industrializing Bengal. Around the same time, the beneficiary of this desertion, Mamata Banarjee could convince the urban minorities that the Left had done nothing for their material well-being (which was factually correct). The rural minorities mostly practiced farming and anyhow opposed land acquisition by the Left.
Islamic fundamentalism has been on the rise throughout Bengal, encouraged by the Left for garnering votes, and Mamata ate their lunch by appearing as more pro-Islam through her appeasement symbolisms such as reading namaaz etc. Minorities voted almost lock, stock and barrel for her. Having assumed power, Mamata has not only continued but also exacerbated all the practices of the Left, and has as a result earned the support of the farmers, urban underclass and minorities owing to a combination of misplaced gratitude and intimidation.
BJP does not yet have the organization to address the day-to-day challenges that confront the masses. The party offices they try to build are also ransacked by TMC goons quite often. Also, Bengal BJP currently lacks a leader with mass appeal or organizational ability. State leaders largely campaigned in their individual seats in 2014 rather than crisscrossing the state. Unlike the Left and TMC cadres, BJP cadres could not distribute voter slips at individual residences a day or two before the polls, which is really an opportunity for last moment door-to-door campaigning. BJP could not also man most of the polling booths. BJP faltered at these organizational basics more because of the lack of leadership than dearth of committed cadres.
While campaigning for BJP before the polls, I came across a host of extremely motivated volunteers with Sangh backgrounds who would toil without any individual political aspiration whatsoever. They enthusiastically organized roadside meetings throughout the constituency I worked in and would even transport volunteer speakers like myself from one meeting to another in their personal vehicles. The lack of leadership was evident in that even the official twitter handle of BJP in West Bengal was not properly manned. Very few updates were available on polling days and none of those publicized the electoral violence (voter intimidation, booth capture etc) that engulfed Bengal during that time. Not surprising therefore that no leader from Bengal was included by the new BJP president Amit Shah in his national team.
State-level leadership is likely to remain BJP’s Achilles heel at least until 2016. This is bad news as elections are becoming increasingly presidential, and the support for Modi as PM will no longer be a factor in the assembly polls. Mamata Banarjee continues to have a certain stature and visibility despite the chit fund scam that has dented her credibility. BJP is more likely to overcome its organizational challenges and emerge as the main opposition if it can credibly contest for government formation under a popular chief ministerial candidate. But, it is difficult to garner votes for a potential leader of the opposition rather than a prospective chief minister.
By-polls in Bengal have turned out to be quite revealing. BJP has narrowly won in Basirhat South by about 1,000 votes and lost by about 14,000 votes in Chowringhee. TMC was the runner-up in the former and the winner in the latter. The Left lost its deposit in both seats. Congress lost its deposit in the former, and emerged a close third in the latter.
Hindus voters enjoy a slender numerical majority in Basirhat South. Illegal immigration, cow slaughter rackets and Islamist violence constituted the principal poll issues here. BJP candidate Shamik Bhattacharya led this constituency by about 30,000 votes in Lok Sabha. Sensing a loss, Mamata Banarjee dispatched her right hand man and seven ministers for micromanaging the by-poll here. The seat registered a turnout of about 80 per cent despite voter intimidation. The rural part of Basirhat South, which is predominantly Muslim, gave TMC a lead of about 17,000 votes. Urban Basirhat, which is predominantly Hindu, made up this deficit for BJP, and even provided it a slender win. BJP got about 70 per cent votes here.
Next, in Chowringee, TMC had fielded the wife of one of Mamata’s key associates, Sudip Bandopadhyay. Both Congress and BJP fielded Hindi-speaking Hindu candidates. The Congress candidate was the local councilor. Urdu-speaking Muslim and Hindi-speaking Hindus together constitute the bulk of the populace here. Polling percentage barely touched 50 per cent in Chowringhee—apparently the Hindi-speaking Hindus did note vote in large numbers. Muslim-dominated segments voted predominantly for TMC, while Hindu neighborhoods were split between BJP and Congress, resulting in a win for TMC.
It is therefore clear that Muslims are not, by and large, voting for BJP in Bengal; rather they are consolidating in favour of TMC wherever BJP has a presence. The consolidation has in fact increased in the by-polls as compared to the Lok Sabha elections. A section of Muslims voted for the Left in Basirhat in the Lok Sabha polls. But, given BJP’s impressive performance there, the same moved en masse to TMC in by-polls. The Left lost its deposit in a seat that it had won in seven consecutive elections (the by-poll was necessitated because of the demise of the sitting Left MLA), and BJP’s lead in this constituency decreased from 30,000 to 1,000.
What BJP can however do
Product differentiation is of essence, if BJP is to make its mark in West Bengal. BJP had obtained its memorable electoral successes at the national level only when it effectively distinguished itself from other available options. Its Lok Sabha seats increased from 2 to 82 after it spearheaded the Ram Janmabhoomi movement, alone. The movement received support even in Bengal where Lord Ram is not fundamental to Hindu consciousness (for instance, unlike in North India, Bengalis do not greet each other in the name of Lord Ram). This support was fuelled by the blatant appeasement of Muslim fundamentalism by the then polity.
For example, India was one of the first countries to ban The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie on the ground that it offended the sentiments of Muslims. Also, bowing to the demands of fundamentalists, a progressive Supreme Court judgement on the maintenance of a Muslim woman, Shah Bano, was reversed through the legislative route. BJP’s vote share in Bengal first reached double digits during this period. Again, in 2014, PM Modi won an unprecedented mandate by campaigning for development and against the existing narrative of secularism. He banked on the longing for empowerment as opposed to entitlement, and the disgust with Indian-style secularism which had by then degenerated to appeasement of Pakistan and glorification of terrorists (top Bihar politicians flaunted their visits to Pakistan, had Osama Bin Laden look-alikes accompany them and abuse soldiers killed by Pakistan—all for securing the largest chunk of Muslim votes). This refreshingly different narrative provided a three-fold increase in BJP’s vote share in Bengal.
In principle, BJP should be able to easily distinguish itself in the assembly polls; after all, the Left space is overcrowded in Bengal (TMC is more left than the Left). There are several issues which BJP—and only BJP—can legitimately claim as its own. Resentment over Mamata Banarjee’s blatant appeasement of Muslims is growing in Bengal. She has, for example, announced quotas for Muslims in higher education and special stipends for Imams but not Hindu purohits or Christian priests.
The Left is in no position to oppose the same as it had announced quotas for Muslims in government jobs too. Demographic changes owing to illegal immigration from Bangladesh are visible throughout Bengal, and this has increased communal tensions in the border districts. Islamist goons function with impunity and at times under police protection. The organic increase in the vote share of BJP in 2014 Lok Sabha substantially owes to a rejection of such vote bank politics. But, if this is to increase further, state leadership has to lead the opposition to religious discrimination both at the grassroots level and in public spheres such as the media.
The state BJP has to make common cause with the victims of religious violence, and constantly highlight their plight through mass agitation. While in opposition, Mamata had once brought a rape victim to Mahakaran and refused to leave until she received redress. Beyond having a national team visit to Sandeshkhali, why could BJP not similarly highlight the plights of their cadres surviving on daily wages, who were shot in their limbs by local Muslim goons with the goal of permanently disabling them? Women were also raped in the same area because the men in their families volunteered for BJP. Hindu activists, and not local BJP cadres, are resisting Islamist violence (tacitly supported by the police) on the ground in districts adjoining Bangladesh. In the recent by-polls, BJP has registered its first ever assembly win (by itself) in one such seat, Basirhat South, bordering Bangladesh. A Hindu activist organization, Hindu Samhati, is active there.
It is important to note that BJP’s campaign had no religious overtone anywhere in Bengal. In fact, it has supported continuation of cow slaughter in some areas. But, despite its Muslim outreach, the Muslim vote not only remained elusive, but further consolidated against it. BJP’s only hope of winning Bengal is therefore, a counter Hindu consolidation. It won in Basirhat South where this materialized, and lost in Chowringhee where it didn’t. Elsewhere in India, it is Hindu consolidation during the Lok Sabha elections that gave BJP its spectacular wins, for example, in UP, despite organizational weakness. Yet, Bengal BJP President, Rahul Sinha, did not acknowledge the core issues that might consolidate Hindu votes in future such as Muslim appeasement, illegal immigration, etc. as the contributing factors in his election analysis in media. The winning candidate in Basirhat South emphasized on how TMC was not only persecuting Hindus, but also Muslims. This statement is at best incomplete, since Hindus constitute the primary, if not the sole, target of Mamata’s political violence in Bengal.
It has now emerged in the national media that the text books in Bengal have described revolutionary freedom fighters as terrorists. Contrary to expectations, the state BJP did not organize visible protests over this serious violation, even though the conditions were ripe. Recently, Hindu Samhati organized a rally attended by 20,000 people in honour of Gopal Mukherjee (who resisted Muslim league rioters during the pre-partition riots better known as the Great Calcutta Killings) and in support of Israel. This rally turned out to be the largest held in support of Israel worldwide, outside Israel. It is remarkable that such a massive rally could be held in support of right wing causes in a left bastion and without any media support. This goes to show that there is a definite trend towards the right in this left capital. BJP ought to lead such movements, not merely follow them.
During his Lok Sabha election campaign, Modi brought the issue of illegal immigration from Bangladesh to centrestage by promising to send back infiltrators, if he is elected to office. This did strike a chord in particular in the border districts. It would be important to show progress towards countering infiltration by the time BJP starts its campaign for assembly polls. It does not augur well, that eliminating infiltration in only the North East, and not Bengal, has been identified as a national priority.
On the positive side, RSS is making significant strides towards product differentiation with respect to its composition in Bengal. Reports are emerging that it is building a solid base among the lower castes in rural Bengal by grooming leaders from underprivileged social backgrounds. This augurs well as the Hindu leaders of the left and TMC are largely from the upper castes. Though caste has so far not influenced voting patterns, it is likely that voters from lower castes would identify more closely with leadership emerging from similar social backgrounds.
Product differentiation should extend beyond the domain of ideological and social issues. Bengal’s economy is in the doldrums due to populist policies of the Left and the far left (TMC), and there is little to distinguish between the economic policies of the two. Rather than competing in the same overcrowded and unproductive space, Bengal BJP should unequivocally make the case that populism and mala fide trade unionism have ruined Bengal, and have hurt most those it was meant to protect. It should put forward an agenda that seeks to generate wealth rather than glorify poverty.
The ground is ripe for the acceptance of such a narrative which is imaginative and unusual in the context of Bengal. The farmers who agitated against the acquisition of their land for the flagship Nano project of the Tatas have not got their land back even today, years after the Tatas left. Worse, notwithstanding Mamata’s pre-poll grand standings, they have not even received the compensation that was granted to those who accepted them before the project was rescinded. Once the hero of Singur, now Mamata cannot even visit the area without being booed for not fulfilling her poll promise of returning the acquired land to the farmers.
Having seen the futility of land acquisition agitations, farmers in many places are now willing to donate their land. BJP needs to make the case that it would industrialize Bengal, without compromising the interest of the farmers. It can cite the example of Gujarat which has seen double digit growth in agriculture over a decade along with substantial growth in manufacturing. It should also seek to emulate Vasundhara Raje Scindia who handed a massive defeat to the Congress in Rajasthan by campaigning against the populism of her predecessor Ashok Gehlot. Bengal has not witnessed a new narrative in a long while—perhaps even more reason why citizens would be easier persuaded to give it a chance.
Acceptance of a new message critically relies on the availability of a medium for disseminating it. BJP desperately needs a friendly TV channel and a vernacular newspaper for disseminating its message. Bengal is a rural underdeveloped state. Therefore, reach of information technology is still limited in its hinterland. For this reason, every major party in Bengal, other than BJP, has one or more unofficially affiliated media group.
Awareness of the danger of illegal immigration from Bangladesh and radical Islamization are still much less than in neighbouring Assam. Existing news media has blacked out events that would shock every right thinking citizen. Hindus were subjected to organized religious violence in Deganga and Canning. When Bangladesh was witnessing one of its few secular movements, Shahbag, which demanded that those who colluded with the Pakistan army in 1971 in perpetrating atrocities on their own countrymen be substantially penalized, pro-Bangladeshi Islamist rallies were organized in the heart of Kolkata. The support for Bangladeshi Islamists in Kolkata was particularly reprehensible, since they fought against the Indian army during the Indo-Pak war of 1971.
Not many Calcuttans know that such a rally took place, as the media ignored this shame altogether. The religious persecution of Hindu Bengalis in neighbouring Bangladesh has never been reported. Owing to violent protests by Islamists, reputed author Taslima Nasreen was denied residence in Bengal during the Left regime. Mamata Banerjee followed it up by banning a TV serial she was participating in, which had nothing to do with religion. Bengali media and intellectuals remained silent during this despicable assault on freedom of speech. Lastly, the massive Hindu Samhati rally I earlier referred to was blacked out in local media too, although it was widely covered in international media, from Pakistan, France and Israel.
Finally, while BJP may not be able to project a charismatic and credible face for the 2016 assembly polls, it can perhaps import experienced hands from other states to lead the organization. One would also hope that the expansion of RSS among lower castes in rural Bengal will, in the not too distant future, give BJP a leader with the same social and geographical background, unlike the shahure (urban) upper caste bangali bhadroloks (gentry) leading other parties.
Hindus in a village in Basirhat South were stopped from exercising their franchise in the assembly by-polls by TMC’s goons. The same villagers gathered the courage to publicly celebrate the victory of the party they wanted to vote for once it was declared the winner. BJP owes it to these suppressed voices in the state of its ideological founder, Dr Shyama Prasad Mookerjee, to give its best shot to oust the current reign of terror. Bengal deserves a chance before it becomes too late.
Saswati Sarkar campaigned for West Bengal BJP during the 2014 General Elections