Last March, as the BJP wrested Tripura from the Left, its leaders and workers rejoiced over the march of the party in 21 of India’s 29 states, but party president Amit Shah cautioned against complacency. “Jab tak Odisha, West Bengal aur Kerala mein BJP nahin aa jati, tab tak party ka golden period shuru nahin hoga (the BJP’s golden period will commence only when we win Odisha, West Bengal and Kerala,” he said, conveying that the party’s pan-India dream was far from over. Bengal, apart from being geographically close to Tripura, shares a similar past of Left rule. It was a natural choice for Shah’s ‘destination next’. ‘Ebar Bangla’-Shah gave the battle cry, charted out the roadmap and set a highly ambitious but not impossible target of winning 23 of the 42 Lok Sabha seats in the state. If Tripura could do a turnaround with the BJP’s 1.3 per cent vote share and zero seats in the 2013 assembly poll, West Bengal, with its three MLAs, two MPs and an increasing vote share-from 13 per cent in 2014 Lok Sabha to 22 per cent in the subsequent bypolls-seemed comfortably close to scripting a similar story.
Shah’s strategy was formulated in April 2018, immediately after the party’s victory in Tripura and after sensing people’s dissatisfaction with the Trinamool Congress’s (TMC) alleged extortion or tolabaji, where beneficiaries of various welfare schemes are forced to pay a ‘cut’ to party leaders in order to claim the dole-be it for Nijashree (LIG housing scheme), Yuvasree (allowance and credit for the unemployed youth) or job cards for 100 days of work. There’s also discontent within the majority community over the TMC’s alleged appeasement politics.
Strengthening the organisation at the booth level and ensuring the party’s significant presence in the booths as a safeguard against rigging was the first task Shah set out for the Bengal BJP leaders. He flagged off the ‘Booth Chalo’ drive by visiting an urban slum in Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s home turf, Bhowanipore. For one and a half years, Shah sent party leaders to Bengal’s hinterland to mobilise BJP sympathisers.
Even as the party, with the help of the RSS, went on to make inroads in rural Bengal, cashing in on the general discontent against the TMC’s high-handedness, Shah also made use of resourceful persons in the TMC, who were the brains behind defeating the Left after its 34-year reign. Mukul Roy, the second-in-command in TMC and known for successful electioneering, was welcomed, even though he was facing allegations of involvement in a financial scam. Roy was desperate to make peace with the BJP to avoid a probe by the central investigating agencies. His induction was Shah’s strategy to weaken the TMC from within. Roy, known for his poaching skills, took advantage of the factional feud within the Trinamool to line up a number of ‘winnable’ leaders, who were willing to cross over. Nisith Pramanik, a former TMC leader with 11 criminal cases against him, was offered a BJP ticket from Cooch Behar immediately after his defection because he was seen as capable of taking on the TMC. “We are aiming at an erosion in the middle-order leaders who control the grassroot workers and votes and have not been rewarded by the party. By giving them respect and responsibility, we are making the ground shaky for TMC’s heavyweights. This is what has happened after TMC’s Barrackpore leader Arjun Singh joined us,” says Diptiman Sengupta, BJP leader from Cooch Behar.
“For the first time, the RSS has given us a free hand in choosing candidates to ensure the party’s victory. Winnability has to be ensured first and acceptability will follow,” says Debashree Choudhury, the party’s candidate from the Raiganj seat. The constituency, a Congress stronghold, is likely to go to the BJP because of the polarisation of the Hindu votes, following the death of two students from the majority community in police firing over the appointment of Urdu and Sanskrit teachers at the Daribhit High School. The 48 per cent Muslim vote is likely to be divided between the CPI(M)’s Mohammad Salim and Congress’s Deepa Dasmunshi.
Polarisation on the basis of religion is happening for the first time in Bengal and this can be attributed to Shah, who has been talking of Mamata’s ‘Muslim appeasement policy’ in all his public meetings. The districts sharing borders with Bangladesh have witnessed illegal immigration, and are now seeing a consolidation of Hindu votes. With the promise of a National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Bengal and citizenship rights for Hindu refugees, the BJP is looking at a massive swell of Hindu votes in Raiganj (North Dinajpur), Balurghat (South Dinajpur), Alipurduar, Malda North (Malda), Krishnanagar (Nadia), Ranaghat, Bongaon, Barrackpore, Basirhat (all in North 24 Parganas) seats.
Mamata, too, is getting drawn into the narrative of religious identity, even as she accuses Prime Minister Narendra Modi of being “communal” and “having the blood of Godhra riots on his hands”. She is reciting hymns in Sanskrit at every rally and invoking Hindu gods in a desperate attempt to project herself as ‘secular’, repeatedly reciting all that she has done for the Hindus, Buddhists and Jains. “I have given acres and acres of land to the ISKCON (International Society for Krishna Consciousness), renovated the Tarapith, Tarakeswar, Kalighat shrines, constructed a skywalk for the Dakshineswar temple. What has he (Modi) done for the Hindus? I have renovated crematoriums and burial ghats,” she says while asking her audience not to get carried away by Modi’s promises.
Bankura, Purulia, West Midnapore and Birbhum are witnessing a consolidation of the tribal votes. The tribals are seething with anger about being left out of the development and employment generation schemes that Mamata has been talking about in her campaigns. Jhargram in West Midnapore, Purulia and Bankura are some of the districts where the BJP pulled a coup of sorts by winning almost half the gram panchayat seats for the first time in June 2018. Ministers like James Kujur, Chudamani Mahato and MP Uma Soren, who have allegedly amassed wealth and property, had to be removed to appease tribal sentiments. State BJP president Dilip Ghosh is contesting from Midnapore this time and is addressing both the Hindu and the tribal voters. The BJP has also given tickets to tribals and party workers who are popular among the Adivasis. “Birbhum is a challenging seat for us because the BJP candidate Dudhkumar Mondal is a son of the soil and a dedicated party worker. Our only hope was Muraroi with 73 per cent Muslim population, but with a Muslim candidate-Rezaul Karim of the CPI(M)-contesting from the seat, a split in Muslim votes is inevitable, benefitting the BJP,” says a TMC district leader.
With Shah and Modi claiming that the TMC government will fall after the election results are out on May 23, Mamata has lashed out saying this poll is for electing the prime minister and not the chief minister. “How dare he ask what I have done in my tenure? Instead of telling people what he has done for the country in the past five years, he’s constantly asking my people what I have done for them. I tell them this is a vote for Modi hatao, desh bachao,” she says.
Modi has lined up 20 rallies and is coming to the state every other day. Further, Bengal features in his poll rallies-be it in Varanasi or Jammu. Mamata, in turn, is highlighting demonetisation, lynching, intolerance and breakdown of institutions like the CBI, RBI in the past five years.
Modi has said that democracy was murdered in Bengal during the panchayat polls. “The major issue this election is people’s frustration with not being able to vote in the panchayat elections. About 17.5 million out of 50 million people could not cast their votes in the panchayat polls and you can see the fallout in the polling percentage-as high as 80 per cent in the first four phases of the Lok Sabha election,” says Mohit Ray, a former professor at the Indian Institute of Social Welfare and Business Management. “There’s a strong wave of anti-incumbency in Bengal. This kind of huge turnout is likely to indicate a vote against the current establishment. Compare this with the rest of the country, where polling percentage is moderate to poor,” says Prasanta Ray, a former professor of political science at the Presidency College in Kolkata.
“The Trinamool has won 34 per cent of the panchayat seats uncontested all over the state. Wherever we campaign, people ask us if they will be able to vote this time. This indicates that people are desperate to vote for a change,” says BJP vice-president Jay Prakash Majumdar.
Sensing the mood, Mamata is reminding voters of her achievements in the past seven years. She is holding her campaigns in scorching afternoon heat so that she gets time to listen to BJP leaders during the day and give a point-by-point rebuttal to Modi, Shah and Yogi Adityanath.
The BJP has also raised its pitch in favour of deploying central forces in all booths to ensure a free and fair poll. The party is keeping up its pressure on the Election Commission, demanding transfers of partisan officers. The EC has already ordered the transfer of two police commissioners, two superintendents of police and seven police officers. “The deployment of central forces will increase as a confidence building measure in the subsequent phases when the number of seats going to polls will also go up. We will also revamp our war rooms with more party cadres joining us from across the country,” says Majumdar.
According to BJP leaders, Modi is “more than willing to campaign in Bengal because there’s a ‘Modi wave’ in the state this time”. Not one to back out of a fight, Mamata has dubbed Modi ‘Expiry Babu’. The idea is to convey to people that Modi’s days at the Centre are over and the people of Bengal will make a big mistake if they believe in Modi’s tall promises. In fact, most of Mamata’s poll speeches focus on Modi-bashing. The idea is to boost the morale of her party workers, who are feeling intimidated by the BJP’s show of strength in Modi’s rallies. If the BJP is accusing her and TMC leaders of being involved in financial scams like Saradha and Narada, Mamata is alluding to the Sahara scam and Modi’s alleged involvement in it. She is also making the state CID dig up old cases to harass BJP candidates. For instance, the BJP candidate from Ghatal (West Midnapore), Bharati Ghosh, who was once close to Mamata as the SP of West Midnapore, is being repeatedly interrogated for hours and prevented from campaigning.
For now, it is full-fledged war and both the BJP and the TMC are pulling out all the stops to win the battle for West Bengal.
In 2014, the BJP won only two of the 42 seats in West Bengal. Since then, the party has done everything possible to make inroads, with opinion polls in March this year predicting that the saffron party may come up with its best showing ever in Bengal this general election. The parliamentary constituencies where the BJP is a strong contender are Cooch Behar, Alipurduar, Jalpaiguri, Darjeeling, Raiganj, Balurghat, Malda North, Krishnanagar, Ranaghat, Bongaon, Barrackpore, Birbhum, Asansol, Purulia, Bankura, Jhargram and Midnapore. Of these, seats such as Malda North, Balurghat, Jalpaiguri, Bongaon share a border with Bangladesh, and so, the BJP has stirred up the issue of illegal immigrants. In Alipurduar, Cooch Behar and Darjeeling, BJP leaders are harping on the ethnic identity of the Gorkhas. Birbhum, Purulia, Jhargram, Midnapore are tribal- dominated areas, where the party is banking on the general discontent over the distribution of doles and alleged extortion by TMC leaders. Birbhum, with a 34 per cent Muslim population, is also witnessing a polarisation of votes. The BJP has also made a mark in Basirhat, Serampore, Hooghly, Dum Dum and Uluberia, though it is not yet a strong contender in these constituencies.