Union Minister Prahald Singh Patel of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) claimed last week that the voters of West Bengal are angry and dissatisfied with the Mamata Banerjee government and the party is likely to win 200 out of the 294 seats in the upcoming elections. “Bengal is a victim of the state government’s negligence,” he added in a statement. As the political battleground of West Bengal heats up, all parties are campaigning actively and aggressively, with voter registration drives and rallies across the state.
Until 2011, the BJP was merely a fringe party in the state, managing to secure merely 4.1% of the vote share. However, just 8 years later, during the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the party managed to secure roughly 40% of the votes, as well as 18 out of the 42 seats. Several political analysts and commentators attribute the BJP’s victory to the Modi wave, the rise in religious polarization in the state and several other factors. However, the exponential rise of the party in the state, including the growth in its internal party machinery in the state, are also equally important factors.
How did the BJP become a force to reckon with in West Bengal?
With the West Bengal Assembly Elections dates due to be announced any day now, the political battleground in the state has heated up. Although the election will be a three-way contest between the Trinamool Congress (TMC), Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Left Front (in alliance with the Indian National Congress), undoubtedly all eyes are going to be on the tough fight between the BJP and the TMC.
The BJP has been pursuing an aggressive campaign in West Bengal, roping in national leaders, along with effective on-ground campaign machinery in a bid for power in the state for the first time in history. Till 2014, BJP had always been a distant marginal player in West Bengal politics. It had, in fact, contested the Lok Sabha polls as a junior ally of the Trinamool Congress (TMC) in 1998, 1999 and 2004. In 2001 and 2006, TMC chief Mamata Banerjee chose the Congress over the BJP as the party’s ally for Assembly polls. Even during the watershed moment of the 2011 Assembly polls, which marked the end of the 34 years of Left rule, the BJP ploughed a lonely furrow, securing only 4.1% of the vote share.
However, since then, the picture of BJP’s role in Bengal’s electoral politics has changed drastically. Since 2014 during the Lok Sabha polls, when the BJP managed to secure 10.3% of the vote share, it has been constantly growing its support in the state. In fact, during the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, the party secured a whopping 40.6% of the votes, just 3.1% less than that of state leader, TMC, and secured 18 out of the 42 seats. So what is the reason for BJP’s unprecedented growth in the state in the past 6 years? How has the BJP turned West Bengal, a state where they had minimal support, into a two-faced battle in eight years? Let’s find out.
2014–2019: BJP’s Steady Rise in Bengal
The start of BJP’s rise in West Bengal can be traced back to the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, whereby owing to the Modi wave ongoing across the country, the party was able to secure 17% of the vote share and 2 seats, without any alliance partner. What is important to note here is that between 2011 and 2014, the vote share of both the TMC and Congress remained relatively unchanged in the state, while the vote share of the Left declined substantially.
However, in the 2016 state assembly elections, TMC secured 44.91% of the vote share, while the BJP’s vote share declined by 7% to 10.16%. TMC’s victory in 2016 can be attributed to their strong grassroots cadre presence and a wave of confidence voters had in incumbent Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee. Having successfully wiped out the Left in the 2011 elections, Mamata Banerjee’s popularity was at an all-time high in West Bengal, helping her secure an even higher voter share.
What is important to point out here is that since its rise, members of the TMC have been accused of electoral malpractice and violence during elections. Although the party rose to power, promising to end the violence and corruption unleashed on the state by its predecessor, by 2014, it had become a machinery for the same in the state. In fact, as per media reports during the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the party played a major role in orchestrating violence and electoral fraud in tribal dominated districts, including penetrating violence against political opponents and fraud. In fact, several TMC activists admitted to making money from government-sponsored projects, such as the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee (MGNREGA) and fisheries schemes.
On the other hand, during the same time, the BJP focused solely on improving its cadre presence and depth in the state. As highlighted in Snigdhendu Bhattacharya’s ‘Mission Bengal — A Saffron Experiment’, the BJP, aided by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s (RSS), successfully infiltrated every level of socio economic activity in the state: from panchayat level bodies to youth clubs to committees. In addition to this, in the run up to the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP greatly increased its focus on the state, roping in national leadership to conduct rallies and events across West Bengal. In fact, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, visited West Bengal 17 times in the election build-up, making it the second-most frequent location for the Prime Minister’s rallies. The party was rewarded for its growing cadre presence and attention in West Bengal during the 2019 General Elections, when they managed to secure 18 out of the 42 Lok Sabha seats.
The BJP managed to secure 40.2% of the votes, more than doubling their vote share from 2014 (17%). The party managed to secure a victory in many constituencies in the Northern and Junglemahal belt. Their losses were confined to places such as Kolkata and Central Bengal, which have a significantly higher Muslim population. In fact, the BJP managed to break into the Junglemahal region-stronghold of the then TMC strongman Suvendu Adhikari (now in the BJP). BJP’s victory in 2019 was very similar to that of TMC in 2009, when TMC (a rising party then) managed to secure 19 votes, while the ruling CPI(M) managed just 9. Some political analysts also attribute the victory of the BJP to the rising religious polarization in the state, which lead to a consolidation of non-Muslim votes behind the BJP.
TMC’s Big Ticket Defections: Advantage BJP
In December 2019, 10 former TMC, Left and Congress MLAs were welcomed into the BJP by Home Minister Amit Shah. Undoubtedly, the most important defection was that of former TMC heavyweight Suvendu Adhikari, who spearheaded the 2007 Nandigram movement, which triggered the cycle of events which led to Mamata Banerjee’s victory in 2011. He is a key leader in the Jangalmahal region with support bases in — home Purba Medinipur, Bankuria, Purulia and Paschim Medinipur. In fact, defection was not limited to the heavyweights of the TMC such as Jitendra Tiwari and Shilbhadra Dutta, several other district level leaders, including elected officials from Panchayat and Municipal bodies have also joined the BJP in the past few months.
The series of defections have been indicative of the erosion of senior leadership in the party and an overall dissatisfaction with the internal party structure. As per media reports, many senior leaders from the party have expressed their resentment towards the political strategy firm led by Prashant Kishor, which has been hired by Mamata Banerjee to run the 2021 campaign. Several political analysts also believe that the series of resignations from the TMC has been a direct result of the reorganization in the party stricture, which has reduced the influence of senior party leaders. This reorganization in the party structure has been undertaken as a result of on ground surveys carried out by Prashant Kishor’s team to decipher the grassroots-level image of various TMC leaders across districts. The infighting in the TMC has proven to be beneficial to the BJP, who have not only gained important political leaders, but their supporter base as well.
Will BJP finally win West Bengal in 2021?
Under the leadership of BJP State President, Dilip Ghosh, the party has been leading an aggressive campaign across districts in the state. The BJP’s campaign has been focusing on the misrule of the TMC, law and order and corruption issues as well as the state government’s mishandling of the COVID-19 crisis. In November 2020, the party began an extensive internal tour of West Bengal to collect feedback on the working of the party’s state unit, and has extensively been collaborating with district and block level representatives to ensure smooth functioning of their cadre.
During a rally in the state last month, Home Minister Amit Shah requested West Bengal voters to join forces with the BJP’s “Aar noi anyay” (no more injustice) campaign and support Prime Minister Narendra Modi in BJP’s commitment to give a good administration to the people of West Bengal. Additionally, just last week, the BJP has also launched ‘Krishak Suraksha Abhiyan’ and ‘Ek Mutthi Chawal’ campaigns in West Bengal’s Bardhaman, also known as the state’s rice bowl, in an attempt to woo farmers in the state. The schedule of national leaders, including Amit Shah and party President JP Nadda is filled with events in the poll bound state in the upcoming months. While it would appear that the BJP is leaving no stone unturned to woo voters in West Bengal, it is yet to be seen whether its tactics will transform into votes for the party.
-Shiv Sehgal, Shreya Maskara & Mohan Babu/New Delhi
Contributing Reports by Damini Mehta
From Polstrat, a non-partisan political consultancy which aims to shift the narrative of political discourse in the country from a problem-centric to a solutions-oriented approach.