Billed as the most remarkable state election in recent times, the showdown in West Bengal boils down to two questions in the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) camp: who is the David and who is the Goliath in this epic encounter, and can the party cash in on sub-regional equations and what it believes to be a sentiment in favour of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in order to dislodge chief minister Mamata Banerjee’s government?
Ask senior BJP leaders in Delhi and they cite Banerjee’s recent injury to drive home the point that the Goliath is now trying to portray itself as the David, a reference to the biblical story of underdog David defeating the giant Goliath in combat.
According to party insiders, the visuals of Banerjee campaigning on a wheelchair after she was injured at a rally in the high-profile Nandigram constituency earlier this month — she has alleged a BJP plot to kill her — appear to be a last and desperate throw of the dice by the chief minister.
“Here is a two-time CM with the muscle power of a well-entrenched cadre, money and resources…(but) the proverbial Goliath suddenly wants to play the sympathy card against a party that was a non-entity in the state with just three seats five years ago,” a BJP leader says, requesting anonymity.
Instead, the BJP says, it is the one that has struggled to find even hoarding space for publicity materials in the state, especially in Kolkata, which is plastered with Banerjee’s face, but is still being projected frantically by the ruling Trinamool Congress as an “outsider” and the dominant aggressor.
Nonetheless, the BJP camp thinks it has multiple reasons for its confidence that it will win Bengal, which has 294 seats. The BJP leadership has set a target of winning over 200 of them.
Replicating UP, Tripura Strategy
Bengal will be to Modi’s NDA II what Uttar Pradesh (UP) was to Modi’s NDA I, the BJP camp believes. In India’s most populous state, which has a 403-member assembly, the party rose from 47 seats in 2012 to 325 seats in 2017. Now, it sees a similar momentum in Bengal. The strategy for the eastern state seems borrowed heavily from UP as well as Tripura, where the BJP had a tough job in hand. But eventually, it ended the Left’s 20-year-old rule in Tripura in 2018, winning 36 of the state’s 60 seats. Significantly, it had drawn a blank five years ago.
A pointer to the “sweep” the BJP expects in Bengal is the response that Modi has been getting in there since 2019, party insiders say, claiming similarities in UP between 2014 and 2016 with people thronging his rallies.
This is said to be the reason why Modi could address as many as two dozen rallies in all in Bengal, rivalling what he did in UP, which has 37% more seats, in 2017. In Bengal, Modi has chosen to attack alleged corruption and nepotism under Banerjee’s watch, factors the BJP feels reflect the ground narrative.
BJP leaders cite smaller pointers too. Like a section of people in Nandigram coming out to counter Bannerjee and the Trinamool’s version of events leading up to her injury. This kind of a reaction is unlikely towards a government that is returning to power, a senior minister and a star campaigner says. Another is “Jai Sri Ram” becoming a slogan “that has come from the people” and a sign of discontent against the Trinamool government, the minister adds. This, the BJP feels, has reflected in the CM’s recitals of Chandi Path to showcase her Hindu identity, and her manifesto dropping a specific section on Muslim welfare, which was there in 2016. Moreover, her increasing personal attacks on Modi only work in the BJP’s favour, as she does not seem to have picked a trick on this front from Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal, according to party insiders.
The PM is focusing on promises that the BJP feels are silently ringing a bell among the electorate on the ground — Rs 18,000 pay-out to each farmer in one go under the PM Kisan Samman Nidhi plan, Rs 5-lakh medical insurance cover under Ayushman Bharat, the roll-out of ambitious drinking water scheme Har Ghar Jal, and bringing Hindu OBCs (Other Backward Classes) into the reservation net. Banerjee has had to counter this by promising monthly income support for state residents and reservation for some backward Hindu caste groups under the OBC umbrella.
Meanwhile, BJP’s ministers have been told to drill in the point that the state’s infrastructure is stuck in the 1960s and that Banerjee has refused to implement the Centre’s schemes for political reasons and minority appeasement. The law and order plank is being raked up to dent Banerjee’s women voter base.
The BJP is, however, cognisant of the Trinamool’s sub-regional strength. It also remembers its below-par showing in the large pocket of South Bengal even in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, in which it won 18 out of the 42 seats. But 2021 is not 2019. The mood is “all-pervasive” and the party has built upon its 2019 success, BJP insiders reason. This includes wooing the tribal people and the Scheduled Castes (SCs), reaching out to the Dalit Matua community, and BJP president JP Nadda’s promise to include “left out” Hindu castes in the OBC list if the party wins the elections. It hopes this would offset 30% Muslim votes that could consolidate behind the Trinamool, although the Left-Congress-Indian Secular Front bloc is also in the fray.
Divided on the lines of religion, caste and community, Bengal offers a complex challenge of sub-regional politics. Banerjee’s strongest fort is South Bengal with over 90 assembly seats, but the BJP feels the region may have a different pattern of voting for the first time. The North 24-Paraganas and Nadia districts (40 seats) near the border with Bangladesh have the Matua community, who are refugees from Bangladesh, as the deciding factor in 15-16 constituencies. The BJP feels it has an edge with the promise of operationalising the Citizenship Amendment Act, or CAA, once the Covid-19 vaccination is over. The BJP leadership has stressed its commitment to implementing the law that fast-tracks citizenship of Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, Buddhists, Christians and Parsis who have arrived in India from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh before 2015. Modi’s planned visit to a Matua temple during his Bangladesh trip, on the first day of polling in Bengal, will be an event high on optics.
The road remains tough for the BJP in South Bengal’s big district of South 24-Parganas, which is the only district where the Trinamool got leads in all 31 assembly segments in 2019. Muslims account for at least 30% of the total population here, and that makes the BJP’s challenge difficult until there is an absolute polarisation of votes. The party is, however, hoping for a turnaround in the key East Midnapore district, which has been a strong citadel of Banerjee. With Suvendu Adhikari, who used to manage these areas for the CM, defecting and being fielded against her from Nandigram, the BJP hopes political equations will change.
The BJP is also trying its best to hold on to its dominance in ‘Jangalmahal’, the forested and interior rural areas of Purulia, Bankura and West Midnapore that contributed to its impressive showing in 2019. Banerjee has launched several cash schemes for tribal people here to regain lost ground. Similar are the expectations from North Bengal, where the BJP won all six Lok Sabha seats in 2019 with support from Rajbanshi indigenous communities in Coochbehar and the namasudras in border districts. Namasudras, including Matuas, are refugees from Bangladesh. For them, the CAA promise is a key factor.
The BJP is also hoping that the Muslim-majority districts of Malda and Murshidabad will side with the Congress again, causing a split in Muslim votes and denting Banerjee’s chances in the process. The hill districts of Darjeeling, Jalpaiguri and Alipurduar, however, remain a mystery with the traditionally strong party, the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha, splitting into two factions. The one led by Bimal Gurung has joined hands with the Trinamool, while the BJP has chosen not to align with any faction.
War of Wits
The BJP won’t cross 100 seats, the Trinamool’s strategist, Prashant Kishor, has said, a claim the BJP sees as a tacit admission of its impending rise. The ruling party is playing up protests inside the BJP over ticket distribution and has alleged low attendance at rallies by BJP leaders. As the battle heats up, some assume the BJP may run Trinamool close, but not win. They think that the BJP will have to be content with a “moral victory” like the Congress claimed to have in Gujarat in 2017. But home minister Amit Shah’s declaration that the BJP will win 200+ seats shows each seat matters. For Modi and Shah, David, or the BJP in battle ground Bengal, beating Goliath paves the road to a third term at the Centre in 2024.