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Bengal Is Paying the Price for BJP's Failure to ‘Conquer’ the State

The party’s failure to win Bengal should have prompted a review of its poll strategy. Instead, the BJP has chosen to mount a retributive backlash against the party that clearly won the elections.

Known to be sore losers, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has virtually declared war on Bengal’s thrice-elected Trinamool Congress (TMC) government. Barely two days after arresting three high profile TMC leaders, Firhad Hakim, Subrata Mukherjee and Madan Mitra, along with former Kolkata mayor Sovan Chatterjee, the CBI, on Wednesday, made chief minister Mamata Banerjee, her law minister Moloy Ghatak, and party leader Kalyan Banerjee party to the Narada bribery case.

Though implicated in the same case, two former TMC leaders, Suvendu Adhikari and Mukul Roy, prominent faces in the BJP today, have not been arrested. The CBI application for the prosecution of Adhikari and Roy, who were Lok Sabha members at the time of the Narada sting operation, is pending before speaker Om Birla. According to a report in the Indian Express on Thursday, following the arrest of four TMC leaders on May 17, the CBI filed a chargesheet seeking permission for “conducting further investigation against the remaining accused persons”. The other accused named in the chargesheet include Suvendu Adhikari and Mukul Roy.

The rush of events in the aftermath of poll results on May 2, raises disquieting questions about the BJP’s intent and motive. The party’s failure to win Bengal, the state it hoped to ‘conquer’ with a flourish, perhaps should have prompted a review of its poll strategy. But far from venturing in that direction, the party has chosen to mount a retributive backlash against the party that clearly won the elections.

The aim is simply to destabilise the reelected TMC dispensation. Never mind that such a risky and unsavoury bid tramples upon the foundational principles of electoral democracy and the popular will of the people of Bengal.

My use of the word “conquer,’ is deliberate in this context. The BJP treated Bengal as a trophy it had to win to secure ideological validation in a state where, in recent years, the party has rapidly ramped up its influence. In the course of its aggressive campaign, top BJP leaders signalled that the poll outcome would impact the country’s overall security concerns. “Bengal is the gateway to the North East and the country’s borders are stretched along the state. If we don’t form a government in Bengal that can stop infiltration, it will be a huge threat to the country’s national security,” Union home minister Amit Shah said in an interview.

Also read: Bengal Elections and Beyond: The BJP Can Be Defeated but the RSS Project Remains

Indeed, few would disagree that a BJP win in Bengal would have handed the party yet another expedient tool of political and ideological leverage. Such calculations spurred the BJP leadership to massively invest in its campaign, pour in significant resources, and last but not least, cheer on huge crowds at rallies even as Covid stalked the land. It is indeed disconcerting that even now, rather than allow the Bengal government to contain the virus, the BJP appears to be showing greater interest in teaching the winning side a lesson.

It would be naive if not foolish to consider the CBI’s recent actions as evidence of “law taking its course.” To understand the BJP’s post-poll actions in Bengal, it is important to keep in mind the chronology of events as they unfolded after May 2. One could take a leaf out of the Union home minister’s book in this context to recall that it is in the chronology of events that the government reveals its mind. And the chronology of the Narada case suggests deeper political motives on the part of the BJP government at the centre. Motives aimed at escalating the ongoing row, on keeping the TMC on its toes.

Representative image of BJP members at work ahead of a campaign rally in West Bengal. Photo: PTI.

The Narada sting tapes, where some TMC ministers and leaders were seen accepting bribes, came to light on the eve of the 2016 assembly elections. The TMC won the polls in a landslide. In 2017, the Calcutta high court ordered an investigation into the sting. Three years have since passed. Interestingly, it was exactly a week after the poll results that governor Jagdeep Dhankar, gave the go-ahead to prosecute the TMC leaders. Meanwhile, the BJP had also whipped up a campaign around the post-poll violence, describing it as “unimaginable”.

What adds to the BJP’s sore loser image is the fact that the party did make substantial gains in the assembly polls. Within five years, the BJP notched up its seats from a mere three to a sizable 77. And not just that, the decimation of the CPI-M and Congress opened up the entire opposition’s space to the BJP. Today it is the only opposition party in the Bengal assembly. The party could have taken stock of its gains and opted for the role of a responsible and not irresponsible opposition. Yet such was the BJP’s confidence in turning Bengal that the party was unwilling to accept anything short of victory. Nor are these manoeuvres new to the party’s electoral playbook.

The BJP’s plans could trigger turbulence in a state that has emerged from a bruising eight-phase election (in itself a political ploy to engineer favourable results.) The fact of the matter is even as the BJP speaks out against Bengal’s culture of violence, one knows only too well where the party actually stands on political violence. The spree of CBI arrests dragging none other than the chief minister herself into the case points towards a sinister design.

Also read: Is This the End of the Road for the CPI(M) in Bengal?

Speculation is growing about the Centre’s plans. Is the ruling BJP weighing the option of President’s Rule in the state? Does it plan to keep the pot boiling in volatile Bengal? The state is no stranger to President’s rule, or to resisting an adversarial Centre. A look at the history of the state in the 1960s and 1970s should caution the BJP against moving in this direction. Bengal has a history of meeting the challenges posed by an adversarial Centre. If anything, adversarial relations between state and central governments, ruled by rival political parties, have strengthened the regional ruling party of the day.

Across the spectrum, people have expressed confidence in the decade-old administration headed by Mamata Banerjee. The average winning margin of all the candidates in the recent assembly polls is pegged at 26,964 votes. For the TMC, that margin stands at a higher 31,760 votes. “This is a highest-ever average winning margin clocked by any party, in any assembly election in India,” observe Vikas Jamoriya and Rasheed Kidwai in an opinion piece. They further remind us that the TMC’s average winning margin was 20,495 votes in 2011, and 22,226 votes in 2016.

How will the people of Bengal react to the BJP’s unsavoury moves? That this is a question we can even ask at this time, and that the ruling party at the Centre chooses to spend its time picking political fights while thousands perish in a pandemic running out of control reveals the depths of the BJP’s cynical disinterest in anything other than the pursuit of absolute power.