What's Determining the BJP's Prospects in West Bengal?

Kolkata: Elections are crystal-ball-gazing times. Predicting how voters will exercise their choice is tricky, more so when the topography of politics is changing from a tradition of conscious and consensually managed secular competition to polarisation along communally divided identities. 

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has succeeded in installing itself as the pivot in all conversations, which going by the reputation of West Bengal as highly politically conscious, could be at least once every day, at home, at work, travelling or shopping. In building a perception about its chances of winning the 2021 state assembly elections, the BJP has made the act of choosing an almost absolutely predictable event, converting the process into a confirmation of what the so-called ‘everyone’ knows.

The BJP’s accelerating expectations are a product of an increasing anti-incumbency, as much against the leadership of Mamata Banerjee as it is disenchantment with the Trinamool Congress (TMC), amplified by the BJP’s campaign and its prescription that remedy lies in aligning the state’s regime with that of the Centre, or as the BJP puts it “double-engine sarkar”.

Its ideological appeal of belligerent nationalism combined with a majoritarian Hindutva agenda, which has emotional buy-in for voters who respond to the narrative of betrayal and the Partition, is the other appeal. 

The exercise in creating a narrative around identity, celebration and the setbacks or obstructions to public participation in religious festivals has been incorporated into the fiercely competitive electoral politics normal to West Bengal. From BJP state president Dilip Ghosh up the ladder to national party president J.P. Nadda, the BJP’s playbook veers to how the celebrations of Durga Puja and even Saraswati Puja have been obstructed or blocked, implying that the brake was applied by the Mamata Banerjee government as an appeasement sop to the Muslim minorities.

The gap between facts and reality, of a rise in the number of Durga Puaj even in COVID-19 times, or the transformation of the modest community club organised one-day Saraswati Puja into many days and a mega event, with lights, noise and home delivery of khichdi and prasad has apparently begun to matter less, as the campaign picks up momentum and scepticism of the homegrown kind seems to be on the decline.

Winning the war of perceptions

In the war of perceptions, the BJP seems to be unbeatably ahead in the race to win West Bengal. Its social media power, backed with enormous resources, dwarfs the efforts of the TMC, which is only a regional party, and that of all other political parties in India. The social media reach of the BJP matters because it does play an important part in constructing the idea of the party’s inevitable success in ousting Mamata Banerjee. “It matters,” says Professor Partha Chatterjee, eminent political scientist and historian. In his newest book I Am the People, Chatterjee writes, “The other aspect of Indian populism is the ability of leaders and regimes to cope with changes in electoral conditions by rhetorically shifting the composition of “the people” and “the enemy.””

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In as much as the BJP is banking on rhetoric, it has certain broad calculations on how West Bengal’s composite population and its distribution will have to be managed to deliver the 200-plus target of seats in an assembly of 294 seats. Making no bones about where it expects to make huge gains, the BJP state leadership, from state president Dilip Ghosh to national vice-president Mukul Roy, have reiterated that the party is not counting on support from an estimated 30% of voters. These are voters who are Muslims and will not vote for the party. In a recent interview, Ghosh was brutally frank, “Muslims don’t vote for BJP.”  

The BJP is banking on votes from 70% of the voting population to win over 200 out of 294 seats. The BJP’s vote share in 2019 touched a record 40.64%. Doing the math, it means that the BJP must get around 60% of the votes, out of the 70% that it says is its constituency of voters, to retain its vote share spread over 294 seats. This is a tall order. Chatterjee pointed out that vote shares vary in every constituency; no party can ensure that the majority of votes will go in its favour.   

Explaining the challenge, Chatterjee said that the broad calculations need to be broken down into how voters have made their choices in the 294 constituencies. Since the BJP did not have expectations of winning in 60 to 80 seats, where Muslim votes will be the determining factor, then it becomes harder still. Minus the 60 or 80 seats, from the total of 294 seats, this leaves the BJP with either 234 or 214 seats where it expects to win, mostly in straight contests against the TMC. In order to do so, the party would have to convert almost every seat into a win, to reach its declared target of 200 seats.

Women sit near a wall graffiti with slogan Khela Hobe, in support of TMC, ahead of the State Assembly elections in Kolkata, Saturday, Feb. 27, 2021. Photo: PTI/Swapan Mohapatra

There is a core constituency of voters who are ideologically committed to the BJP. But these voters are widely dispersed across the state, whereas the BJP needs to consolidate all its own votes and successfully poach voters from other parties. In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP won 18 seats out of 42 seats in West Bengal. This vertiginous increase in the number of BJP seats was possible because voters had clearly shifted support to the BJP from the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Front. There was a massive 13% shift of votes to the BJP from the Left. And the BJP picked up nearly 7% votes from the Congress. 

To win in 2021, the BJP has two targets. It must hold on to the nearly 30% increase in votes it managed from 2016, when it got 10.16% of the votes, to 2019 when the party’s vote share zoomed to 40.64%. And it must add more votes to get past the TMC, which polled 43.69% votes in 2019, or the 44.91% votes it polled in 2016.

Effects of the Congress-Left alliance  

BJP insiders are banking on the Congress and Left on the one hand, and the TMC on the other, to cover the difference between the two principal contestants. Within the party, the calculation is that the combined share of votes of the Congress and the Left will drop to around 8%, from the 11.4% the two parties polled while fighting separately in 2019. 

Should there be a reverse movement of votes back to Congress and the Left, then the BJP’s problems with meeting its target would be in serious trouble. The optimistic expectation is that if the Congress-Left alliance poll between 10% and 12%, BJP would win between 160 and 180 seats. While this would get the party across the halfway point in terms of a simple majority of 148 seats,, it would be far short of the target that it has ambitiously set for itself.   

Political observers are divided about the effects of the working alliance of the Congress and the Left. One set of poll watchers maintain that the Congress-Left alliance will be swept away in the bipolar fight between the TMC and the BJP. Others read the alliance differently. Responding to the idea of the Congress-Left alliance as an alternative to the BJP for voters who have decided to reject the incumbent party or Mamata Banerjee, Chatterjee said that it was a choice that voters who did not want to vote for the BJP and were disenchanted with the TMC could exercise. 

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As an alternative anti-incumbency-anti-BJP platform, the Congress-Left alliance has an advantage that the BJP certainly does not; it is adding more partners to what is beginning to look like a political front. The recent, in-principle alliance with the Indian Secular Front – set up by Abbasuddin Siddiqui, one of the Pirzadas of Furfura Sharif that claims it is the second most important Sufi shrine after Ajmer Sharif, and wields significant influence among Bengali-speaking Muslims – could be a problem for Banerjee, as it would be a problem for the BJP. The announcement that the Rashtriya Janata Dal and the Nationalist Congress Party have joined the Congress-Left alliance would work as a small, but possibly significant, vote multiplier. For the BJP, the RJD and NCP’s tie-up could shave votes from among the Hindi or non-Bengali speaking population is crucial districts and constituencies, cutting into its current advantage as a party that appeals to voters with connections to the Hindi heartland. 

A weaker organisation

The iteration of the 200-seat target by Union home minister and super boss of the BJP Amit Shah on different platforms would suggest that the party has a extraordinarily well-organised and efficient machinery, particularly at the booth level, to manage getting out the vote and its conversion into a positive vote. That may not be the case. 

To cover the gaps in its organisation in West Bengal, which is far weaker than that of the TMC, the BJP has adopted two strategies. It has wooed defectors, especially leaders with the requisite network of ground-level supporters like Suvendu Adhikari and Rajib Banerjee recently, as it wooed and inducted Mukul Roy earlier for his network of cadres and influence. And it has brought in  leaders from other states to set up the booth management committees, organise the door-to-door contact programmes and essentially fill in for non-existent local organisers and leaders.  

With a machinery that is new, even if experienced, in other topographies, the challenge for the BJP is great. Its leadership, including Dilip Ghosh and Amit Shah, have said that the party has a way of integrating newcomers and old timers, dealing with resentments and making the adjustments that give the BJP its reputation of being a formidably well run organisation. It indicates a confidence within the BJP that regardless of the structural weakness of the party in West Bengal, it will succeed in defeating the grassroots TMC. 

BJP National President JP Nadda having lunch in jute mill workers household, in Gouripur, Thursday, Feb. 25, 2021. Photo: PTI

The unsettling fluidity of politics in West Bengal is new. In the past, elections were straight contests between two parties with different ideologies. The ideological differences have become fuzzier with the alliance of the Congress and the Left, who have converged and pooled resources on trying to push back against the BJP in other states and at the national level, and in West Bengal, against the TMC. 

There is clearly a section of the middle class that has chosen to vote for the BJP. As opinion makers, Chatterjee said, they could be influential, but how influential was difficult to assess in the age of social media and access to mobile phones, where messages are shared and amplified. And there is what he described in his book as “spiral of competitive populism”, with political parties offering more and more benefits to woo voters. 

The BJP has done this over and over again, most recently when Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced that farmers in West Bengal would receive Rs 18,000 under the Kisan Yojana programme when the BJP came to power after the 2021 elections. The party has also declared that a BJP government in West Bengal would rush in investments and create jobs. To counter this, Mamata Banerjee has been in overdrive announcing new schemes, but also repeatedly telling voters that she has rolled out benefits for the girl child, farmers, women and created a universal health card for all citizens.      

Bookended by majoritarian Hindutva appeal and competitive populism, the BJP has raised its target. It now needs to up its game. It has created a storm of support, amplified by social media. To give it the semblance of a wave, there is more that it must do. To do so, it will need to shift focus to Narendra Modi as the central figure. The BJP has no chief ministerial candidate to counter Banerjee’s charismatic appeal as a mass leader.  Unfamiliar and unstable as the political contest has become, West Bengal’s voters have more choices, more dilemmas and more clout than ever before.

BJP leaders doing shifts on the Parivartan Raths or Yatras that fanned out across West Bengal after February 6 maintain that “public spontaneously come out of their homes, unafraid of the consequences, to show support;” observers and the “other” social media networks say that the yatras have been a flop. 

Shikha Mukherjee is a Kolkata-based commentator.