In West Bengal, the BJP's Ambition Outweighs Its Capacity

The party's organisation in West Bengal is small and new, and its leadership is uninspiring.

Kolkata: After spending much cash and ink, four lists were put together by the Bharatiya Janata Party for potential candidates for the 42 Lok Sabha seats in West Bengal. In the process, the basic problem was laid bare – the party’s ambitions are large, but its political resources are disproportionately small.

In the nick of time, the BJP put out a list of 27 names for the first few rounds of the seven-phase elections in West Bengal. The next lot of names is, therefore, highly anticipated among hopefuls within the party, disgruntled aspirants from the Trinamool Congress (TMC) and other parties who are willing to defect for a ticket, voters and rival parties.

The serialised release of names in the four-cornered West Bengal contest may mean that the BJP will win more seats than if it were a triangular contest. In a four-cornered contest, the BJP’s biggest challenge would be to defeat sitting Congress MPs in four constituencies and the two Communist Party of India (Marxist) MPs in Raiganj and Murshidabad. In the remaining 34 seats, the principal enemy would be the TMC.

The logic of such a calculation is confirmed by the nominations that the BJP has announced till now. A few floor-crossers from the TMC have have accommodated: Saumitra Khan in Bishnupur, Anupam Hazra in Jadavpur, Nishit Pramanik from the Trinamool Yuva (nephew Abhishek Banerjee’s outfit) in Cooch Behar and Arjun Singh in Barrackpore. Bharati Ghosh, the controversial IPS officer who quit the service and joined the BJP, will contest from the Ghatal seat in Medinipur.

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In North Malda, the CPI(M)’s expelled leader Khagen Murmu has been given a ticket. In other words, there are no real surprises in the list. When Bharati Ghosh – under investigation for corruption – joined the BJP after losing her status of being a “daughter” to Mamata Banerjee, it was expected that her insider knowledge would be tapped to defeat the TMC. When Arjun Singh was denied a ticket for Barrackpore because Banerjee preferred the more decorous and well-connected Dinesh Trivedi, the BJP welcomed Singh to contest for the seat.

To win 23 out of West Bengal’s 42 seats, the BJP’s strategy is based on various contingencies. Every defector will be able to switch voters to the BJP. The party believes that its capture of 18% seats in the 2018 panchayat elections, its strong showing in Purulia, Jhargram and North Bengal and the 17% of votes it polled in the 2016 assembly elections makes it not only the principal challenger to the TMC, but a near-equal contender.

The math is a little depressing for the BJP’s ambitions. The TMC captured 66% of the panchayat seats in 2018, though a third of them were won without contest. Furthermore, the list of nominees floated by the BJP is lacklustre. The party is struggling to find appropriate names to field and there has been infighting after the partial list was announced.

The BJP’s organisation in West Bengal, despite its recent performances, is small and new. Its leadership is uninspiring and its hopes are pinned on support for Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Finding thousands of candidates for the panchayat polls was easy – there is no shortage of politically ambitious people in the hundreds of new and old Sangh parivar-sponsored organisations across rural and urban West Bengal.

Lok Sabha candidates – especially for the ruling party at the Centre which describes itself as the biggest in the world – is a different matter. Potential representatives need to be capable and such people are in short supply for the party in the state. The BJP has not been able to lure big names from the TMC – apart from Mukul Roy, who is now an old story. If Mukul Roy had been able to deliver significant former party friends to the BJP – like the current mayor of Salt Lake and sitting MLA from Rajarhat-New Town, Sabyasachi Dutta – then, in the popular mind, the BJP could be an alternative to the TMC. That Banerjee squashed that possible mutiny is proof that the TMC is still in control.

Also read: Calling off Alliance Talks With Left Front, Congress to Lock Horns Alone in Bengal

The failure – till now – of the CPI(M) and Congress to reach an understanding on seats to reduce the division of votes is thought to be a boon for the BJP. In the split, the BJP, as the second-most popular party in the context of the panchayat poll results, expects to win more because circumstances will help it to punch way above its political and organisational weight.

Will this, in fact, happen? The answer will arrive on May 23. But the calculation is based on several assumptions. One is that the BJP’s communal campaign has immensely boosted its support among Hindu voters in the districts bordering Bangladesh – especially Murshidabad, both North and South Malda, Cooch Behar, Jalpaiguri, North and West Dinajpur, Alipurduar in North Bengal and in North 24 Parganas.

The narrative that the Hindus in West Bengal would be reduced to a minority if the Muslims are not ‘contained’ (exactly how that is to be done is not spelt out by the BJP) has ignited the imagination of families that migrated from erstwhile East Bengal, both before and after Partition. The trope of a lost utopia is the BJP’s strongest suit. It pits the party’s championing of the ‘Hindu cause’ against the perception of Banerjee as an ‘appeaser’ of Muslims; the image of her offering faux namaz and wooing the senior clergy has made real the fear that Hindus could lose control over their future.

Another assumption is that anti-incumbency will work in favour of the BJP. The problem is that the BJP faces the same issue with regard to the Narendra Modi government at the Centre.

A final assumption is that disgruntled former TMC leaders who accuse Banerjee of dynastic politics, like Nishit Pramanick, will be able to transfer votes to the BJP. The question, then, pertains to the number of such votes. It could happen that the exit of some TMC leaders produces unintended consequences: reduced factional warfare within the party and a better consolidation of votes behind Banerjee; voters could opt for NOTA or a party other that the BJP.

Uncertainties around how voters will react to the BJP’s ambitions may have been factored into the party’s strategy for West Bengal. The rhetoric, however, does not reveal it as of now. People with their ears to the ground are waiting to hear, read and interpret missing tremors, which may be buried deep underground. To questions regarding who will win, the usual response is “Modi should win… ” The incomplete sentence is what the BJP needs to be able to complete.

Shikha Mukherjee is a Kolkata-based commentator.