How West Bengal Halted the BJP’s Chariot

This left-liberal group decided to swing in Mamata Banerjee's favour this time and its numbers surely helped supersede the negative anti-incumbency votes.

The election results in West Bengal are still coming in, and ‘leads’ are being replaced by ‘wins’ or otherwise. Even so, one is perhaps entitled to stick out one’s neck to try to make sense out the most spectacular drubbings that the BJP has been handed in seven years.

One had withstood the overwhelmingly dominating narrative of a sure-shot BJP tsunami in West Bengal that was manufactured in Delhi — and had said so in this online journal, to the derision of many. An integral part of the agenda that was repeatedly being told was that the ‘bhadraloks’ of Bengal would be wiped out in the ongoing, never-ending elections. Most people, including Bengalis, incidentally had/have only a hazy notion of what this term stands for.

Now that this force-fed narrative has been proved wrong, let us take a quick look at the possible reasons for Mamata Banerjee’s spectacular victory and the role played by the class that goes by this completely unofficial but widely used term ‘bhadralok’. There is no doubt that there was a strong anti-incumbency wave against Mamata’s Trinamool Congress for reasons not unjustified. So many field surveys by agencies and ground reports from media-persons were certainly not wrong but the exit polls failed to capture the ‘crouching dragon’ of the floating vote-block led by bhadraloks that was never associated with the TMC and the lady they were fond of lampooning.

This left-liberal group decided to swing in her favour this time and its numbers surely helped supersede the negative anti-incumbency votes. We may leave the confirmation or variation of this postulate to pundits once they generate more granular data and start analysing it region-wise and strata-wise. The fact that the TMC realised that it was indeed up against a strong anti-incumbency wave was clear from several extraordinary steps it took to make up for this with last-minute counter-planks. Banerjee’s brainwave called Duarey Sarkar actually brought many government assistance and welfare schemes to the doorsteps of citizens/voters, even though it is difficult to sustain such go-to-the-people initiatives for too long. Banerjee’s indefatigable energy in pursuing her favourite schemes to any extent certainly played a deciding role with beneficiaries. Her other credit lies in overruling hundreds of objections by her own party-men and to implement many (not all) the recommendations made by Prashant Kishor, after careful planning and applying management techniques.

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Just as Pramod Mahajan’s sneering smile and the BJP’s highly-visible and expensive India Shining campaign of 2004 exuded over-confidence and antagonised voters, ending Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s rule, people in Bengal were similarly put off by the cocksure swagger of the BJP. This applied to both local and more so the ‘visiting leaders’ from other states. Bengal had never seen so much money flow during elections and it astonished everyone, including those who were repeatedly hammered in with messages like honesty in public life and a fakir leading this pack.

Wealthy merchants of the state committed to Shri Ram openly showered more funds on the BJP and this was also an irritant to many, some of who may have gladly partaken a bit of this splurge. To many, the scale of ostentatiousness appeared to overshadow the ill-gotten wrath made by local Trinamool leaders, who were the butt end of the anti-incumbency surge. As explained in an earlier article on this platform, as the TMC had no fabulously wealthy patrons like the BJP, nor mining mafias or mega-scale infrastructure projects to milk, local leaders resorted to ‘cuts’ which could not escape the eyes of voters but somewhere the tables turned a lot. Flashy and long entourages of expensive SUVs in which the BJP leaders arrived to address them amazed the politically conscious voters of Bengal, and obviously, they would hardly comment on these  eyesores to field surveyors or the press, unless they were pointedly asked about this.

Over 200 chartered planes and helicopters reportedly flew in and out of Kolkata and Bagdogra (Siliguri) airports ferrying BJP leaders, as never seen before in the state’s history. Modi-Shah helped inadvertently to convert Mamata from an autocrat to an ‘underdog’ who was surrounded by bought-over defectors and back-stabbers. This image garnered unexpected sympathy for her in the state and outside, and her fight was seen as a David and Goliath struggle all over.

No job reservations for locals were announced or even discussed in Bengal, unlike some other states, nor did she rouse parochial sentiments. It was thus quite unfair to blame Mamata for stoking Bengali sub-nationalism — which the Delhi-based media was fed and led to write. What may have hurt the people here was the open and blatant ‘Hindi-fication’ of the discourse and that the emphasis that Hindi is the only language in which BJP leaders tolerate. The unabashed murder of the Hindi language by heavily-accepted, grammatically-erroneous Bengalis, especially by TMC defectors to the BJP camp, may have provided some comic relief to all-India BJP leaders. But everyone seemed to forget the fierce pride that Bengalis have in their language, for which they actually carved out their own state a few miles away, wading through blood and gore.

The fact that not a single local leader, not even if he had been a governor, was given any importance at all was noted and their absence in strategy-making was unmistakably conspicuous. Besides, Bengal’s BJP was crowded with members from different and often conflicting origins like ‘original RSS’, ‘old BJP’, imported outsiders, old defectors from other parties, new defectors from the TMC and these exacerbated inner party conflicts.

To cap it all, the publicly aggressive behaviour and the openly pro-BJP attitude of the former Chief Election Commissioner harmed the Commission and the BJP. He encouraged openly arrogant behaviour from his hand-picked Special Police Observer from another state, Vivek Dubey, whose attitude appeared very colonial indeed. The CEC appeared to think that he could bludgeon the state and its administration (that was also not always very fair) into submission.

At one point, some 1,30,000 central armed forces were posted here by the Election Commission, obviously with the active assistance of Amit Shah. The latter combined his role as home minister and as BJP’s merciless centre-forward, rather adroitly but quite unconstitutionally. Police are said to be trained to be overbearing anyway, but the manner in which the central forces were encouraged to behave was quite intolerable. In some pockets, they started acting like an ‘occupation force’. Nothing else can explain why a special armed section would suddenly land up in a polling booth in Cooch Behar on March 10 during polls and shoot four voters, all Muslims, in the chest and offer not a shred of proof or any evidence of injury on themselves to justify it. This incident that was clearly sponsored by the former CEC was widely condemned by all as Bengal is not habituated to tolerate such feudal bluster or unaccountability. This was a major landmark and a turning point for voters in the remaining four phases of elections.

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One has repeatedly bemoaned the fact that by forming a’third front’ the Left and Congress ensured that secular forces and votes were split, in the darkest hour of crisis. The Left Front’s highly intellectual but completely wrong reading of reality brought it to join even with Abbas Siddiqui, an audacious 24-year-old scion of the family that is entrusted with the state’s oldest Muslim pilgrimage site. This Third Front kept attacking the Trinamool Congress with all its strength, especially through caricatures on the social media, behaving as if this party and not the BJP was its chief enemy. “Ram this time, baam (left) next time” was an oft-repeated slogan and the fact that this Third Front has been wiped out speaks volumes of the sagacity of the voters of Bengal.

Many voters who were traditionally supporters of the Left and the Congress judiciously decided not to waste their votes this time. So did the Muslims, who constitute 27%, and the complete defeat of the the two parties that had always received Muslim votes definitively indicates that most Muslims voted with the TMC. Even Abbas Siddiqi, who was suspected as a BJP ‘plant’ to divide Muslim votes, was roundly thrashed at the hustings even though his spiritual influence covers millions.

This surge against the BJP was led by a solid bloc of liberal and educated Bengalis, the much-discussed bhadralok (gentry). It is no more the centuries-old tripartite alliance between the educated sections of the three ‘highest’ castes of the region. It had opened its doors to meritocracy from other castes as well, decades ago, without much fuss. Incidentally, urban Bengal finds this business of caste to be quite messy and brands it as a trait of the backward BIMARU states. It is amusing to note that large sections of bhadraloks may know Pablo Neruda far better than their own castes and discussing caste is quite a taboo. It is not as if casteism does not exist at all, but it surely means far less in the lives of the people. For instance, caste does not decide postings at all. What are cherished are education, culture, liberal values and a historic freedom from orthodoxy.

The bhadralok class has, of course, an underlying dash of snootiness, but it is directed at those who do not share its values and priorities. Most members of this intellectual and argumentative class have historically been aligned to left philosophies and liberal, secular parties. This strata was openly disgusted at the crass philistinism of the BJP and the obviously uneducated approach of its leaders. They felt shocked at the manner in which the PM catcalled a lady, however aggressive, as “Dideeee O Dideeee!” Many women have surely expressed their disgust at the polling stations.

A section of ‘civil society’ came out with an untiring campaign at every nook and corner pleading “No vote to BJP” and this also paid dividends. As did Modi’s disastrous image as a classic blundering boaster who is responsible for the uncontrollable second wave of COVID-19. But this matured into an issue, to some extent, only during the last two phases of polling, which together counted for 71 of 294 seats.

Bengal has several shortcomings and the work ethic remains a problem, as is the far higher sense of rights over duties. But its people have surely done liberal, secular and democratic India proud. It was almost unimaginable till the day before that the people would rise up unitedly in such an unequivocal manner to ward off the most dangerous, well-organised threat to its core values. It is surely a beacon of hope to millions of beleaguered liberal democrats and proves that Modi can be defeated roundly.

Jawhar Sircar is a former culture secretary, Government of India. He tweets at @jawharsircar.