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Mainstream, VOL LIII No 22, May 23, 2015

BJP’s Pep Talks fail to Enthuse the Electorate in Bengal

Friday 22 May 2015

by Arun Srivastava

The BJP lost the fight for strategic political relevance in Bengal to the CPI-M. Well before the elections to the Kolkata Municipal Corporation was announced, the BJP’s Chanakya, Amit Shah, had pepped up the saffron cadres and its sympathisers to get ready to celebrate the victory of the fall of Mamata. Ironically the BJP vanquished even before the Battle of Bengal could be fought on the streets of Kolkata. What was worse for Shah, the party dropped to the third position.

The Goebbelsian cacophony failed to have any impact on the minds and hearts of the people of West Bengal. The imperious campaign and using phrases like “Bhaag Mamata Bhaag” by the BJP’s master strategist, Siddhartha Nath Singh, proved to be counterproductive. Singh might be having his in-laws’ house in Calcutta, but the fact remains that he miserably failed to understand the cultural ethos of the State and its people.

The euphoria of saffron being the new ruler of Bengal lies shattered. The hyperbole of the BJP leaders failed to enthuse and fire the imagination of the people. The saffron outfit in its hurry to carve out a support base for itself had focused on the non-Bengali voters. But this strategy did not succeed. The people of Bengal have decisively rejected the claim of the BJP leaders that they were the natural choice to replace Mamata Banerjee.

The BJP leadership had projected the elections to the 92 municipalities in the State as the referendum on the performance of the Chief Minister, Mamata Banerjee. The manner in which the BJP had exploited the CBI enquiry into the Saradha chit fund scam, it was sure that the urban people would dump Mamata. The BJP nursed the impression that the voters of urban Bengal will endorse their views and charges against Mamata. But bad luck to the BJP, that did not happen.

Of the 2090 wards in the State, while the Trinamul won an overwhelming 1425 wards, the BJP could manage to win only 85. Incidentally the Left Front won 285 and the Congress got 186. Of the 91 municipal bodies, while the Trinamul has managed to win 70, the Left has gained control of six bodies followed by Congress which triumphed in five. The BJP could not win even one body. The TMC, which in the last KMC polls had won 95 seats, increased its tally to 114 while the main Opposition, the CPI-M-led Left Front, was reduced to just 15 from 33. In fact the BJP suffered the most humiliating defeat in Kolkata wherein it had pinned its hopes.

What was most shocking for the party was that it could not even manage a face-saver. Just before the municipal elections, the leadership had given the impression that the municipal elections would prove to be the waterloo for the Trinamul and its leader, Mamata Banerjee, already caught in the quagmire of the Saradha scam. The results also make it explicit that the Modi magic, which worked during the Lok Sabha polls, helping the party make substantial inroads, has waned.

An election is an election, whether it is for the Lok Sabha or Assembly or municipality or panchayat. Yes, of course, the issues and agendas vary and are of different nature. But from the beginning the BJP had made the municipal election a prestige issue to throw out Mamata. They were working on the thesis that with the Kolkata Municipal Corporation under their belt they can kick Mamata out of the State in the 2016 Assembly elections. To accomplish the task the BJP had imported the high-profile Singh.

Amit Shah was working on the plan to emerge as an alternative, the main Opposition party, to the Chief Minister, Mamata Banerjee, before going to the Assembly elections. No doubt the results of the three Assembly by-elections in September 2014 had made him confident. But the party could not sustain and consolidate the gains. The reason was that the leadership could not assess and analyse the real reason for its win. The tactical voting by the Left supporters in favour of the BJP was misconstrued as a shift in the voting pattern and change in the people’s mood and mind-set.

What was quite interesting to watch was that even the RSS could not find its feet during the elections though it has numerous units and shakhas. It was shocking to watch leaders like Shah and Singh using all kinds of tactics to split the Bengali and non-Bengali bond in the State. These leaders viewed the social relations through the narrow prism of the social relations in Uttar Pradesh where the BJP had badly split the social class only sometime back.

After the elections a section of the media and also the State leadership have been putting the blame for defeat on the lack of an effective organisation. This is a façade. Yes, the party failed to have ultra-Hindutva elements. It is worth recalling that some Hindutva leaders, even Pravin Togadia, had tried to rope in some ultra elements. But they failed. The primary reason is Bengal and its cultural ethos do not produce hydra-headed fanatics. What was worse was that these Central leaders could not repose their faith in the trusted and tried State leaders who have been associated with the party for decades.

This is again the manifestation of the lack of political understanding of the State and its people. The lack of organisational efforts was evident when the BJP, which has been looking for new faces, tried to field actor-turned-politician Rupa Ganguly for the Kolkata Corporation poll, and even gave her the ticket without checking that her name was not even on the voters’ list. Eventually she had to be replaced.

The municipal verdict has indeed been a rude shock to the BJP’s Chanakya, Amit Shah. In January this year at a rally in Burdwan, Shah, a stockbroker by profession who knows the value of keeping blue chips in one’s portfolio, had made his intentions clear to the people of Bengal that pursuing the political line of his mentor, Narendra Modi, to make a Congress-Mukta Bharat, he would ensure Trinamul-Mukta Bengal.

But in his first move he has met his waterloo. The people of Bengal overwhelmingly voted for Mamata’s Trinamul. Shah, the master strategist for accomplishing the goal, had tried to cobble up a winning formula by inducting apolitical individuals, cine stars and political turncoats, pushing the seasoned BJP workers and cadres to the backbench. But that did not work. His commander for the Battle of Bengal, Siddharth Nath Singh, the BJP National Secretary, had even coined a new audacious slogan “Bhaag Mamata Bhaag”. But sheer bad luck to Shah and Singh, the people of Bengal, irrespective of being Bengali or non-Bengali, rejected their overtures. Ironically, Singh’s style of functioning and the way he questioned Abhishek Banerjee’s educational qualification were disliked by the people. In fact, on the flipside, the perception of the BJP’s rise only helped the TMC. It firmly got the minority vote-bank to support it, to stop the rise of the saffron unit.

There is substance in the charges of the BJP’s Singh that Mamata Banerjee unleashed terror and resorted to violence during the civic polls, especially in Kolkata. But the party did not drag it to the level of making a political issue. Nevertheless, the results of the 92 municipalities across the State make it explicit that the BJP’s strategy to polarise the Bengali society has boomeranged. No doubt the people of Bengal were feeling angry and cut up with Mamata, but they never accepted the BJP doctrine to divide the society on communal lines.

It is not that only the BJP was the target of the Trinamul attack. The CPI-M has also levelled allegations of violence and use of muscle power against the Trinamul. But interestingly the CPI-M along with the dispirited Congress has performed better than the BJP. The performance of the CPI-M gains importance for the simple reason that the BJP had pledged to vanquish it forever. It was with this aim that the BJP had started enrolling the card holders of the CPI-M as its members. It is worth mentioning that throughout Bengal while the Left has won 17 per cent of the municipal seats, the BJP has managed to win only six per cent seats. In fact the Congress has performed better than the BJP and managed to bag nearly nine per cent of the seats.

Actually what does this imply? The message is clear and loud that notwithstanding Mamata’s acts of omission and commission and her alleged involvement in the Saradha scam, the people of the State are not willing to repose their trust in a party having communal ideology and agenda. The BJP’s allegation of government officials favouring the Trinamul does not stand scrutiny. Just before the elections the BJP claimed of enrolling ten lakh members in the State. But the results manifest that even these members did not vote for the party.

The BJP’s national leadership from the beginning has been playing the wrong card. Initially they wanted to portray a corrupt and dishonest image of Mamata Banerejee. But that did not work. Even implicating some of her close aides and Ministers in the Saradha scam by the CBI did not improve the credibility of the BJP. It made one tactical mistake. While the party accused Mamata of appeasing the Muslims, a section of whom was involved in anti-national activities, the BJP nominated a number of Muslims as its candidates. Even it enrolled a huge population of Muslims as its members. In fact this strategy of the party backfired. The Hindu voters looked at it with skepticism and distrust.

A large chunk of the Muslims, who had enrolled as members, were actually card-holders of the CPI-M. They had taken refuge in the saffron party with the simple aim to get protection. They have been the core of the Marxist support. They preferred to side with their party in this election. In their hurry to present the façade of unity and expansion, the two leaders even ignored the advice of the local leaders. It is an open secret that a major section of the State leadership did not subscribe to the style of functioning of their two leaders. Singh treating the State leadership with contempt made most of them to refrain from the battle.

Ever since Modi emerged as the prime ministerial candidate, attempts were being made to split the Trinamul Congress. This had intensified in the wake of the CBI crackdown in the Saradha scam. The leadership tried to engineer internal dissensions within the party, with a section ready to switch over to the BJP under the leadership of Mukul Roy, the TMC General Secretary. Claims were even made that nearly 40 TMC MLAs were ready to join the BJP and simply waiting for a call. However, the BJP functionaries said they had postponed the “welcome ceremony” so that they can fully devote time and energy on the municipal elections.

It is truly ironical for the BJP. The party, which claimed to replace Mamata’s rule, has even failed to hit the stand as the runner-up. With Shah announcing the BJP’s “Mission 2016” for West Bengal, the elections to the Kolkata Municipality (KMC) and other civic bodies in the State were in fact a reality-check for the party. For Shah, the civic polls were the first step for the final battle in 2016. Significantly, the RSS had also directed its cadres to ensure the defeat of the Trinamul.

Though the BJP has levelled charges of resorting to terror against the Trinamul, the Calcutta High Court has turned down the BJP’s appeal to withhold the results of the Kolkata Municipal elections held on April 18, on the ground that there was “not enough proof” to substantiate the party’s allegation and charges against the Trinamool Congress. This move of the BJP simply underlined that the saffron outfit was more interested in maligning Mamata and her party. The BJP’s complete whitewash has indeed come as a shocker, especially after party President Amit Shah launched his ambitious Mission 2016 for West Bengal, linking the Saradha scam to the Burdwan blast.

It is the factional feud inside the Trinamul which has been primarily responsible for violence on the Election Day. The factional leaders with the intention to demonstrate their loyalty and adherence to Mamata resorted to violence. There are two tiers of members and cadres in the Trinamul. One is the group of original workers and cadres, those who came from the parent organisation, the Congress. The second tier of workers are those who defected to the Trinamul from the CPI-M during the last couple of years. They have been skeptical of their survival in the party. These people have been seasoned players and know that for wielding influence they ought to have access to Mamata or the close circle of the leaders around her. This cannot be achieved unless they demonstrate their indispensability. The election is the right occasion to prove and show that to their leader. However, Mamata would have to be extra cautious: a revival of the Left may witness exodus of these cadres to their parent organisation. Undeniably with Suryakanta Mishra as the State CPI-M Secretary the Left has managed to also galvanise some public opinion against the ruling regime.

The author is a senior journalist and can be contacted at sriv52@gmail.com