It’s a date with destiny. On May 23, one or the other will be the loser. If Mamata Banerjee is correct then Narendra Modi will have lost, if not in full, then in part; and that will be the humiliation of losing 56 seats in Uttar Pradesh out of the 73 the BJP won in 2014. If Narendra Modi is correct, then Mamata Banerjee will not win the overwhelming majority of the 42 seats from West Bengal and will in the bargain lose 40 MLAs from the Trinamul Congress in the state Assembly. The only problem with the defections that the BJP expects is that it will not reduce Mamata Banerjee’s government to a minority. She won 211 seats in 2016, and needs upwards of 147 seats to remain in power.
It’s India’s game of thrones.
The defection claim and Ms Banerjee’s certitude that the BJP is losing 56 seats in Uttar Pradesh explain just why the Prime Minister has organised his campaign schedule to hit West Bengal before every phase of the seven-part process. If indeed the BJP is losing heavily in Uttar Pradesh, and that could imply that there is a cascade of loss across the Hindi heartland of Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, then the party urgently needs to find places where it can offset some of the predicted defeats.
The BJP is looking east for its consolation prizes, because its campaign is showing signs that the fight is desperate. It has a Vision 20 plan, which is winning as many seats, albeit with its allies, out of the 25 seats in the Northeast, including Sikkim. It has plans of winning more than the one seat it captured in 2014 in Odisha by engineering defections from the Biju Janata Dal this time around.
Out of the 88 seats in West Bengal, Odisha and the Northeast, the BJP will have to win handsomely to claim compensation from the Opposition for its anticipated losses in UP to begin with, and in the rest of the Hindi heartland. The startling announcement by the Prime Minister that the BJP is in the game of organising defections points to a contest for votes in which the stakes are nearly, if not already, spiralling out of control.
If the defection story had been retailed by the West Bengal BJP president, Dilip Ghosh, it would have been inappropriate, but forgivable. If Kailash Vijayvargiya had said it, it would have been okay. At a pinch, Amit Shah could have got away with it, in the heat of the moment. For, somewhere in the midst of the war of words, the political class is dangerously teetering on the precipice of losing every sense of dignity that goes along with holding public office, or as Mamata Banerjee said it, the abandonment of probity or “standards”.
In looking east, the BJP is signalling two messages; it is a national party with an indelible footprint across India; and it needs to win more than the 11 seats it did in 2014 out of the 88 seats. It is a tough and steep climb even for a party with no resource constraints, except that it has few, in fact, very few local leaders of any calibre or consequence.
Rally sizes and decibel levels have led the BJP to conclude that the charisma of Narendra Modi is having its effect in West Bengal. On the other side, the punishing campaign that Mamata Banerjee is pursuing is equally effective. With every rally, her confidence seems to grow and her counter offensive — “worse than a fascist” — against Narendra Modi gets sharper.
The BJP’s obsession with communal identities and the calculation that it is a vast pile of political capital that is waiting to be harvested in the east, has raised its expectations of winning certainly more than the two it did in West Bengal in 2014 and sufficiently more to offset its losses in the Hindi belt. The only problem with this mathematics is that 40 Assembly seats out of a total of 294, that could defect to the BJP, do not add up to a spectacular win for the BJP in West Bengal.
The narrative of threat to the Hindu majority by the growth of the Muslim minority, boosted by illegals who migrated across the border, is rooted in undivided Bengal’s ancient past. It is also a story that has a market in the Northeast, mostly Assam, and oddly enough in pockets of Odisha, which has an almost 98 per cent Hindu population.
The calculation has steered its strategy in Assam, where it won the state with the Asom Gana Parishad’s support in 2016. The National Register of Citizens issue was readymade social and political capital that it harvested easily enough. Black flags against the Sarbananda Sonowal government, however, were an indication that implementing the NRC and assuring a communal cleanup via the Citizenship Amendment Bill is a lot more complicated. The disruptions to daily life with bandhs and roadblocks before the Assam Accord of 1985 are recent enough to make a lot of people in Assam and across the Northeast, because Assam is the gateway to the entire region, wary of the BJP and its strategy of political capture.
In the rest of the Northeast, the BJP is entirely dependent on getting the overwhelming support of the parties of the North East Democratic Alliance. And that is a problem. The parties in NEDA have a different calculation about partnering the BJP — if it wins in 2019, there will be hard bargaining over the Citizenship Bill. If it loses, then the problem can be temporarily shelved.
Elections are not a simple maths problem, where one plus one adds up to two. Nor is it a fool’s calculation of inputs, of blending fear with nationalism and adding communally polarising politics, to produce an output of over 50 seats in the east, out of 88. Neither voters nor the dynamics of an election under process are easy to read.
Decisions and choices are made not for the reasons expounded by the BJP or the Trinamul Congress or the BJD or any other political party; voters decide for a myriad different reasons that matter to them as individuals or families or communities. One voter explained it well: I voted for BJP at the Centre, because dada (his patron and paymaster) said I should; I voted BJD in Odisha, because the other dada (also his patron) said I should. But, only he knows what he did...