The BJP’s time has come in West Bengal, and it has swept across the landscape like a tide in flood, transforming it. Hubris has caught up with Mamata Banerjee and so her Trinamul Congress has lost heavily, down by 11 seats to 23 from its tally of 34 in 2014, to the BJP. The BJP’s gains in the Assembly bypolls is the surest index of the new reality; it fought its way through the door and is now headed up to challenge Ms Banerjee’s supremacy in the 2021 state polls.
The BJP’s rise in West Bengal is special. It marks the consolidation of the saffron tide and its conquest of territories that hitherto remained independent, as outliers governed by organically nurtured regional leaders. The imperative to put its imprint on the east with a respectable number of seats in West Bengal and Odisha was the only way to defeat the idea that the BJP is a party of the Hindi heartland. It has broken into the Biju Janata Dal fortress of Odisha; it has won seats in the Northeast. The fact that the South, barring Karnataka, where it established a bridgehead by forming a government, has not helped it to capture the other states added to the intensity of its ambitions to make breakthroughs in West Bengal and Odisha.
From two seats, the saffron party is up to 18 seats. The scale of its success eerily mimics the course followed by Trinamul Congress in its rise and converted it into a substantial challenger to the CPI(M) in 2009. From one seat in 2004, Ms Banerjee’s party zoomed to 19 seats in the Lok Sabha in 2009, overtaking the CPI(M), that fell to just nine MPs.
By breaching the Trinamul citadel, the BJP has delivered a body blow to the ambitions of not just Ms Banerjee, but regional parties who were coming together as an anti-BJP-anti-Congress alliance to present a federal formation as an alternative. Throttling that idea is probably important for the BJP with its hybrid vision for a unified, homogenised India, with a Centre so strong that it can enforce the cooperative federalism it seeks to establish. The BJP’s idea is reminiscent of the Tolkien saga, with its one ring of power that binds everyone in its service.
The BJP now seems to be in a position in West Bengal and across the east to unveil its design of a homogenous polity, where difference is dangerous, as it is perceived as hostile and a challenge to the Sangh’s idea of nation. But that is a trifle misleading. It failed to topple the Trinamul Congress in just those seats where it had the highest hopes — Kolkata North and South, Jadavpur and Dum Dum — that are part of the larger metropolitan area. For West Bengal, Kolkata is the centre of the universe. Till that falls into the BJP’s hands, the wellsprings of dissent will continue to merrily bubble up, spawning opposition.
The BJP’s success was in the countryside; its voteshare of close to 40 per cent is perilously close to the TMC’s 45 per cent voteshare. The reasons for the BJP’s success needs more granular analysis and that will come later; but, for now, its expansion in rural West Bengal — up north in Darjeeling, in Alipurduar, in Cooch Behar, in Jalpaiguri, Maldia North and South, out west in Jhargram, Purulia, Medinipur and down south in Durgapur-Bardhaman, Asansol, Ranaghat — changes it from a non-Bengali party into a naturalised one. This is contrary to the BJP’s expectations and the pundits’ predictions, who believed Kolkata would be the citadel that first crumbled, partly because the majority of its inhabitants are non-Bengali and partly as the bhadralok disenchantment with Mamata Banerjee is the loudest in the city. The ground has shifted from under Ms Banerjee’s feet. The social and class appeal of the “Ma-Mati-Manush” combination designed to identify with the rural, semi-urban and low income-low expectation voters
in West Bengal has dwindled. Rural voters are clearly voicing their frustration and anger. Equally clear is that Narendra Modi’s message of rebuilding the nation as a Hindu sanctuary, peopled by ardent desh bhakts has stirred up dormant sentiment about communal identity. On a prosaic level, the fun of celebrating yet another god — Shri Ram — has its own appeal in West Bengal, where such events are an excuse to collect funds and indulge.
The Bengal verdict means a paradigm change in politics; from a social and political consensus to keep communal polarisation out of politics to its installation centrestage. It doesn’t make the Bengali a greater desh bhakt than before; it merely signals that the corrosive content of the BJP’s politics about marginalisation of the majority because of the politics of appeasement of Muslims by the “secular” parties, including Trinamul Congress, has rooted itself and is rapidly spreading across the state.
The verdict is also a choice Bengalis are making about joining the national political mainstream. There has been en bloc shift of votes from the Left to the BJP; the losses of one are the gains of the other. The appeal of a strong authoritative persona runs deep in the Bengali voter psyche. Before Mr Modi, it was Ms Banerjee. The difference is that the fear of being left behind to languish under successive local regimes has possibly contributed to the BJP’s unexpectedly large haul of seats.
Mr Modi made 17 visits to West Bengal to win 18 seats; to win a majority of the 294 seats in the Assembly, it is easy to predict he will be a frequent visitor. The BJP, with its government at the Centre, will be a heavyweight opponent that could crush Ms Banerjee in 2021. If the BJP chose, it could break her hold over the state before that, by using violence as a reason for dismissing her government. The size of the BJP’s win and the turmoil it must necessarily create among parties that tried to put together the anti-BJP, anti-Congress regional party front will cramp Ms Banerjee’s capacity to fight off the threat.
West Bengal’s mainstreaming under the BJP’s patronage will challenge the survival of the Trinamul Congress, CPI(M) and Congress. It may end up as the race to see how fast the BJP converts these parties into “signboards;” or will it lose that challenge?
The writer is a senior journalist in Kolkata...