Ruminations: BJP’s project Bengal
The course and content of Bengal politics is set to change because the BJP is determined to succeed in the state
As far as political wisdom goes, it has been assumed that Bengal is unlikely to elect a party that acknowledges the majoritarian sentiment because, in practice, Bengal has stayed the secular course in elections and shunned rightwing politics. That perhaps explains why in Lok Sabha elections since 1984, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has never got more than two seats, and sometimes even drawn a blank.
But, as a BJP leader said privately, it would be wrong to put Narendra Modi and Amit Shah into any kind of straitjacket. Records mean nothing for them. As the BJP leader said about Modi, “In attitude, he really has a 56-inch chest.” This perhaps explains the sheer audacity of striking a deal with the PDP in Jammu and Kashmir to ensure the BJP’s presence in the state, which had seemed near-impossible at one time. It also explains the demolition of the opposition in Uttar Pradesh twice over, in 2014 and the recent state polls, once again going against the record. Those results also showed that electoral victories go beyond poll arithmetic, something that had stood the Bihar Mahagathbandhan in good stead in November 2015.
Apart from southern states like Tamil Nadu and Kerala, Bengal for many reasons has become the final frontier for the BJP, which has never been a part of any coalition there. In Mamata Banerjee, they have a formidable mass leader in power, who, for the moment, seems to have the run of the state. The last time after 2014 the Modi and Shah-led BJP fought against a similarly popular leader was Bihar’s Nitish Kumar, and they had not been able to go past him. What Banerjee has at her command is impressive: 34 Lok Sabha MPs from 42 seats and 211 MLAs in the 294-seat state assembly. There is another challenge – the nearly 30 per cent Muslim population.
Communal polarisation has not been a problem in the state post independence and certainly not since the Left Front came to power in 1977. Yet, now, with an aggressive BJP at the Centre that sees no limitations to its scope for bringing more states under it, the narrative appears to have changed and brought it closer home. This has brought the focus on the rising number of communal incidents under Mamata Banerjee’s watch.

One of these has been the violence in Dhulagarh. Last year’s controversy over the immersion of Durga idols because it clashed with Mohurram generated resentment among residents. The chief minister’s support to Muslims for jobs and financial aid to madrassas are now up for public discussion in a more emphatic way ever before. Bengal is expected to be on the agenda of the BJP’s national executive meeting in Bhubaneswar in mid-April. The changing narrative of the BJP for Bengal is evidence of how things might move in the coming days, leading up to 2019 and the prospect of NaMo 2.0. It has gone from a soft approach towards Banerjee and an unspoken electoral understanding in 2014 to growing acrimony, with allegations against her on the chit fund scam and minority appeasement.
The earlier approach, many in the BJP now believe, was based on an erroneous assessment that the Trinamool Congress party’s support was needed in getting through important legislation since the NDA did not have a majority in the Rajya Sabha. That logic did have its merits in Parliament – even on the amendments to the finance bill introduced in the Rajya Sabha earlier this week, the Trinamool Congress staged a walkout before the voting.
The arrogance over its prospects in the state – even though the party saw a drop of about 8 per cent vote share between the Lok Sabha elections in 2014 and the assembly polls in 2016 – comes from the BJP’s string of electoral victories, and improved performances in areas where it had no presence, like the north-eastern states, and higher vote share than earlier in Tamil Nadu and Kerala.

There is every likelihood of an exploitation of majoritarian sentiment. Dhulagarh could be raised, as the BJP is doing even now, in much the same way that the party had exploited Kairana, Muzaffarnagar and Shamli in Uttar Pradesh, which helped it to win western Uttar Pradesh more emphatically than anywhere else in the UP polls.
Already, the BJP is making inroads where the Trinamool Congress is weak or where the Left parties were once strong, like north Bengal, and areas like Burdwan. The big challenge for Bengal will be how it responds to this majoritarianism. Because that will be the point at which it will clash with Banerjee’s obvious minority appeasement. In short, the course and content of Bengal politics is set to change forever in the coming months because the BJP under Modi and Shah is determined to succeed
in the state.