Foot in the door, BJP pushes hard for upcoming West Bengal Assembly polls

The BJP state office in central Kolkata; after taking up a floor in 2019, it now occupies four floors of the multi-storey building
The saffron building on 6, Muralidhar Sen Lane in central Kolkata, the state office of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), can no longer keep up with the requirements or soaring ambitions of a party looking to overthrow the ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC) in the upcoming Assembly election in West Bengal.

In 2019, ahead of the general election, the party had taken up one floor of a multi-storey building in the upscale Hastings area of Kolkata. It now occupies four floors of it, though the expanding floor space is far outpaced by the party’s rising popularity in the state.

BJP’s rise in West Bengal has been meteoric. In the 2014 parliamentary election, the party got a vote share of 17 per cent and bagged two seats. In 2019, the vote share increased to about 41 per cent and it got 18 seats (TMC was ahead at 22 seats, but down from 34 in 2014).

A simple extrapolation of Lok Sabha results would put the BJP ahe­ad in 126 of the 294 Assembly segments. But the BJP has eyes set on 200 seats and a confident Samik Bhattacharya, chief spokesperson of its West Bengal unit, says the party is on course to achieve the target.

Anti-incumbency is at play against TMC and there are recurring allegations of corruption against local leaders. Bhattacharya lists two other factors, which he says, are helping boost BJP’s prospects: Narendra Modi’s TINA (there is no alternative) factor and the concept of a “double-engine government” (same party at the Centre and state).

“The younger generation doesn’t want Centre-state confrontation,” says Bhattacharya.

Political observer and commentator San­dip Ghose points out, “Five generations of a hostile relationship with the Centre have cost Bengal dearly. There is a need for an alignment between the Centre and state, which would help create jobs.”

“Migration is not just an urban problem; it’s as much a problem in rural Bengal,” he adds.

As the country went into a lockdown to contain the Covid-19 pand­emic last year, West Be­n­gal saw a huge inflow of returning migrant workers, and it brought to the fore the need to create more skilled and semi-skilled jobs in the home state.

The opposition parties have been raising the pitch on the state government’s investment policies.

The BJP has stepped in to offer “ashol paribartan (real change)” with better law and order, development, more jobs and the promise of rebuilding West Bengal.

On Sunday, the party sprung a surprise by fielding economist and former chief economic advisor Ash­­ok Lahiri as a candidate from Ali­p­u­rduar, leading to speculation that he would be BJP’s choice for state fi­nance minister in the event of a win.

BJP’s battle for Bengal got serious after 2016, when it increased its vote share from 4.06 per cent to 10.16 per cent and won three seats. “Assam and West Bengal along the eastern border are important states for the BJP to drive its Look East policy,” points out political commentator Sabyasachi Basu Ray Chaudhury.

Thereon, West Bengal took to identity politics like never before. “From an ideological divide bet­ween the Left and the Congress, Bengal moved to extreme positions in identity politics,” says Basu Ray Chaudhury.

A former bureaucrat, however, says this was largely due to Mamata Banerjee’s minority-appeasement policies. “The BJP reaped dividends from Banerjee’s policies,” he says.

In the panchayat elections of 2018, the BJP finished second to the TMC. But in 2019, its vote share surged and it narrowed the gap with the TMC to a mere three per cent.

And now, a significant number of MLAs and MPs have joined the BJP, particularly from the TMC. That, however, is turning out to be challenge. Reports indicate there was discontent among local leaders in various districts after the candidate list was announced on Sunday. Former Kolkata mayor, Sovan Chatterjee, who had joined the BJP resigned on being denied a ticket from his desired constituency, Behala East. The party’s Hastings office also witnessed a protest by BJP workers on candidate selection.

It would be premature to predict which way the election would go. In the run-up to 2011, when Ban­er­jee ended 34 years of Left Front rule in the state, there were signs that paribartan was on its way. The 2008 panchayat polls were a precursor of sorts, when Left’s vote share fell from more than 90 per cent to 52 per cent. And then, in the 2009 Lok Sabha election, TMC got 19 seats and the CPI(M) had to settle for nine.

This time, the trend is still unfolding. Ghose says, either way, it will be a “wave election” — a decisive one.

Whatever the outcome, what’s evident is that West Bengal has entered an era of identity politics.

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