Unable to find a leader, BJP banks on anti-incumbency to break into Bengal

Topics West Bengal | Mamata Banerjee | BJP

After the Bihar polls, West Bengal will be the focus region for the BJP’s big two — Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah
From the Brahmaputra, it’s eastward to the Bhagirathi-Hooghly. Assam, through which the Brahmaputra flows, was a watershed for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in 2016. After years of fighting independently or in alliance with the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) and other regional parties, the BJP fell short of just three seats in the Assembly, but took the help of the AGP, the Bodo People’s Front, and two other regional entities to set up a coalition government that it headed for the first time in Assam. It was the BJP’s first breakthrough in the Northeast. It has its sights set on West Bengal, the receptacle of the Bhagirathi-Hooghly, which votes in 2021 with Assam, Tamil Nadu, Puducherry, and Kerala.

While the BJP is working to retain Assam, West Bengal is on top of its radar. “The party has exhausted itself in the north and west. It must break into the east and south. Bengal can be the gateway for a new geographical takeover,” said a political source in Kolkata, adding, “After the Bihar polls, Bengal will be the focus region for the BJP’s big two” — Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah.

Mamata Banerjee, chief minister and president of the Trinamool Congress (TMC), forms the axis of the BJP’s discourse and electioneering. While there are several components in the game plan, the projection of a CM candidate is not among them.
In an interview to a TV news channel last week, when Shah was quizzed on the issue of a CM, he replied cryptically: “That could be possible. But right now, Bengal’s people want to get rid of the TMC. That’s the most important issue.” Unfazed by the idea of going into a presidential-style contest without a CM contender, Anirban Ganguly, who helms the Syama Prasad Mookerjee Research Foundation, a BJP-affiliated think tank, said: “This no-CM-face is a narrative the TMC has pushed. My perception is since 2019, Bengali Hindus from the middle and upper classes in the urban and semi-urban areas have directly connected with Modi’s persona. In the early years, Atalji (Atal Bihari Vajpayee) had that kind of a link but after Mookerjee, it’s Modi who has left an imprint on popular consciousness. Of course, people know Modi won’t be the CM, but what’s critical to us is building on the silent, solid groundswell of anti-incumbency against Mamata.”

Subrato Chattopadhayay, Bengal BJP’s general secretary, organisation, contended: “When we are in the Opposition, we elect a leader after winning an election.” When it was pointed out that in 2003, Uma Bharti and Vasundhara Raje were primed and prepared to head Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan well before the elections, Chattopadhayay said: “That was a different period. The norms changed after 2014. The RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) also monitors the developments. The central leaders take the Sangh’s inputs.” A central BJP source said: “Was (Devendra) Fadnavis declared as CM candidate (in Maharashtra, before the 2014 elections)? There was speculation that (Nitin) Gadkari would be the CM. Was a CM name announced before the Tripura polls? No, Biplab Deb was elected as the leader after we won. The Bengal elections will be fought between Modi and Mamata.”

The fact that the battle was framed as a Modi-Mamata clash reflected a degree of anxiety in the BJP about confronting the CM, notwithstanding the outward bravado. A source took a more realistic view of the CM matter. “Right now, there’s no way of measuring the depth of anti-incumbency, if any, against Mamata. If it grows, she becomes the issue in a negative way. Otherwise, we must find a face who’s acceptable to everyone. Why is there a hesitation?” A coterie around Dilip Ghosh, Medinipur MP and the West Bengal BJP chief, pro-actively rooted for him as the CM. A Ghosh confidant claimed: “Above all, we need a leader who is endorsed by our workers. Dilip da alone fits the criterion, not a singer or an actor,” the last being a snide allusion to Babul Supriyo, Asansol MP and central minister and Locket Chatterjee, Hooghly MP. Occasionally, Supriyo and Chatterjee’s names pop up as potential aspirants.

A source dismissed Ghosh’s claims. Seen as a motormouth, often making intemperate statements (“cow milk has traces of gold” and “drink urine to fight Covid-19”), the source said Ghosh was “unacceptable in urban areas”. To the source, the challenges lay not in spotting a leader, but in those “arising in the exceptional times we live in”. “There’s Covid and political violence growing exponentially, which make it difficult to assess the quantum of anti-incumbency against Mamata. She’s getting weaker but are we strong enough to bowl her out?”

However, Ganguly was convinced that the “tipping point” had come in West Bengal. “The Left Front touched the threshold after 35 years only because the constituents were organised and ideologically cohesive. The Front had the lumpen elements but they operated within an organisational mechanism. The Trinamool has no structures, no control over the district satraps and cadre. The revolt against the leader has started,” he said.

Three “disgruntled” Mamata ministers have caught the BJP’s attention as prospective defectors: Suvendu Adhikari, Sadhan Pande, and Subrata Mukherjee. A sign that Kolkata is set to usher in a frenetic election season.

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