POLITICS & PUBLIC AFFAIRS: Taking the fight to Mamata
BJP believes it could be West Bengal’s scene-stealer in Lok Sabha polls and not Trinamool Congress
BJP believes it could be West Bengal’s scene-stealer in Lok Sabha polls and not Trinamool Congress. RADHIKA RAMASESHAN writes
There are several reasons for the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP’s) belief that West Bengal, and not Odisha or the Northeast, could be its sunrise state in the upcoming Lok Sabha election.
“In 2014, this state had little role in elevating Narendra Modi as PM. But, this time it will play a pivotal part,” said Suresh Pujari, the BJP’s assistant central minder for West Bengal.
According to Jay Prakash Majumdar, who heads the BJP’s political feedback department in Kolkata, “The catalyst for such a hope is Mamata Banerjee (West Bengal chief minister and Trinamool Congress president).” The arresting imagery of Banerjee glowering at the Centre in a recent sit-in to protest the Central Bureau of Investigation’s (CBI’s) alleged excesses juxtaposed with the exasperation of the BJP brass after the administration repeatedly denied permission to hold a simple public meeting delineated the contours of a fierce battle in the offing.
Indeed, the confrontation between the Narendra Modi government and Banerjee could capture the zeitgeist of the 2019 elections. The BJP is straining at the leash for an exponential increase in its tally from two to 20+, while the Trinamool Congress (TMC) is looking to net all 42 Lok Sabha seats in the state, eight more than what it had won in 2014.
For the past one year, the BJP’s visibility has grown; it is fighting the TMC on every platform in villages, towns and cities. Banerjee furthered our cause by singling out the BJP as her main opponent. Our ‘Save Democracy’ yatra (in 2018) was a 30-day agitation that began when we didn’t have any kind of original base or a vote percentage. The government stopped it. That move boosted our morale and we organised meetings of the Prime Minister and Amit Shah (BJP president). The popular impression was that because the BJP went all out to oust Banerjee, she foiled its plans.”
However, a gap exists between a presumption and the reality, more so in West Bengal, where the BJP’s vote percentage in the 2009 parliamentary polls was just 6.14 per cent as against the TMC’s 31.18 per cent and the Communist Party of India (Marxist)’s 33 per cent. In 2014, the BJP’s vote share went up to 17.02 per cent and the TMC’s jumped to 39.79 per cent — still a difference of 22.77 per cent.
Saumitra Khan, who recently joined the BJP but was elected to the Lok Sabha from Bishnupur on the TMC's ticket, believed the saffron party's prospects hinged largely on the ability of the Congress and Left Front to cut into the over 30 per cent Muslim votes. “Minority votes are the TMC’s main source of strength. In reaction, the Hindus are grouping around the BJP because of Banerjee’s appeasement policy. If Muslim votes are dented, Banerjee becomes vulnerable,” Khan claimed.
On a broader canvas, the BJP has fashioned a narrative inspired by the storyline used in Bihar (against Rashtriya Janata Dal chief Lalu Prasad) in the 1990s: Conjure up images of violence and lawlessness and project Banerjee as the spearhead of a “kleptocracy” of regional chieftains.
Roopa Ganguly, a Rajya Sabha MP and BJP leader in West Bengal, said: “Daylight murders in crowded areas are common in the state. Banerjee, once a firebrand opposition leader, turned out to be a poor administrator... It is my responsibility as a common citizen to fight lawlessness.”
Ganguly maintained that the optimism Banerjee infused “even among the upper middle class” when she ousted the Left Front in 2011 has petered out. “People think beyond the CPM-TMC binary. That’s why Modi is popular,” she said.
As for “corruption”, signified by the multi-crore Rose Valley and Saradha ponzi scams, Khan’s line was: “When Banerjee’s once closest confidants Sudip Bandyopadhyay and Madan Mitra and her MP Tapas Pal were arrested, she did nothing. She let them rot in jail. When a police chief (Rajeev Kumar, Kolkata Police commissioner) apprehended arrest, she sat on a dharna. This is highly suspicious.”
On the counter-charge of the BJP inducting former TMC MP Mukul Roy and Assam heavyweight Himanta Biswa Sarma (a former Congressman) even after their names figured in these scams, Pratap Banerjee, the BJP’s West Bengal general secretary, said: “Roy was questioned (by the CBI) when he was in the TMC. Sarma was questioned when he was in the Congress. Nothing was found against them. If the two are summoned again (by the CBI), they will go. If they are convicted, the party will act against them.”
The BJP’s campaign against the TMC will be themed around “looting” the poor through the chit fund scams. “The poor have lost over ~40,000 crore. They don’t want to see a leader doing the dharna drama. They want their money back,” stressed Pratap Banerjee. It also counted on three other factors to see through its “Mission 23 (Lok Sabha seats)”: Alleged factional fights in local TMC units over “sharing the spoils of power”; the organisational “damage” supposedly rendered by Roy; and the Election Commission’s directive to have CCTV and real-time footage in each of the 78,800 booths. “That will check booth capturing,” said Majumdar.
The confrontation between the Narendra Modi government and Mamata Banerjee may capture the zeitgeist of the polls