The Rath Yatra is not working in BJP’s favour; the response is lukewarm at best. In a high-decibel election, you cannot introduce a moving vehicle that will go past the villages, towns, and markets with little participation from the people, but you hope to galvanise them. The election season needs people on the street, attending meetings and rallies, feeling being part of a collective.
A flood of people at the mega rallies and roadshows of the top leaders such as Prime Minister Modi, Amit Shah, and J.P. Nadda is not a good indicator of public enthusiasm. As the flies get attracted to the fire, so do people to the political stars. The test of popularity is whether the local leaders can draw crowds to their rallies and meetings. Evidence in favour of BJP on this count is a mixed bag.
BJP had initiated the political campaign in 2019. Since then, it has managed to break away hordes of leaders from TMC to their fold. There was a palpable sense that TMC’s ship was sinking. But TMC has healed the bleeding wounds by now, and strong loyalists now surround Mamata Banerjee. The possibility of internal sabotage by the leaders no longer threatens TMC. BJP, on the other hand, had peaked its campaign too early—almost by two months. The shrillest political campaigns have happened from October to December. BJP’s political rhetoric is well-known by now, and the leaders sound repetitive.
The onus is on BJP to create a compelling argument about why people should bring ‘asol poriborton’ (the real change), which is still missing. “Sonar Bangla” (Golden Bangla) sounds too fanciful and abstract; it needs concrete programme. People can consider it as another jumla.
Election dates have not yet been declared, though the polls must be conducted in April and the first week of May. This delay points out that BJP still does not know whom to project as its Chief Ministerial candidate. Selecting other MLA candidates would not be easy. They need to accommodate many TMC-deserters. Keep in mind that most of the leaders of BJP are already MPs of the lower and upper houses. Would they field the candidates who had lost the Lok Sabha elections recently? Are these candidates popular and credible? How would it reflect on the party leadership’s bench strength?
After six to eight years of constant groundwork, BJP still has a relatively weak organisation. The party’s grassroots-level is filled with former CPM cadres, and the district- and state- level leaderships have a large number of politicians who had switched from other parties. Many of these cadres and leaders have a transactional and pragmatic relationship with BJP and have not necessarily converted to or accepted its core ideology of Hindutva.
The mythical and formidable electoral apparatus of BJP has not become as effective and efficient as it is in their home states. Most of the crucial electoral work has been delegated to the trusted party-hands brought in from other states. The state unit is divided into three or four acrimonious camps.
BJP now practises more of machine-politics than movement-politics (as F.G. Bailey would have called it). While Abhishek Banerjee and Prashant Kishor might be trying to create a machine-politics for TMC, Mamata Banerjee revels in movement-politics with her capacity to mobilise people at any instance. In a high-pitched battle, movements always have an edge.
BJP’s traditional cultural war machine got stranded in an alien land. Beyond ‘Jai Shree Ram’ and ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai,’ they could not coin any original and indigenous slogan. ‘Jai Shree Ram’ has a little religious or spiritual connotation in Bengal. It has become, for what it is, a pure divisive political slogan—a battle cry with which an average, non-core voter does not emotionally connect. They have borrowed slogans from the Left (Inquilab Zindabad) and TMC (Poriborton). They even copied the tune of ‘Bella Ciao.’ They tried to create a Pakistan out of Bangladesh—an enemy on the east-side. Most people do not see Bangladesh in that light. Rather, the people of Epar Bangla (Bengal of this side/bank) have an affectionate relationship with Opar Bangla (Bengal on the other side/other bank of the river). Instead, the labels of Bohiragoto (outsider) and Bargi (refers to the Maratha troopers who plundered Bengal, but it is also a play on the surname of BJP’s West Bengal in-charge Kailash Vijayvargiya) got stuck to them. In sum, the political culture which BJP has managed to produce in their strongholds in other parts of India is missing in Bengal. This raises the question: is it possible to localise Hindutva?
BJP has made a strategic mistake by unleashing their non-local leaders such as Kailash Vijayvargiya and Arvind Menon too early on the state and giving them prominence over the local leaders, creating an impression that the outsiders are trying to capture/conquer the state, or on a milder note, the Congress-style high command culture, which had ruined the relative autonomy of Pradesh Congress, has returned to Bengal. The local leaders, such as Suvendu Adhikari, added ghee to the fire by repeatedly stating that they would “hand over Bengal to Modi.”
Bengali media, on the large and so far, remain committed to secularism. The national media houses launched a host of Bengali news TV channels before the elections—such as Aaj Tak Bangla, Republic Bangla, TV9 Bangla, and revamped News18 Bangla (the erstwhile ETV Bangla). These channels do not enjoy the popularity of ABP Ananda and Zee 24 Ghanta and cannot spread BJP’s message. ABP Ananda, unlike its siblings in other languages, is tilted to the liberal middle. Zee 24 Ghanta is tilted to the BJP, but not to the extend like its mother channel, Zee news Hindi.
BJP’s social media monopoly has ended in India, even when it continues to dominate. Social media works better in states where most of the opposition parties become active only before the elections. In Bengal, politics is always already a 24×7 affair, where rallies, meetings and sloganeering happen throughout the year. All the political parties have units targeting various sections of the society, with their own year-round activities. People are directly and constantly bombarded with political messages. The scope of using ‘WhatsApp University” to create a make-belief world is circumscribed.
Identity politics: The strategy of ‘polarise and capture’ got grounded before it could spread. Gurkhas abandoned the boat very early. Matuas are still ambivalent as BJP would not promise a deadline to implement CAA. Adivasis in the north and west are maintaining strategic distance. Rajbanshis are disillusioned with BJP as it has failed to keep the promises made in the last elections.
Then the mother of all worries: Muslim votes could not be split. Owaisi has returned home without making any dent. Furfura Sharif and Pirzada Taha Siddiqui remain with TMC. Abbas Siddiqui’s venture is proving to be a damp squib, though CPM and Congress are courting him.
As anyone knows, Bengal voters do not change their mind too often, for several reasons, not least, because in the absence of social institutions, it is the party which mediates their socio-economic and political lives (as Dwaipayan Bhattacharya would tell us). Their voting preferences change when structural conditions change. What are those this time? None that I can see.
BJP is flogging a dead political horse: corruption, tolabaji/small-scale extortion, cut money, and syndicate. They have raised these issues twice before: 2016 and 2019. TMC has survived both. It has survived the chit fund scams and the Narada sting operation. 2016-2021 is the period when TMC focussed on organising the party more professionally, launching a slew of welfare policies—the various sathis and shrees, procured crops and provide crop insurance. None of these works perfectly. There are usual state-capture and rent-seeking that these policies breed, but the political messaging and intent were clear. The Government had reached the doorstep before the literal “duare sarkar” (government-on-your-doorstep) programme was launched.
Mamata is eternal Didi. It is not easy to convert her into “Pishi” (aunt) because you want to target the “Bhaipo”—the ‘corrupt’ nephew. The UP-inspired “Bua-Bhatija” would not work in Bengal. If “Pishi” is used to demean Mamata, like the way BJP mocked Rahul Gandhi as “Pappu,” it only invites more derogatory and demeaning name-calling by Mamata and TMC – remember “Chaddha, Nadda, Fadda, Bhaddha”?
Hence, BJP is playing its last card: CBI and ED—organisations that are suffering a credibility deficit. This will only make Mamata claim victimhood.
So, to conclude, khela ekhono baki. The game is still on.
Bailey, F. G. (1963) Politics and Social Change, Orissa in 1959. Oxford University Press: Delhi.
Bhattacharyya, Dwaipayan (2009). “Of Control and Factions: The Changing ‘Party-Society’ in Rural West Bengal,” Economic and Political Weekly, 44(9), 59-69.
Bhattacharyya, Dwaipayan (2004). “West Bengal: Permanent Incumbency and Political Stability,” Economic and Political Weekly, 39(51), 5477-5483.