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BJP's 'look east' politics may come at a cost

By Amulya Ganguli
May 02, 2017 10:01 IST
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Even as the BJP makes inroads into Odisha and West Bengal, the party will have to be wary of losing out elsewhere, says Amulya Ganguli.

BJP in West Bengal

IMAGE: It is likely that the BJP will fare well in the upcoming elections in Odisha and neighbouring West Bengal, where there has been a 22 per cent increase in the party's vote share in the recent Contai South by-election. Photograph: PTI Photo


The Bharatiya Janata Party's expected forays into the eastern states, starting with Odisha, was only to be expected in the wake of its successes in the recent panchayat elections in the state and reports of Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik's ill health.

The BJP and Patnaik's Biju Janata Dal were in power in Odisha from 2000 till the anti-Christian riots of 2008 -- in which the Bajrang Dal was allegedly involved -- separated them.

Prior to that, Patnaik was not too concerned about his alliance with the BJP even when the Bajrang Dal was implicated in 1999 in the murder of Australian missionary Graham Staines and his two sons.

But the Kandhamal riots with nearly 50 deaths apparently left him with no option but to break free.

That the rupture had little impact on the BJD's influence was evident from its success in winning the assembly elections on its own in 2009.

But it is now clear that Patnaik has been unable in the last seven or eight years to consolidate his base of support.

The English-speaking chief minister, who cannot speak his native tongue, remained a loner, keeping his distance from national politics and refusing to be a part of an anti-BJP combine. The ploy of going it alone does not seem to have helped him.

Nor has he had any success in boosting Odisha's development, failing, for instance, to play a proactive role in enabling POSCO, the South Korean steel giant, to invest in the state.

The result is that the BJP has succeeded in clawing its way back into the reckoning.

It is quite likely that the BJP will fare well in the forthcoming contests in Odisha, as also in neighbouring West Bengal where there has been a 22 per cent increase in the BJP's vote share in the recent Contai South by-election, recalling the 16.8 per cent votes which it received in 2014, up from 6 per cent in 2009 and 4 per cent in 2011.

The BJP's latest jump in the vote share in West Bengal has been mainly at the Left's expense, which experienced a 24 per cent drop.

As any visitor to West Bengal has noticed, there is a prevalence of considerable anti-Muslim sentiment among the Bengali middle class, which is helping the BJP.

There is little doubt, therefore, that the BJP's 'look east' policy will bear fruit in the coming days, much like its recent success in Manipur, further to the east.

But even as the BJP makes inroads into previously unfamiliar territories, the party will have to be wary of losing out elsewhere.

Its failures in Karnataka, for instance, where it lost the Gundlupet and Nanjangud by-elections and in Madhya Pradesh, where it lost the Ater seat, show that the BJP's dream of ushering in a Congress-mukt Bharat is dur ast.

This perception is confirmed by the fact that the Congress was the first party of the electorate's choice in Goa and Manipur as well in the recent assembly elections apart from winning in Punjab.

It is another matter that the ailing and aging 132-year-old party has become so unused to hearing good news that it failed to react to the outcome in Goa and Manipur, leaving the field open to the BJP to grab power by hook or crook.

But as Veerappa Moily has said, the people still have faith in the Congress although the party itself seems to have lost faith in itself.

It is possible, therefore, that as the BJP focusses on the east it will find the ground slipping from under its feet elsewhere, notably in Karnataka, where Amit Shah's choice of B S Yeddyurappa appears to have backfired.

It might be a case, therefore, of losing in the swings what is gained in the roundabouts.

For the BJP, however, success in the east may cause a few problems.

Odisha and West Bengal, for instance, are not quite as vegetarian as are the states in the BJP's political hinterland in the north and the west.

As in Kerala, the people in these states, even the Brahmins, are regular eaters of meat and even beef. This preference is especially true of Odisha's 22.1 per cent tribal population.

The hope, therefore, of weaning the people away from their dietary preferences, as RSS pracharak Shankar Das has said about the objective of the 'cultural' organisation in the north-east, may not be easy.

In fact, the BJP itself may change during its journey eastwards as its pre-poll promise of not imposing a beef ban in the north-east shows.

It will probably have to give a similar undertaking in Odisha and West Bengal as well.

Amulya Ganguli comments on current affairs.

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Amulya Ganguli