'It doesn’t help to transpose the Hindi heartland model on Bengal. Bengalis don’t understand its dynamics. They won’t comprehend the impact of Modi’s dip in the Ganga because Bengal’s political culture is different. It’s difficult to polarise Bengal religiously.'
Radhika Ramaseshan reports.
If the Bharatiya Janata Party staged a sensational electoral debut in West Bengal in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, no less disquieting for the party was its decline in just two years.
The fall started with the loss in the 2021 assembly polls -- where the BJP’s big consolation was it emerged second, displacing the Left Front as the principal Opposition in the legislature.
The BJP won 77 of the 291 seats it fought on and secured a vote share of 38.13 per cent, a drop from the 44 leads it gained in the assembly segments through the 18 it won of the 42 Lok Sabha seats in 2019.
Its only solace was it defeated Mamata Banerjee, chief minister, in Nandigram where the victor was her former political confidant, Suvendu Adhikari, who defected to the BJP and has graduated to being the pivot of its politics.
The BJP lost all the five assembly bypolls held between September and November 2021 to the Trinamool Congress Party, despite mounting a battle to the finish in Bhabanipur, Mamata’s constituency.
The Kolkata municipal corporation polls in December 2021 brought more dismal news.
The vote share of 29 per cent the BJP mobilised in the Kolkata wards in the state elections fell to 9.19 per cent while the Left’s quota was higher, at 12 per cent.
After a long drought, the Left spotted green shoots of recovery.
The TMC swept the civic elections, winning 134 of the 144 wards with a vote share of 72.16 per cent, an uptick of 22 per cent since the last urban body elections.
The BJP faces its next test in the remaining civic polls that will be held on January 22 and February 27.
Erosion took other forms, which sapped the organisation and the legislature party -- both of which suffered from the TMC’s concerted poaching.
The latest blow was struck on December 25 when five MLAs -- Mukutmoni Adhikari, Subrata Thakur, Ambica Roy, Asok Kirtania, and Asim Sarkar -- exited the BJP’s WhatsApp groups in protest against not finding a place in the recast state committee.
They were all Matuas, a powerful Dalit sub-grouping, which was assiduously wooed by the BJP.
A day later, four MLAs from the Bankura district quit, although Sukanta Majumdar, the newly appointed West Bengal party president, denied a “revolt”.
Mukul Roy, a former Mamata aide, was inducted into the BJP amid fanfare in 2017 but he returned to the TMC in July 2021 and triggered a series of defections from the BJP, notably that of former central minister Babul Supriyo.
The attrition appears irreversible.
Consequently, a sense of fatalism overcame the BJP.
“Things won’t move until January 1. There’s no time to campaign (for the remaining civic polls),” said Anirban Ganguly, a BJP national executive member who lost the assembly election from Bolpur.
Ganguly’s own sense was that while bypolls and civic elections “normally tilt towards the ruling party”, voter fatigue too had set it.
“I saw that voters were disinterested this time,” he said.
If the BJP’s victory run in the Lok Sabha and certain assembly elections is attributed rather churlishly by the Opposition to “EVM manipulation” and “underhand tactics”, the BJP, boot on its foot, ascribed its losses to the TMC’s “wholesale intimidation and bullying”.
Medinipur MP and former West Bengal BJP president Dilip Ghosh alleged: “Our workers feel helpless because they are trapped in false charges levelled by the police. The administration and police work for one party. Many of our workers have returned to their villages and restarted small trade and business.”
“The CPM rigged elections for years. Their goons have gone over to the TMC which has perfected the CPM model,” claimed a former TMC leader.
Few leaders, if any, were prepared to introspect on the state of the BJP organisation. “Our organisation is solid. We managed to field all 144 candidates (in the Kolkata civic polls) who passed scrutiny,” stated Dinesh Trivedi, who crossed over from the TMC to the BJP.
Ranaghat MP Jagannath Sarkar, who is a vice-president of the West Bengal BJP, was an exception.
Sarkar had won the Santipur assembly in May 2021 but resigned to keep his Lok Sabha membership.
The BJP was routed in the ensuing bypoll.
“An ideological base at the grassroots is vital for our survival. An individual without ideology can’t be an asset. The remedy doesn’t lie in reorganising the party unless we impart an ideological direction to the cadre and make it disciplined. Our biggest error was inducting Mukul Roy and other dubious characters from the TMC. People were enthused about the BJP because they thought it was a party with a strong character,” said Sarkar.
Jayanta Ghoshal, a veteran political commentator on West Bengal, believed the BJP did not “understand” the state.
“It doesn’t help to transpose the Hindi heartland model on Bengal. Bengalis don’t understand its dynamics. They won’t comprehend the impact of (Narendra) Modi’s dip in the Ganga (recently at Varanasi) because Bengal’s political culture is different. Even in the Ramakrishna Mission ashrams, Christ is worshipped on Christmas. It’s difficult to polarise Bengal religiously,” said Ghoshal.
Where does the BJP go from here?
Shishir Bajoria, the convenor of the party’s election management committee, said: “We have to retain our hold over north Bengal, strengthen control over the western part and reinvent in south Bengal. We have to focus on every region if we want 25 of the 42 (Lok Sabha seats). We have to calibrate our rhetoric.”
He added that Majumdar, the new state chief, had a “different style of speaking” from his predecessor, Ghosh, who could be intemperate at times.