12/05/2016 1:46 PM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:26 AM IST

West Bengal Elections: BJP Had A Clean Slate But Its Leaders Are Determined To Prove Otherwise

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NADIA, INDIA - APRIL 17: BJP supports with party flags and symbol cutouts during election campaign rally of Prime Minister Narendra Damodardas Modi before third phase of Assembly Election at Krishnanagar Govt. College ground, on April 17, 2016 in Nadia, India. (Photo by Samir Jana/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

How NOT to win friends and influence people. That seems to be the modus operandi of the BJP in West Bengal.

The BJP’s greatest liability in Bengal is that it’s been a non-player. It has little clout. It’s regarded as a north Indian party without deep enough Bengali roots. Shyama Prasad Mukherjee to most modern Bengalis is just the name of a busy street in Kolkata.

But that is also its greatest asset. It has nowhere to go but up. It might have just one MLA in the Bengal Assembly but if it manages to get five in the current election cycle, that will get national attention. Its status as a long-time also-ran also means as a party it escapes a lot of the mud thrown at the other players.

When syndicate politics became an electoral issue, BJP was pretty much the only party that could claim to be untouched by it. The hoodlums and local toughs who have become the indispensable electoral muscle and sinews of Bengal and whose influence the combined might of central forces and the Election Commission tried to circumscribe this election are more often than not toughs once patronized by the CPM who have switched over to the Trinamool camp.

When the Congress and the Left tied up in an electoral understanding, it required them to pretend that decades of bloodshed between the old foes had not happened, something Trinamool repeatedly reminded them about. The BJP is somewhat exempt from all of this tu tu main main, not because it is intrinsically more morally upright but because it has been a relative nonentity in Bengal and thus not a player. But whatever the reason, it could claim to be a party with a difference as it tried to ride Narendra Modi’s popularity to ramp up its footprint in Bengal.

A local BJP official summed it up perfectly-- Every time Mamata Banerjee attacked the BJP, its enrollment numbers would go through the roof.

But the local leadership seems hell-bent on destroying that image.

Take the recent fracas at Jadavpur University over the screening of Vivek Agnihotri’s film 'Buddha in a Traffic Jam'. There’s an entire freedom of expression debate that’s already been raging about what happened there and much has been written about it. Is the Left intolerant of other viewpoints in its strongholds even as it preaches freedom of expression elsewhere? Is this just part of a national strategy by ABVP to stir up trouble in Left-dominated universities? Why was permission given to screen 'Buddha in a Traffic Jam' and then withdrawn?

However it did offer an opportunity for ABVP and by extension the local BJP to be freedom-of-expression victim for a change. But what did it to do with the opportunity? It unleashed local leaders like Subir Haldar and Suman Dutta. Haldar, the West Bengal secretary of the ABVP, threatened to “cut off the legs” of “anti-national Left-aligned JU students” if they dared to step off campus thereby unintentionally reinforcing his own union’s image as troublemakers from outside. Dutta told Indian Express that some claims that ABVP activists molested JU students were false because “someone should tell them that only girls who have shame can be molested. These girls kiss men openly. That is what they do all day.”

Haldar and Dutta in one fell swoop turned themselves from freedom-of-expression victims into just another set of misogynistic hot-headed dadas threatening violence. The state president Dilip Ghosh tried to distance himself from Haldar by saying “if Halder has made such comments, we definitely do not endorse it… the issue is that freedom of speech and expression was for all and not for a particular group and also the need to instill a felling of nationalism among students who have gone astray.”

But it is a little too late for that. The BJP’s own stormtroopers have changed the conversation with their actions and incendiary remarks.

At a time when the anger over meddling in educational institutions had been directed mostly at Trinamool and the CPM, the BJP has recklessly decided it’s just as keen to show voters it has the muscle to do the same.

The Times of India reports internet trolls are attacking Jadavpur university with morphed pictures showing the Pakistan flag flying atop its gate. Another picture shows a kissing couple except that’s actually from South America. The BJP and ABVP are denying that they are involved in the trolling but if Dutta had not made the kissing jibe, it would not have provoked the morphed kissing pictures.

Voters remember the visuals of Jadavpur University’s professors forming a human chain against ABVP and BJP activists from outside shouting “Bharat Mata ki jai” and trying to march up to the university in February. The BJP seems not to understand that if there is anger in Bengal it’s about political parties’ heavy-handed interference in institutions of public learning. At a time when the anger over meddling in educational institutions had been directed mostly at Trinamool and the CPM, the BJP has recklessly decided it’s just as keen to show voters it has the muscle to do the same.

It’s a “tried-and-tested Sangh Parivar formula” writes JU professor (and alumnus) Samantak Das in He lists the steps “accuse students of a nationally- or internationally-recognised institution of higher education of anti-national activities; let loose ABVP activists on such students; get an MP or MLA to protest such anti-national activities; influence the university authorities to take “appropriate action” against the accused students” and so on.

Now BJP general secretary Subhas Sarkar tells the media “Those who went to the JU campus did so in their own personal capacity. The party has no connection with it.”

That makes the BJP look even more weak that it cannot control its own footsoldiers and student union leaders.

Ghosh himself is under EC scrutiny for threatening Trinamool workers with beheading and burial during rallies. Again, this is exactly the kind of violent language Trinamool leaders from Tapas Pal to Anubrata Mondal to even Mamata Banerjee are routinely accused of and criticized for by the BJP.

Ghosh is also coming under fire for not preventing the JU confrontation or asking its new faces like Roopa Ganguly not to go the campus. Ganguly who has good name recognition in Bengal had been carefully trying to project an image of herself as an independent-minded celebrity who has not followed many of her industry colleagues in kowtowing to Trinamool. Now she too looks like someone who wants to fish in troubled waters, the firebrand who is happy to be a firestarter as well.

Bengal was a place where the BJP had a window of opportunity, not to win the election but to establish itself as a different kind of party, a party with a cleaner slate.

Alas, its leadership seems determined to prove otherwise.

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