NEW DELHI —Early trends predict a strong showing by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in West Bengal, surprising many who expected Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress (TMC) to withstand the saffron wave.
In 2014, when BJP swept the elections and won 282 seats, Trinamool Congress dug its heels in the state winning 34 of the 42 seats, leaving BJP with only three seats in the state. In 2016 assembly elections in the state, BJP won three seats of 293 for the first time in its history in Bengal. However, Banerjee’s TMC won 211.
What changed in two years?
In Bengal, the BJP rode Modi’s national popularity wave in the state and countered Trinamool Congress’ staggering popularity by raking accusations of corruption against Banerjee and her party.
Initially, the BJP focussed on issues like the Saradha chit fund scam that had many senior TMC leaders on the back foot. Yet, the BJP’s state vice-president Chandra Bose told HuffPost India that they found that voters in Bengal consider corruption and scams a small issue.
“In slums and backward areas, some people even told me that though TMC steals, the party also takes care of the poor,” Bose said.
Bengal BJP president Dilip Ghosh had also told HuffPost India that they learnt from the drubbing they faced during the state elections and realised that despite corruption people vote for TMC.
The answer, therefore, lay in Hindutva. While the polls were underway, Ghosh told HuffPost India that the party was confident of 20 seats at least, attributing most of it to a polarisation of Hindu votes. The Muslim votes, he said, would get divided between Congress and TMC.
Jai Shri Ram And Social Media
In an interview with HuffPost India, BJP MP Subramanian Swamy had conceded that the only way his party would gain any ground in West Bengal was through pushing Hindutva and that’s what they have done.
The ground for the aggressive Hindutva push was laid early in 2017 when BJP’s Ram Navami rallies — till then an unfamiliar phenomenon in Bengal — grabbed headlines for having children brandish weapons.
A few months later in July 2017, communal riots singed Basirhat, a Muslim majority district in West Bengal when a Hindu teenager posted a meme on the Prophet. Next year, around Asansol — a constituency BJP won in 2014 — saw violent communal clashes over Ram Navami processions leaving four people dead, including a Muslim teenager. By mid-2018, Hindutva was firmly at the steering wheel of BJP’s poll strategy in West Bengal.
During various interviews, grassroots workers of the party in Bengal explained how the expansion of the party’s base was hinged on identifying pro-Hindutva people in their wards. From reaching out to people on Facebook who liked Hindutva or anti-Muslim posts to keeping an eye on the Hindu neighbours most enthusiastic at Hindu religious functions in the neighbourhood, the BJP’s monitored the smallest details in an unfamiliar territory to create a base of voters.
At the same time, in districts, BJP workers were employed to push a theory of Hindu victimhood citing sops given by the Mamata Banerjee government to Muslim clerics. While the TMC government gave out doles to Hindus as well — in the form of an increasing number of holidays for various pujas and ceremonies and money to Durga Puja organisers — the BJP cited communal skirmishes as a sign of the hostility of Muslims to Hindu communities.
The party also targeted constituencies along the long border Bengal shares with Bangladesh. In one such constituency Raiganj, the recruitment of a school teacher flared up and led to deep communal hostility. In the initial stages of the conflict, the ABVP pushed an Urdu versus Bengali narrative, which a year later, BJP president Amit Shah endorsed in a public meeting in Nadia. The BJP candidate for the constituency, actor Locket Chatterjee, even promised ‘revenge’ for the Hindu men killed during protests over teacher recruitment.
National BJP leaders extolling the virtues of the Citizenship Amendment Bill —which promised to shelter all non-Muslim immigrants and political refugees — relentlessly fed the idea that Bangaldeshi immigrants form Banerjee’s primary vote back and would soon oust Hindus from the state. Banerjee’s aggressive opposition to the Bill was also construed as a ploy to win votes from illegal Muslim immigrants at the cost of risking the safety of Hindus.
WhatsApp forwards — often clips for Bhojpuri films and fake news — flooded people’s phone inboxes in order to peddle the Hindu victimisation theory.
The party also needed a slogan to fit its strategy and they found it in ‘Jai Shri Ram’, a catchphrase they barely used in the other states during the campaigning.
While local leaders called Banerjee ‘Mumtaz’ and mocked her ‘proximity’ to Muslim clerics, the likes of Amit Shah and Narendra Modi threw their weight behind ‘Jai Shri Ram’ and dramatically challenged Banerjee to arrest them for chanting it.
The results of the campaign are visible, with the BJP looking to record its best ever performance in the state.
At the peak of campaigning, calls made to BJP’s headquarters in Kolkata were often met with confusion.
On more than one occasion, the people manning the helplines couldn’t immediately recognise names of the party’s own candidates and often sounded confused about their contact details.
The confusion of the helpline workers was symptomatic of the BJP’s organisation in Bengal.
When the party finally published a list of candidates, it was impossible to recognise a majority of people on the list as they had never made themselves relevant or visible in the state’s politics as well. A few names which seemed familiar were all recent recruits from TMC, Congress and CPM. Very few of the party’s viable candidates where groomed by the party or was immediately recognisable as one belonging to BJP.
In a Kolkata roadshow, a BJP leader claimed, “Vote for Narendra Modi in all 42 seats.”
Ghosh, BJP’s state president, admitted that people barely knew their candidates as they have never won an election. Vice president Bose, months before the state went into polls, had written to the national leadership of the party complaining about the inadequacies with leadership in the party.
“There is no leader to counter Mamata Banerjee from the BJP in this state,” he told HuffPost India in an interview last.
In the event, it turned out that the BJP did not need any local leaders in Bengal — Narendra Modi and Amit Shah’s machinations proved to be enough.