Modi attracts Bengal youth, but seats may still elude BJP

On February 5, when BJP’s priministerial candidate Narendra Modi addresses a rally at Kolkata’s historic Brigade Parade ground, the gathered fan following, overwhelming or otherwise, would answer a question that the party is eager to know: Will the Modi magic work in West Bengal?

 And even it does, whether it would have any impact on the upcoming Lok Sabha elections.Going by the undercurrents that the BJP has managed to produce across the state, the answer could surprise the ruling Trinamool Congress, if not the Left, which claims to be much more perceptive about such matters. Although BJP leaders have largely kept away from news in Bengal over the years, the party has grabbed eyeballs of political commentators and analysts with its steadily improving performance in successive elections in the state.

While its performance so far is nothing to crow about, given that the party hardly has any presence, it would be wrong to judge the BJP in terms of sheer numbers. There is no doubt that the party has increased its sphere of influence among non-Muslim voters of all hues, be it in Kolkata or in other parts of the state. The party has also developed an organisational network that managed to impress party president Rajnath Singh during a recent visit.

What, if anything, has changed for the BJP? The party has never won any seats in the Bengal Assembly. And even if it had two MP for barely two terms in the state, a feat which is largely attributed to its alliance with Trinamool and the rapport the regional party shares with its electorate. Insiders claim that the Trinamool’s policy of keeping a large Muslim electorate at hand has pushed a lot of urban middle-class voters towards the BJP.

Senior BJP leaders acknowledge that while the combined 162 seats in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and West Bengal (80, 40 and 42 seats respectively) are going to be crucial in the forthcoming general elections, the party is unlikely to win a single seat from Bengal. With around 25 per cent of the electorate being Muslim, BJP does not hope to gain much from the exercise.

Insiders believe that the RSS and the BJP are trying to consolidate the vote bank that reflects a polarisation against Muslim appeasement.

While the party’s senior state leadership feels it could emerge the dark horse in at least three constituencies, particularly in the border districts of Nadia and Malda, they are trying to tap into an electorate that consists of those who come from families of Hindu refuges from Bangladesh. Although having traditionally voted for the Left, they could be turned around with some effort, leaders believe.

If Trinamool’s pro-Muslim stance could help convert a section of voters, the youth could be won over with a campaign of good governance in BJP-ruled states like Gujarat. The RSS, which has been running under-the-radar surveys to understand the local electorate, has been somewhat successful in spreading its influence among urban, educated and tech-savvy youth, many of who are employed with the IT sector. Interacting with these people gave RSS the hope that all is not lost.

Guerilla campaign

Things changed even more after Modi’s name was announced as the PM candidate, with a large percentage of young voters putting their faith in the Gujarat chief minister who is seen as a mascot of development. If inputs from RSS gives rise to the belief that things can be changed in the ballot, BJP shares the Sangh’s confidence that the ground is ready to launch an offensive because Trinamool Congress’ pro-Muslim policies have alienated a large section of the non-Congress, non-Left voters. Sources in the BJP agree that RSS has been running guerilla campaign among the educated youth when BJP is campaigning on ground. Although the fact that it has largely been a non-entity in Bengal stares BJP in the eye.

 The confidence building measure came in the form of small wins in successive polls in the state, be it the panchayat elections or Assembly by-polls. After trailing behind the Left, the Trinamool and the Congress for years, in the panchayat elections earlier this year, BJP etched its presence not just in border districts but all across Bengal. In fact, the party emerged in the third place in most places, in some places it surfaced as the runner-up with a noticeable number of votes.

At one point of time BJP held 13 per cent of the electorate but slipped to six per cent, failing to capitalise on the situation. Even in the last Lok Sabha polls, BJP candidates received more than two lakh votes in at least three constituencies. Keeping all this in mind, all major leaders, including Modi, will visit Kolkata to be a part of the party’s Lok Sabha campaign. BJP also plans to contest most of the 42 Parliamentary seats this year and all of 294 Assembly seats in 2016.

The most striking feature is that BJP was of almost no consequence in Bengal. If during three decades of Left regime, CPM’s ideology ruled the roost, since Trinamool came to power, there has been an unprecedented wave in its favour. While the BJP should have had no place in this scenario, the national party seems to have made significant inroads into Bengal’s vote bank.

Although it is unlikely that BJP will open its account, the party will probably take away around 10 per cent of the votes, which is high for its present avatar in Bengal. The interesting part would be to observe its growth as the third choice, given there is some amount of political vacuum in Bengal since the Left has been rendered obsolete and a section of voters is losing faith in the Trinamool. Although the ruling party will win most seats, BJP will hope to be the new sun rise party. 

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