In Bengal, a rising BJP is Mamata’s main worry

The BJP wasn’t a major political force in West Bengal and prior to its success in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the saffron party had never made a significant mark in the state. During the 34 years of Left Front rule, the BJP was a minor player in West Bengal politics.

However, with the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the electoral fortunes of the party started to change and the party not only bagged two seats but registered a record vote share of 17%. After becoming the ruling party at the Centre, it made further inroads in Bengal with the 2016 assembly elections when although its vote share came down to about 10%, the party managed to bag three seats.

Curiously, the beginning of the BJP’s apparent rise coincided with the Trinamool Congress’ (TMC) return to power with a massive mandate, winning 211 out of the 294 assembly seats while the Left Front and Congress won 74 between them. If one takes a look at the developments in West Bengal politics since those elections, it is clear that the BJP has begun to seem like the main opposition in the state, quite disproportionate to the number of seats it has in the assembly.  

Take a look at how the BJP performed in the 2016 assembly election. Although it got only three seats — Madarihat, Kharagpur Sadar, Baisnab Nagar — it got a significant number of votes in all of them. In Madarihat assembly seat in North Bengal, BJP’s Manoj Tigga got nearly 44% of the total votes polled. Prior to 2016, Madarihat used to be a bastion of the Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP), a key constituent of the Left Front.

BJP state president Dilip Ghosh achieved a rather unexpected victory in his first electoral contest from the Kharagpur Sadar assembly seat in Paschim Medinipur district where he defeated 10-time Congress MLA Gyan Singh Sohan Pal. The outcome prompted the CPI(M) to allege that there was a covert understanding between BJP and TMC.

The third victory for BJP came in the Baisnab Nagar assembly constituency in Malda district, where its candidate Swadhin Kumar Sarkar got about 38% votes and emerged victorious in a district known to be a Congress bastion.

Although it came a distant second after TMC (which got 66% of the contested gram panchayat seats) in the panchayat elections in May, the BJP surged ahead of the Left Front and Congress and bagged 18% (5,747) of the contested gram panchayat seats. The saffron party had barely got 1% of the gram panchayat seats in the previous panchayat elections held in 2013. About 30% seats were uncontested in the three-tier panchayat system as the opposition parties could not field any candidates.

Much to the concern of TMC, the BJP came up a close second to the ruling party in the tribal-dominated districts of Jhargram and Purulia. The BJP got more than 40% of the gram panchayat seats whereas TMC got 48% of the seats in Jhargram. In Purulia, the BJP got 33% of the gram panchayat seats and TMC about 43% of the seats. The organisational clout of the TMC was unable to prevent the BJP from getting substantial tribal votes.

The BJP came second in the by-election for the Maheshtala assembly seat in South 24 Parganas district in late May. Although TMC bagged the seat with a massive margin of 62,827 votes, the BJP came up second, pushing the Congress-backed Left Front candidate to the third spot.

Gaining might

However, it is not just during elections, but the saffron party is using even Ram Navami celebrations to forward its Hindutva agenda in Bengal. Several armed Ram Navami rallies were taken out across the state in March, which often resulted in clashes between two communities. At least four persons died in the clashes.

Although the rallies were not directly held under the banner of BJP and RSS, cadres of both organisations had a key role in holding them. State BJP chief Dilip Ghosh himself participated in an armed Ram Navami rally, drawing strong reaction from TMC, which accused the BJP and RSS of disrupting the secular fabric of Bengal.

Apart from pushing its Hindutva agenda, the BJP has chalked out a detailed campaign plan over the National Register of Citizens (NRC) for Bengal, aimed at gaining mileage for the Lok Sabha elections. The state leadership seeks to corner TMC over the illegal infiltration issue and has repeatedly targeted Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee over her opposition to the NRC exercise. It plans to target not just TMC but also CPI(M) and Congress which, the BJP says, remain “deliberately aloof” to illegal infiltration for “vote bank politics.”

However, considering that West Bengal has nearly 28% minority voters, the BJP is also trying to reach out to them through its Minority Morcha. During a recent workshop of the BJP Minority Morcha in Kolkata, central BJP leader Arvind Menon urged party workers to reach out to Muslim voters in the state ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. The party leadership aims to eat into the minority vote base of TMC, which has played a key role in keeping TMC in power in Bengal since 2011.

Political observers say that the minority outreach may not help the BJP much. “With the apparent growth of BJP in Bengal, minority voters are increasingly consolidating behind TMC. This has resulted into a steep decline of the minority vote base of CPI(M) and Congress. BJP still has a long way to go in Bengal if it wants to match the organisational heft of TMC. A lot will depend on how BJP performs in the next assembly elections,” Biswanath Chakraborty, noted political analyst and faculty member of Rabindra Bharati University told DH.

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In Bengal, a rising BJP is Mamata’s main worry

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