By Kalyani Shankar
West Bengal is moving towards a personality clash between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and chief minister Mamata Banerjee in the upcoming Assembly elections. Both have evolved as cult figures. With no tall state leaders in Bengal, the BJP has followed this formula of a battle between a regional heavyweight and the BJP mascot Modi, in some states, like Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Delhi and Maharashtra, and Haryana with mixed success.
On the face of it, the next year’s Assembly polls to five states- West Bengal, Assam, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, and Puducherry will test the BJP’s expansion plans. But the saffron party’s main focus is on West Bengal where the ruling Trinamool Congress is well entrenched since the 2011 polls when Mamata Banerjee threw out the CPI-M led Left Front which had ruled the state for 34 years.. She will be seeking power for a third term.
While a ‘Modi versus Mamata’ battle may have worked well for the BJP at the Lok Sabha level, it may not be that easy at the state level. For instance, Mamata is not like other regional leaders as she has a method in her working. She has reduced the other opposition parties like the CPI-M and the Congress to near irrelevance in the past decade. Also, she is a fierce street fighter. Besides for more than 45 years, the state has been anti – Centre which might help Mamata.
The BJP has been upbeat since its performance in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections in Bengal was impressive. It won 18 of the 42 Lok Sabha seats just four less than the ruling TMC. Significantly, the BJP’s vote share in the state increased to over 40% in 2019 from a mere 2% in the 2011 assembly polls emerging as the number two party in the state.
The Congress and the CPI (M) had fought the 2016 assembly elections together, managing to win 76 of the 294 seats and accounting for almost 39 percent of the vote-share. They had, however, split ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha polls. This time the CPI-M central committee last week okayed poll tie-up with all secular parties including the Congress.
The 2021 election, however, is more difficult for the ruling TMC. The BJP has the advantage of being an “untested challenger.”
As a strategy, the BJP is trying to mobilize the anti-incumbency factor against Banerjee and consolidating Hindu votes. Mamata’s Poribarthan (change) of 2011 is BJP’s slogan today. It is focusing on issues like cut money and the syndicate raj. TMC’s alleged corruption seems to be the main poll plank of the BJP. ‘ Aamaar Poribaar, (My Family, BJP Family,) is BJP’s current slogan. The BJP aims to capture the youth by social media campaign called ‘Reboot Kolkata’ referring to Kolkata city’s glorious past. The party is using its army on Whatsapp to consolidate the Hindu vote as there are two more major parties in the race as well – Congress, and the CPI-M
However, Mamata’s biggest strength lies in her image as a developmental chief minister, which she had created post-Singur and Nandigram with schemes ranging from Kanyashree or distribution of cycles to the girls of underprivileged families, distribution of rice at a low price, development of roads, etc., During the lockdown, she launched the campaign – Banglar Gorbo Mamata which involves various meetings with voters, workers, and prominent Bengali personalities. The development schemes and her populist image might stand her in good stead.
Mamata has a ready-made issue after Union Home Minister Amit Shah has announced that the controversial CAA would be implemented in Bengal ahead of Assembly polls. The TMC is planning multiple protests against the CAA and the NRC. The TMC, Left, and Congress are of the same view regarding their opposition to CAA and the NRC. Bengal is not like other hindi speaking states. So BJP’s anti-CAA pitch may not get that much response among the hindu voters in Bengal excepting the firm supporters of the BJP.
Mamata’s advantage is her formidable minority base that forms 28 percent of the population. They matter in 70 to 80 seats. The BJP plans to polarize the electorate on a communal basis. Mamata will have to guard against the splitting of the minority votes. The AIMIM, which won five seats in Bihar, is planning to contest in Bihar polls, which could cut into the Muslim votes.
It is too early to predict the West Bengal election scene as clarity will emerge nearer the polls but violence could be expected. An important issue would be how the public perceives the performance of Mamata government on containing the pandemic Covid, as it is a burning issue.
The BJP had not won any state since the 2019 Lok Sabha polls. It lost Maharashtra even after emerging the single largest party because of the ego clash between its long time partner Shiv Sena. To its dismay, Sena, NCP, and Congress coalition formed the government. A little ray of sunshine was the fall of the Congress government in Madhya Pradesh as BJP installed its chief minister Shiv Raj Singh Chouhan pulling down the Kamal Nath Government. Therefore winning big in Bihar elections was important for the party and winning Bengal will continue its eastward expansion. (IPA Service)