West Bengal: Is the BJP losing steam?

The party does not look anywhere near the target of winning the 35 seats that Amit Shah had set in April

Chief minister Mamata Banerjee and her party has shown street smart (photo: PTI)
Chief minister Mamata Banerjee and her party has shown street smart (photo: PTI)

Jayanta Roy Chowdhury

With polling over in nearly half the country's 543 Lok Sabha constituencies after the fourth phase, the BJP does not look to be anywhere near the target of winning the 35 seats in Bengal that Union home minister Amit Shah had set for party workers in April. Even the record 18 seats that the BJP won in 2019, a nine-fold increase over its 2014 effort, looks difficult for it to surpass or even match this time round.

The election has simply stretched far too long, and instead of helping the BJP consolidate, has actually resulted in a slow and steady erosion of its support base as a street smart Trinamool Congress (TMC) has taken advantage of every misstep by the national party.

To make matters more complicated for the BJP, the CPI(M), rendered virtually comatose after the 2019 elections, is witnessing a revival that it hopes will help double its vote share from the abysmal 7.5 per cent that the Left Front polled in 2019. Even in 2014, the Left had managed a decent 29.7 per cent of the vote share. A higher vote share may actually come at the expense of the BJP this time.

In 2019, a whisper campaign 'agey Ram, porey baam' (first Ram, then the Left) among its supporters, who were being harassed and in some cases attacked, by TMC cadre, had seen a huge transfer of votes from the Left parties to the BJP. The result was that the BJP gained a huge 22 per cent more votes to cross the 40 per cent vote share mark in Bengal. For the 2021 state Assembly election, however, many of these 'new' BJP voters deserted the BJP.

The TMC gained some Left votes on the back of its Bangaliana campaign built around Bengal’s cultural identity, and its deft handling of the Covid pandemic, among other things. The party also gained when minority voters decided to transfer their loyalties. In the process, the Congress, which had seen its vote share dwindle to 5.7 per cent in 2019, was decimated and managed to retain just  2.9 per cent of the votes in 2021.

The initial grand campaign strategy forged by the BJP this time was to focus on three issues — the Ram Mandir, corruption, and CAA (Citizenship Amendment Act). Law and order became the fourth once the Sandeshkhali story broke in February, about TMC members allegedly molesting women in an island in the Sundarbans.

Unfortunately for the BJP, the party’s ‘one size fits all’ strategy when it comes to the Ram Mandir never really took off in Bengal. There were Ram Navami demonstrations — mainly in Hindi speaking pockets of south Bengal where at one time jute mills, dependent on labour from Bihar and eastern Uttar Pradesh, used to be big employers, and in border areas where communal rivalry between Hindus and Muslims have surfaced over the years. However, chief minister Mamata Banerjee's administration managed to ensure that the few communal skirmishes that did erupt were kept under control.

Even at the height of the Ram Mandir fervour, which gripped the Hindi heartland ahead of the polls, Bengal was largely unaffected, given that most of its Hindus are either worshippers of Shakti (the female deity in the form of Kali or Durga), or Vaishnavites, devotees of Krishna. The Ramayana has traditionally been more the theme for pala gaan (folk retelling of legends through songs) than a religious cornerstone in deltaic Bengal.

Early in April, Banerjee and her party were also quick to launch an attack on the BJP and Prime Minister Narendra Modi after his comment on the “Mughal mentality” of eating non-vegetarian food during the month of Shravan.

Bengal is a state where nearly 98 per cent of the population eats meat and fish, and even the strictest Vaishnavites consider fish a jal tari or ‘vegetable of the water’. The ruling TMC’s espousal of freedom of food went down well with the voting populace and scored against the brand of Hindutva the BJP was trying to sell.

That said, the alleged scams which besmirched the administration were a big factor in the BJP campaign and did have traction. The popular mood was also against TMC workers’ strong-arm tactics in rural areas, where “collection drives” by unemployed party activists has long been a nuisance.

However, Banerjee's welfare measures, especially ‘Lakshmir Bhandar, a scheme which puts money into the accounts of all women householders, has been a resounding success and favourably impacted women voters, who have outnumbered men in the four rounds of polling held so far, possibly giving her an advantage which many pollsters may have ignored.

The one area where TMC failed spectacularly, despite giving Bengal good roads and public healthcare, was in attracting industry and creating jobs, despite the tall claims officials keep making at successive Bengal investment summits. Jobs are a huge issue for the state’s educated youth, as unemployment in the 15-29 age group in urban areas stood at 12.7 per cent according to the annual periodic labour force survey for 2022-23.

Salary slabs in the state are among the lowest in the country, and both blue-collar workers and white-collar techies have been making a beeline out of the state to Karnataka, Kerala, Gujarat and Noida, turning many areas of Kolkata into virtual “retirement colonies”.

So when the BJP launched a campaign focusing on the state School Service Commission job scam, it had many takers among Bengal’s young people, with some 27 per cent of the state's total population of 91 million in the 20-34 age group. 

However, a Calcutta High Court judgement — which scrapped the appointment of nearly 26,000 school teachers and employees in state-supported schools on the basis of CBI reports that some 5,300 of them had used unfair means — changed the mood among youngsters, who were aghast that such a large number of young men and women should lose their sole means to earn a decent livelihood.

The TMC went to town and claimed these men and women were “innocent until proven guilty”, against the BJP’s standard line that the corrupt and those abetting corruption should all go. The Left and Congress, which too had been attacking the TMC, sensed the mood of the state and joined the chorus seeking a partial roll-back of the order.

The Supreme Court’s eventual reprieve for these teachers and school staff, unwittingly, became a new campaign banner for the TMC, which claimed credit as the state government had filed the case before the apex court.

The CAA rules, which seek to grant Indian citizenship to Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, and Christian refugees fleeing religious persecution in South Asian countries, was designed for, among others, the nearly 3 million-strong Matua community in West Bengal. The Matuas are lower caste Hindus who migrated in waves from East Pakistan (before it became Bangladesh) to border districts of West Bengal to escape persecution.

The community, which believes in the teachings of 19th-century Vaishnavite reformer Harichand Thakur, can decisively swing the outcome in eight or nine Lok Sabha constituencies across south and central Bengal, and got the BJP an estimated seven of its 18 seats in 2019.

However, the rules for implementing the CAA, which came ahead of this year’s elections, have confused the community, which now finds that the rules call for complicated proof of origin certification as well as other documentation which most people lack. There is the added fear stemming from events in Assam, where many poor Bengali Hindus have been accused of being foreigners, disenfranchised, and sent to detention centres.

Finally, the Sandeshkhali 'rape and molestation' allegations by local women, amplified by the state BJP leadership, had also drawn traction in the early days of the elections. However, a series of recent videos claiming that the allegations were fabricated seems to have ended that threat.

In fact, accusations against the state’s governor C.V. Ananda Bose of having molested a woman employee in his official residence have also taken away a Constitutional player — who could have escalated and given credence to the many alleged wrongdoings of the TMC — from the field of play.

In all, the early summer political heat, which had seen the BJP gain what the party believed was a “good hand”, and which perhaps led strategists like Prashant Kishor to forecast that it would emerge as the number one party in the state, seems to have simmered down in the face of nor'westers unleashed by the dispensation in power.

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