Mumbai: In some ways the contest began long before even the dates for the general elections were announced. It became clear to everyone after the 2018 Phulpur and Gorakhpur bypolls in Uttar Pradesh (UP), especially to the ruling Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP), that reprising the 2014 Lok Sabha election results in the state would be a stretch. Winning 71 out of 80 seats in UP once again was well-nigh impossible.

Both bypolls were won by an alliance forged between the Samajwadi Party (SP) and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP). The losses rankled for the BJP, especially in Gorakhpur which is the pocket borough of the ruling UP chief minister, Yogi Adityanath. This early warning perhaps provided the BJP a preview of the caste arithmetic being marshalled by the SP-BSP combine and the futility of hoping to re-enact the 2014 performance.

Cut to Maharashtra and West Bengal, offering a combined 90 seats. Losses in UP had to be compensated with some wins in these states. Thus began a prolonged campaign to appropriate new areas in Bengal (42 seats) and to retain the Maharashtra leads (48 seats). The Maharashtra strategy seemed rather simple: tie up with the old ally Shiv Sena, despite the low-intensity animosity on display between the two parties over the past five years. It now seems that strategy has paid off: what they have lost in UP (11 seats) has been made good with wins in Bengal (18 seats), with the outcome in Maharashtra remaining almost the same. It might be interesting to unpack this strategy further.

The challenge

The BJP always knew that the Bengal campaign would be tough and that Mamata Banerjee, chief minister of West Bengal and leader of the Trinamool Congress (TMC), would not cede ground so easily. The campaign strategy had to be crafted differently; in fact, the strategy deployed in the state differed slightly from what was initiated across the country. The criticality and centrality of Bengal to the BJP’s operation 2019 can be gauged from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s, and BJP president Amit Shah’s, repeated visits to the state. But, other elements also had to be grafted to the overall strategy, given the ground situation.

Banerjee had been running her state quite differently from the other state chief ministers. She had inherited a nearly broke state in 2011, decimated by shrinking industry and growing unemployment after 34 years of Left government rule. She was quick in recognizing the party’s ground-level priorities—on both the political as well as the economic fronts.

Her political agenda was cleaved in two parts. One, it involved nurturing a sense of soft regional chauvinism and gently stoking the fires of Bengali revivalism. This helped her assimilate disparate marginal right-wing groups into her party; these fringe elements—with an innate aversion for Left politics—had been out in the cold and were distinct from the nationalistic political identity being expanded by the BJP. Two, she began her term by reaching out to the minorities and developing in them a sense of belonging, including instituting an economic support system for community leaders, like imams, who wield inordinate influence over the populace.

On the economy front, she faced a peculiar dilemma. She had come to power protesting against the previous Left government’s forcible acquisition of land from farmers for allotment to private sector industry. She first tasted victory in Nandigram. An Indonesian corporate, the Salim Group, wanted to create a special economic zone for setting up a chemical hub in the area, the attraction being its proximity to Haldia port. Banerjee spearheaded the protests against this land acquisition for the project, which left many people dead and wounded. The second instalment of Banerjee’s protests was against the Tata group’s acquisition of land in Singur for its Nano car project. Both the political actions seemed to have endeared her to the Bengal voters.

Bengal’s economic revival

Having come to office on the back of these projects, she started her term with a handicap: she needed investment to create employment opportunities but industry was wary of setting up manufacturing units in the state. This is despite the Bengal government designating special areas for industry, where land would be made available from the state’s land bank. One example is Sajjan Jindal’s JSW Group, which has set up a 2.4-million tonnes Portland cement unit in Salboni on 4,000 acres of land which was originally allotted for a steel mill.

Banerjee also launched Bengal Global Business Summits, somewhat on the lines of Vibrant Gujarat, to which she regularly invited India’s leading businessmen, such as Reliance Industries Ltd chairman Mukesh Ambani or ITC Ltd chairman, late Yogi Deveshwar. While she realized that attracting big industry was going to be difficult, given the state’s historical baggage and the emotive issue of land acquisition, she persisted in inviting well-known faces from Corporate Inc. This had multiple rub-off effects: a large number of units in the micro, small and medium enterprises (MSME) category have come up in the state over the past few years. Experts say the visual branding of the summits, burnished with the presence of some of the biggest businessmen, helped in instilling confidence in entrepreneurs, who invested in setting up small units. This not only provided a leg-up to the state’s revenues but also partially took care of unemployment.

The MSME ministry’s 2017-18 annual report (the latest available) shows that Bengal has the second largest number of MSME units in the country, with an estimated 8.87 million units accounting for 14% of the national share. UP holds the top slot, with a marginally higher 8.99 million units. Tamil Nadu (4.95 million units) and Maharashtra (4.78 million units) came in at third and fourth spots, respectively.

West Bengal’s MSME sector employs 13.56 million people, second to UP’s 16.5 million. In addition, Banerjee has used state resources for filling up vacancies in various parts of the government: teachers, police force, civic volunteers, nurses in government hospitals, etc. This helped the government create jobs and provide income. It also had an interesting impact on the state’s economy: by FY18, with a state gross domestic product (SGDP) of over $155 billion, Bengal became the fourth largest contributor to the country’s services GDP and sixth largest contributor to manufacturing GDP.

This gave Banerjee further elbow-room for launching a variety of social programmes—Krishak Bandhu scheme aimed at resource transfer to 7.2 million farmers and sharecroppers (assured grant of 5,000 per acre of land and 2,000 for less than an acre), a state-funded crop insurance scheme, and a cash transfer scheme for all girls between 13-19 years of age. According to an analysis of Bengal’s budget by PRS Legislative Research, Bengal spending on some social sectors is far higher than the average of expenditure of all the other states put together. For example, Bengal has budgeted 18.3% of its total 2019-20 expenditure on education, which is far higher than the 15.9% average expenditure budgeted for education by the other states.

And so it became clear to the BJP that the economy was a no-go area. Only two factors could aid the BJP and in one of them Banerjee had unwittingly provided lots of help and material.

BJP’s nationalism pitch

The BJP brought to Bengal its usual campaign props: muscular nationalism and patriotism. Pulwama and Balakot became central talking points; some bragging rights were also reserved for Modi’s schemes. A tinge of saffron always covered the conversation, the decibel level being dialled up or down depending on the area they were addressing. For example, in north Bengal which abuts Assam and shares a common border with Bangladesh, there were extensive discussions on migrants, refugees, infiltrators and introducing the National Register of Citizens in the state. There was also the lure of money for TMC cadres who had been deprived of funds in recent times: a TMC worker, part of a two-wheeler cavalcade that accompanies candidates, lamented to Mint how they had to make do with only 50 fuel allowance. In some constituencies, the BJP workers even coordinated with the Communist Party of India (Marxist) cadre to wean away Muslim voters from the TMC.

But the focus remained steadfastly on the violence that accompanied the Bengal panchayat elections in 2018. The narrative found easy acceptance largely because of the TMC’s blasé attitude to the criticism, and the brazen manner in which it went about conducting itself. Interestingly, even the Election Commission of India (ECI) seems to have bought into this—Bengal was the only state, apart from UP, which had elections in all the seven phases. This also gave the ECI an excuse to marshal central troops—elections spread over seven phases allowed the central troops to move in phases, starting from north Bengal all the way down, phase by phase.

But the TMC’s violent disposition was not the only weak spot that BJP was looking to exploit. The panchayat polls provided clues to the BJP about a latent anti-incumbency trend in certain districts, especially in the western districts of Purulia and Bankura. For example, in Purulia, the BJP won 633 gram panchayat seats compared with the TMC’s 780. It made unexpected gains in many other districts as well.

The ray of hope

This gave the BJP hope. Its formula for Bengal then focused on an amalgam of patriotism, a resurgent Hindutva targeted at migrant north Indians resident in the state, raising the bogey of bogus voters from Bangladesh, strident criticism of Banerjee’s overt minority appeasement to appeal to the middle-class Bengali’s skin-deep prejudices and repeated emphasis on violence and the TMC’s misgovernance. Supporting data was not shared. The economy or development was never discussed. For example, Babul Supriyo, who is the junior minister of heavy industries and public enterprises, contested from Asansol, Bengal’s hub for coal, iron ore and steel. Yet, his road trips focused on the BJP’s giveaways and the TMC’s years of misrule and not a word on his ministry’s plans for reopening some of the shut factories in the area.

The narrative also employed surgical focus on certain assembly constituencies within select parliamentary constituencies. A senior BJP functionary had confessed to Mint in end-April that the saffron party was focused on aggregating vote share in specific assembly constituencies. The calculations showed that if vote share could be dragged across 31% (it was 17% in the 2014), the addition to seats would magnify exponentially (in the final count,the BJP’s vote share crossed 40%).

In the end though, all things remaining the same, perhaps it was the TMC’s hubris and strategic blinkers that might have cost it. The inexplicable reasons for fielding actor Moon Moon Sen from Asansol or an indisposed Subrata Mukherjee from Bankura betrayed a rather nonchalant and uncaring attitude towards its supporters.

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