Home >Opinion >Views >It was largely hubris that led the BJP to its defeat in West Bengal

Hubris felled the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in West Bengal. The state became the centrepiece of the current slew of state elections once the BJP fancied itself as the next claimant to power reposed in Kolkata’s Nabbana Bhavan. True, the BJP put up a spectacular showing in West Bengal in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections and had reasons to feel sanguine. It mined its strengths and raised political capital by investing an enormous amount of time, energy and resources in electioneering, to the detriment of ignoring compelling issues, notably the pandemic.

The BJP crafted a campaign that was tweaked when a flaw was spotted. When a deity like Hanuman didn’t captivate the public imagination, it sought to tap into the wellspring of West Bengal’s contemporary culture, selected icons that aristocrats and common folk identified with, such as Swami Vivekananda and Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, simplified their messages and took them to people. The BJP jumped in when reports surfaced of malfeasance in funds’ disbursement after the Amphan cyclone. The campaign was packaged into a toolkit that the BJP was familiar with and used effectively in other states: religion, corruption and bad governance.

Soon, it peddled the claim it would amass 200 of the state’s 294 seats, a claim so extravagant that even Mamata Banerjee of the Trinamool Congress (TMC) never made anything like it before she dislodged the Left. West Bengal’s politics is about the party system, and this swivels around the cadre: workers who are identified, nurtured and trained to swear fealty to the party. Of course, their allegiances never last. Some of them switched to the TMC once the Left was out, and possibly migrated to the BJP in recent months. Not every cadre person is fickle. The committed ones, who expect little from the establishment, remain with the parent party. Therefore, Mamata realized that once she was done with the power hankerers of the Left, she had to raise her own workforce for the heavy lifting. It took her years to mobilize an armed corps to combat and vanquish the Left.

The BJP lacked an army, except in parts of north Bengal. Since 2018, it poached local influencers from the TMC and the Left. Renegades are good up to a point: they wield clout in their areas, bring in the muscle and resources and even votes. But the state over, they do not add up substantially. Suvendu Adhikari, Mamata’s former political associate, was a prize catch for the BJP. He proved a formidable opponent to Mamata in Nandigram, an assembly seat she ventured into only to prove a point to him instead of sticking to Bhawanipur, her comfort zone.

Like Tamil Nadu, West Bengal cherishes its cultural identity, kept segregated from its politics, and holds dear a sense of regional pride. Could the BJP’s endeavour to transplant features inherited from long years of working in the heartland, such as encouraging identity politics, religious divisiveness and gender insensitivity, have alienated sections of West Bengal’s electorate? A defining moment in the campaign was Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s repeated reference to Mamata as “Didi, o, Didi" in a harsh mixture of sounds that jarred like an affront and not a respectable form of address. It could have put off women voters almost as much as Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) member of Parliament A. Raja’s derogatory allusion to Tamil Nadu AIADMK chief minister Edapaddi Palaniswami’s mother might have cost M.K. Stalin of the DMK precious votes.

In absolute terms, the BJP has no reason to feel downcast: an exponential rise from three to around 80 seats in West Bengal, inroads in hostile Tamil Nadu and Kerala and its retention of Assam against a united opposition look good on the party’s record. In relative terms, the party’s hoopla over Mamata and then its loss may have dampened its morale, which is not easy to revive in violence-prone West Bengal.

The BJP’s biggest consolation was the Congress’s below-par showing, which has impaired its prospects of leading an opposition front. Kerala dealt a big blow to Rahul Gandhi’s leadership because he has a Lok Sabha seat, Wayanad, right there, and his trusted aide K.C. Venugopal oversaw the elections, to the chagrin of party veterans. In West Bengal, it barely registered a presence because it let the Left Front and the nascent Indian Secular Front lead from the front. In Assam, questions will be asked about the expediency of tying up with Badruddin Ajmal’s All India United Democratic Front to keep Muslim votes together. The Congress might well have forfeited some Hindu votes in the bargain because it seemed set to make gains in upper Assam, where voters were upset with the Citizenship Act amendment. The BJP, however, retained the region.

There are significant elections to be fought, and won or lost, before 2024. What today’s outcomes signify is the centrality of regional parties in challenging the BJP. Hemant Soren of the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha had routed the BJP. Now Mamata and DMK president M.K. Stalin have emerged as power centres for a federal front, which the Congress will have to ponder over. The question is, who will helm a prospective front? Mamata or Sharad Pawar? Incidentally, Pawar was the first big leaguer to congratulate Mamata.

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