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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 10, New Delhi, February 20, 2021

BJP Seems Nowhere Near Conquering West Bengal | Barun Das Gupta

Saturday 20 February 2021, by Barun Das Gupta

As these lines are being written, news is pouring in from Punjab that the BJP has been wiped out in the civic elections. It is the Congress which has made a clean sweep, even winning, for the first time in 53 years, it won the Bathinda municipal body. The Akalis had to pay dearly for their past association with the BJP. It had also to kiss the dust.
What will be the fate of the BJP in West Bengal where Assembly elections are going to be held in April? Will the party strongman Amit Shah’s dream of winning 200 plus seats out of 294 come true or evaporate into thin air when the results are out? The fact of the matter is that with every passing day, the prospect of the BJP “conquering” West Bengal is becoming dimmer and dimmer.

As the BJP has no “saleable” public face in West Bengal, it resorted to organizing defections from the Trinamool Congress. Some legislator and MPs who had become a liability for the party because of their tainted records, have defected from the TMC and joined the BJP. For the TMC it was a good riddance. For the BJP, their migration into the party has created unexpected problems. The defectors have come with the expectation of being given “tickets”. Denial of tickets to them may induce them to leave the party and, if possible, go back to the TMC. Giving them tickets will anger and alienate the “old and original” workers of the party who have stuck to the party throughout. For the central leadership of the BJP, it is a difficult choice.

In fact the war between the “newcomers” and the “old-timers” is taking place in full public view. Fisticuffs are being freely exchanged. Chairs and tables at meetings are being broken and thrown at one another in gay abandon. The leadership is painfully watching this but is unable to stop it. To add to the anxieties of the party, attendance at public meetings, even those to be addressed by the central leaders, remains disturbingly low. Recently, at a meeting in Tarapith, where the famous temple is situated, party president J. P,. Nadda arrived to find hardly a thousand people gathered. A visibly angry Nadda refused to mount the dais. Instead he drove back to the nearby party office to give the local leaders a piece of his mind. Even in meetings addressed by the Prime Minister, attendance is less than expected.

The BJP did very well in north Bengal and the jangal mahal in southern Bengal in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. Most of the eighteen Lok Sabha seats it won are from these areas. Two years later, the picture has changed and is still changing. The TMC has recovered much of its lost ground in both the north and the south of the State. In the last elections, the Matuas (a caste considered “low” in the caste system) voted en masse for the BJP because they believed that the CAA and NRC will formally give them citizenship. A large number of them have migrated from former East Pakistan and the present Bangladesh. But nothing happened. Rather, at present the BJP is soft-pedalling on the issue of giving them citizenship. There is frustration among them and the TMC has taken full advantage of it. The Matuas are vertically divided now and one section has come back to the TMC fold.

Even in the jangal mahal the TMC has made inroads. Its leader Chhatradhar Mahato, a former Maoist leader of Medinipur who joined the Trinamool about six months ago, is untiringly working for making inroads into area which was once considered a bastion of the Maoists. In 2019 LS polls, the BJP trounced the TMC in this area. But the tide is turning — against the BJP.

Two of Mamata’s welfare schemes have become immensely popular. One is the Swastha Sathi. Under this scheme, a family is entitled to free medical treatment up to Rs. 5 lakhs in any government or private hospital or nursing home anywhere in the country. The card is issued in the name of a woman of the family. This has given the womenfolk a sense of importance. They are expressing the gratefulness to Mamata. Recently, a complicated operation costing Rs. 2.60 lakh rupees was performed in a hospital in Tamil Nadu on the strength of the Swastha Sathi card.

The BJP is unsparingly critical of the Swastha Sathi scheme because Mamata has not introduced the Prime Minister’s “Ayushman Bharat” scheme in West Bengal. Recently, there was a news that the relations of State BJP president Dilip Ghosh have also taken the Swastha Sathi card.

The other popular scheme of Mamata is Kanyashree. Under it, girl students can get free school education and higher education. Tens of thousands of girl students have benefited from the scheme which has become very popular. Then there is the scheme under which bicycles are given to girl students who earlier had to go a long distance on their foot to attend school.

A notable political development in the State is that the down and out CPI-M-Congress alliance has suddenly been getting a good deal of traction. All the front organizations of the CPI-M are busy holding meetings, organizing rallies which are getting bigger in size. The CPI-M ‘s official line is that the TMC and the BJP are obverse and reverse of the same coin and the fight between the TMC and BJP is a “got up” game or, as the Prime Minister recently put it, a case of “match fixing.”

In the 2019 LS elections the bulk of the Left vote went to the BJP, helping it greatly. But in the coming Assembly elections, the Left is expected to retain a large percentage of its traditional vote. This means that the anti-TMC vote will be divided between the BJP and the Congress-CPI-M alliance, much to the advantage of the TMC That the BJP is getting worried at the sudden — and unexpected — resurgence of the Left and the Congress is borne out by the fact that at a public meeting in the industrial town of Haldia in southern Bengal on February 7, Prime Minister Modi “warned” the people of the “match-fixing” game of the Left and the Congress in cahoots with the TMC. “In West Bengal they seem to be fighting each other, but in Delhi they three parties hold secret and closed door meetings to coordinate their policy. That Modi named the CPI-M and the Congress, the two parties supposed to be down and out, shows the anxiety of the BJP leaders about the impact of the Left-Congress alliance on polling.

The TMC has the solid support of the Muslims. The clever tactic of inducing the AIMIM of Asauddin Waisi to contest the Bengal elections and divide the Muslim vote has misfired. A few days ago, many AIMIM leaders and workers joined the TMC. The Scheduled Caste and Schedule Tribe votes will also go to Mamata. The BJP gained and the TMC lost the tea garden labouree told Hers’ votes in north Bengal in 2019. But the tea labourers are disillusioned with the BJP because the party failed to make good the promises it made to them. The TMC is expected to get back a substantial chunk of the tea votes.

Election campaign is gradually picking up but it has not yet reached its peak. As Mamata and Modi hit the election trail, things will change. There will be shift of voters from both sides. But as things stand now and as has been confirmed by a couple of public opinion surveys, the TMC will come back to power for the third time, though with a reduced majority The BJP will emerge as the main opposition party. What exactly will be the difference in the strength of the TMC and the BJP will be a matter of crucial importance. If, by any chance, the margin of difference is small, there is the possibility of “open market purchase” of legislators. Money will be no problem. Already, money is flowing like water. And there will always be some “horses” who can be bought by suborning their allegiance to the party on whose ticket they were elected.

Yet another imponderable is the EVMs. A joke is currently doing the rounds. What is an EVM? No, it is not the Electronic Voting Machine. EVM means “Every Vote for Modi”. It means that whichever button of this infernal machine you press, the vote will go for Modi, that is, for the BJP candidate. Many fear that EVMs will play a crucial role in determining the outcome of the polls. Now, over to the electorate of West Bengal!

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