KOLKATA: Riding on anti-incumbency and identity politics, BJP is sniffing a chance to capture the 'final frontier" and fulfil its long-cherished dream of coming to power in West Bengal, after being on the sidelines of its politics for decades.
The stakes are high for the saffron camp as the victory in Bengal will fulfill the long-cherished mission of expanding its ideological footprint in the 'trophy state', which till a decade ago was an impregnable red citadel.
Besides, a victory would also put the saffron camp in a better position to offset the anti-incumbency in states where it had bagged the maximum number of seats in the last two Lok Sabha polls.
Interestingly the party is in a win-win situation even if it loses the state election, which begins on March 27.
This is because it will then have the chance to be in a better position to improve its tally of Lok Sabha seats in the state in 2024 by being able to avoid anti-incumbency and establish itself as a formidable political force by relegating the traditional Left and the Congress to the sidelines.
Issues of anti-incumbency, sharp communal polarisation, alleged large scale infiltration coupled with the absence of a strong opposition had helped the saffron camp increase its vote share by ten times in just eight years leading the party to win 18 of the 42 Lok Sabha seats in 2019.
On the flip side weak organisation, ongoing insider- outsider debate and lack of a CM face against the redoubtable Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee could well be its Achilles heels when it is at a "striking distance of coming to power," party insiders said.
BJP's vote share has grown from a mere four per cent in 2011, when Banerjee came to power, to a whopping 40 per cent in 2019.
The party is confident of snatching power in the state and has set a target of 200 pluse seats in the 294-member assembly despite being branded as a party of "outsiders" for its over dependence on its central leaders and for "not being in sync with the culture in Bengal".
"Winning West Bengal is a long-cherished dream and our party's mission since the days of Jan Sangh.
It will be an important feat to expand our ideological footprint in a state that has eluded us very long.
Bengal is the most important frontier in the east," West Bengal BJP chief Dilip Ghosh said.
Echoing him, senior BJP leader Tathagata Roy feels that if the party comes to power in West Bengal it will be more of an ideological victory than a political one, as the state was always considered a communist bastion.
Ironically for the party it was never reckoned as a potent political force in the state despite being the land of Syama Prasad Mookerjee, the founder of Bhartiya Jana Sangh which is BJP's forerunner.
Although opposition Congress and the Left Front have pinned the blame on TMC for the growth of the saffron camp in the state, which has 30 per cent Muslim electorate, a quick look at Bengal's socio-political history shows how the Hindu right wielded considerable influence in violence-scarred West Bengal in the aftermath of the Partition.
During the first assembly polls in 1952, the Hindu Mahasabha along with Bharatiya Jana Sangh had won 13 seats and garnered around eight per cent of the total votes.
With Mookerjee's death in 1953 and the rise of the Left in the late '50s the state saw a sharp decline in the political clout of the Hindu rightist organisations, which were relegated to the fringes and managed to win only one seat in the 1967 and 1971 elections.
After the BJP was launched in 1980, the saffron party hardly had any presence in the state and was ridiculed as the 'Party of Burrabazaar', Kolkata's trading hub which is dominated by people of the northern states.
During the 34-year-long Left rule in the state, BJP failed to make a breakthrough except in 1998 and 1999.
During those two years the party in alliance with the then fledgling TMC, managed to win two Lok Sabha seats and an assembly seat during a bypoll.
But things started looking up for BJP after TMC came to power by defeating the Left Front in 2011.
The slow and steady decline of the Left and Congress was directly proportional to the rise of BJP.
The saffron party first clinched 18 per cent votes and two seats on its own in 2014 followed by three assembly seats in the 2016 assembly polls and 11 per cent votes.
"If you look at the vote share in 2019 Lok Sabha polls, the overall vote share of 43 per cent of TMC did not go down.
It was the decline of the Left from 29 per cent to seven per cent and Congress from six to four per cent that propelled the growth of the BJP," a senior BJP leader said.
According to state BJP sources, apart from the rise in anti-incumbency in Bengal, the "appeasement politics" of Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and the popularity of Prime Minister Narendra Modi have helped the party to position itself as the primary challenger of TMC in the state.
The BJP has over the years expanded its support base in tribal-dominated Junglemahal and in border areas that have a sizeable population of refugees from Bangladesh, especially the Matuas and Namshudras, which till few years back were considered the strongholds of the Left and the TMC.
Increase in RSS' activities and its affiliates in rural Bengal have also helped the BJP to strengthen its support base.
"Apart from the misrule of the TMC, rise of religious and political forces like Indian Secular Front of Peerzada Abbas Siddiqui will help in the consolidation of Hindu votes in the state," a senior BJP leader said.
The saffron party, which left its doors wide open for leaders from other parties as part of its poll strategy, reaped dividends by inducting several leaders, elected represetatives and cadres including political heavyweights like Suvendu Adhikari and Rajib Banerjee and created a perception of the TMC being a "sinking ship".
But there are odds stacked up against the saffron camp too as most of the reasons are intertwined with factors which are considered either its strength or strategy to defeat TMC.
The unchecked induction of leaders from various parties has led to infighting within the organisation, protests over ticket distribution and has diluted the party's "fight" against the corruption as several new recruits have graft charges against them.
The BJP's candidate list of 280 candidates has more than 70 turncoats and the party is now facing a tough time putting its house in order.
"The infighting over ticket distribution has not only brought disrepute to the party but is also a matter of loss of face before the polls and might have a cascading effect during the polls," another BJP leader said.
Although BJP hopes for a Hindu consolidation with the entry of the fledgeling ISF, the alliance of the Congress- Left-ISF can also be detrimental for the saffron camp as it may eat into the SHARE OF opposition votes, which for the last few years were with the BJP.
"ISF's entry is both beneficial and harmful for us. Harmful because you can no longer brand only the TMC as a party for the Muslims and milk the issue of appeasement politics.
Beneficial if it eats into Muslim votes of the TMC," a senior BJP leader said.
The saffron party still does not have a presence in nearly 20 per cent of the almost one lakh polling booths of the state.
Its attempt to cover up its "weak" state leadership by importing a battery of BJP leaders from the Centre and other states has helped TMCs persistent campaign branding it is a "party of outsiders".
Buoyed by the alleged positive response to its 'insider versus outsider' campaign, the TMC leadership has embraced 'Bengali pride' and created a poll narrative of sub- nationalism to counter the BJP's identity politics.
The publication of the final NRC list in Assam in December 2019, which excluded over 19 lakh people gave TMC a golden opportunity to brand the BJP as an "anti-Bengali" party.
Sensing danger, the BJP has shelved its plan for a country-wide NRC and is only promising citizenship through CAA.
"But the delay over the implementation of the CAA has alienated a section of Matuas, who had voted for us in 2019," a senior BJP leader said.
The party is also on the back foot as TMC hopes to cash in on the anger among the people over the steep hike in fuel and LPG price.
Banerjee has already hit the road in protest against it.
Political scientist Subhamoy Maitra feels a close defeat for the BJP will be a win-win situation for the saffron camp.
"BJP coming to power would be proportional with the revival of the Left-Congress, which would be a much bigger challenge for the saffron camp.
So even if BJP loses the assembly election, it will not be really so as it will be in a better position for the 2024 parliamentary poll.
"It will not face anti-incumbency in the state then. Secondly, it will be successful in holding back Congress-Left at the fringes," he added.
Another political pundit, Suman Bhattacharya said BJP's desperation to capture Bengal is driven by its cultural nationalism narrative which will not work till the cultural capital of the country (Kolkata) is captured.