Heads should roll in Delhi, in all fairness. How could so many agencies - the CBI, ED, I-T, central police forces and, of course, the Election Commission - have so spectacularly and collectively failed to deliver the goods, and leave the ruling establishment licking its wounds after the results in West Bengal? Political and regional factors apart, it is the overdose of almost everything that has now come to be associated with an Indian election that seems to have done the BJP in.
The BJP had ticked every box: dozens of trips by chartered flights/helicopters as “imported leaders” criss-crossed the state, 30-plus hotels including five-star rated ones booked in Kolkata to host guests, hundreds of campaign vehicles, aggressive mainstream and social media campaigns, all of which were topped up with alleged cash handouts to voters, ranging from Rs 500 in tribal belts to Rs 5,000 per head in urban pockets. Result: By the time the poll process began and progressed further, a sort of revulsion had crept in.
What the BJP leadership crucially did not take into account are historical factors specific to Bengal—the language divide, absence of a local leader who could be the face for the party and lack of cadre at the ground level to build on the anti-incumbency vote. Bengal has this history of having always voted for a party associated with struggles/movements. If it was the Congress that benefitted in the initial years because of the freedom movement, the Left received support by virtue of the multiple struggles it had waged over the years. Then came Didi with her own brand of agitations including the famous Singur/Nandigram stir. The BJP has no such record.
As BJP leaders, beginning with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, promised “Sonar Bangla” to the people, Didi ridiculed them pointing out that they can’t even pronounce “Sonar” properly and yet, are offering the same. If the “Dideee O Dideee” rant was seen as cheap by women, so was the appeal “Ebar Pode Chhap” (this time, press the button on Lotus) as the pronunciation of Pode (in Bengali, Lotus is pronounced Poddo) went viral on social media. Pode, in Bengali, essentially means a good-for-nothing character.
The attempt to bring about a divide between Hindus and Muslims hasn’t clicked as Bengal is known for its Hindus attending Ramzan festivities as much as Muslims celebrate Durga Puja in the homes of Hindu friends. The UP-style politics hasn’t worked to the extent the BJP would have liked. On the contrary, it has seen a near consolidation of the Muslim vote behind the Trinamool, the result of which is the decimation of Congress and the Left in minority-dominated Malda, Murshidabad, North Dinajpur and South Dinajpur.
The biggest blunder the BJP committed strategically, as it desperately sought to occupy the mindspace of people and create hype ahead of the elections, was to invite hordes of TMC leaders into its fold. Back in 2018-19, even the Left cadre joined the BJP in the fight against the “goondaism” of the TMC. When the same faces from the TMC shared the dais with top BJP leaders and the latter waxed eloquent about the goon culture of the Trinamool, it sounded like devils quoting the scriptures. As the huge money that was spent did not go unnoticed and shocked even BJP leaders, the “cut money” for which TMC leaders are notorious appeared like pocket change for people.
By making the Bengal battle one between Modi and Mamata, the BJP provided another weapon. And what has the Election Commission not done? From ignoring blatant use of religion and religious symbols in rallies and speeches to dividing seats in one district over two/three phases, it did the best it could. According to our Kolkata correspondent, Pranab Mondal, as Mamata coined “Bangla Nijer Meyeke Chay” (Bengal wants its own daughter), the Yogis and Suryas from BJP-ruled states did not count. When the saffron leaders brought in more aggression, laced with Delhi-dominated narrative, it frightened the large liberal class of Bengal (bhadralok), till then unhappy with the TMC. The bhadralok, powerful in its own way, began holding small/village-level meetings where voters were told only one thing: “Don’t vote for the BJP.” The alternative was not given but the choice was simple and clear.
There are certain myths that most seem to believe and the BJP too has swallowed some of them. What’s Myth Number One? That the BJP is invincible. Yes, it’s a fact that very few parties can match the BJP when it comes to electioneering and resources, which are then amplified by the media by projecting a victory for the party from the time polls are announced. This, despite the fact that of the 15-20 state elections since 2018, the BJP could convincingly win only three—Tripura, Arunachal Pradesh and now Assam. It had lost power in three big states—Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka and Rajasthan. Don’t get confused because the BJP is ruling the first two but that’s through what is commonly described in politics as backdoor methods (Congress style!) or to put it crudely, buying legislators. In quite a few states including the two Telugu states—Telangana and Andhra—it wasn’t even a player in the reckoning when polls were held.
The second myth that the BJP itself believes is that polls could be won if one keeps the media on its side. Several elections have proved it doesn’t work. The better way is to allow the media to do its job so that parties in power course correct and by the time they seek a repeat mandate, people don’t find too many faults to throw them out. The latest victory in Kerala by Pinarayi Vijayan is a classic example of this as much as the 2019 disastrous verdict for Nara Chandrababu Naidu was of the other model. The latter had the entire media with him, but not the people. If you don’t do what you were expected to, nothing matters. Neither charisma nor resources.
The victory of Mamata proves two things: One, any regional leader will have a chance only if he/she stands up to the BJP and the Union government while respecting the federal structure of the nation. Surely, some food for thought for KCR in Telangana and Y S Jagan Mohan Reddy in Andhra. Two, people are not necessarily carried away by the Hindutva crescendo the BJP builds. A balanced social and economic model, wherein the poor are given basic healthcare and education, women are financially protected while at the same ensuring development and employment opportunities, is the answer to religion.
Despite Didi’s victory, the big question persists. Is it possible for non-BJP players to close ranks and build a diverse opposition? As of now, no two regional leaders can stand each other and the Congress is in no position to offer leadership. The Lalus and Mulayams are not active and Mayawati plays double and triple politics. Not all regional chieftains have displayed even a semblance of courage to hold the BJP accountable, probably afraid as they are of skeletons in their own closet.
A TNIE columnist sent me this message after the Bengal results: “It was a great victory but we also have to be on guard against Didi. She’s no saint and her goons are awful, as the post-poll violence indicates. Democracy is a chapati we have to keep flipping or else, it gets burnt.” Will the hope of true democracy resurrect from the ashes and embers, literally this time?
G S Vasu
Editor, The New Indian Express