Shikha Mukerjee

Why Modi failed to sell his ‘panacea for every ill’ narrative in West Bengal

Why Modi failed to sell his ‘panacea for every ill’ narrative in West Bengal
TMC Supremo Mamata Banerjee with nephew and party General Secretary Abhishek Banerjee in Kolkata on Tuesday | PTI

Not only does Mamata Banerjee have a gigantic mass appeal, she knows her constituents far better than Modi and the ramshackle BJP outfit in West Bengal

West Bengal’s politically savvy voters have spurned Narendra Modi’s enticements. The verdict is an unequivocal refusal to be bamboozled into believing that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led by Modi is the panacea for every ill accumulated over the past 77 years under three different regimes, starting with the Congress, followed by the CPI(M)-led Left Front and then the Trinamool Congress.

The fight in the 2024 Lok Sabha election, where the BJP has lost ground once again to the Trinamool Congress, as it did in the 2021 state Assembly contest, was a head-on collision between Modi and Mamata Banerjee. What the results confirm is that not only does Mamata Banerjee have a gigantic mass appeal, she knows her constituents far better than Modi and the ramshackle BJP outfit in West Bengal.

Why BJP failed in Bengal

The 2024 election verdict is also a judgment on the political acumen of the Trinamool Congress defector and effectively the face of the BJP in the state, Suvendu Adhikari, who masterminded the choice of candidates and issues. He was proved wrong in the 2021 state Assembly elections and has once again been proved wrong in the 2024 general election.

In a drastic decline since its unexpected tally of 18 seats in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP seat share in 2024 has dropped by a third and is hovering at 12 seats out of the total 42 seats in West Bengal. In Modi’s expectation, West Bengal was guaranteed to deliver the best performance for the BJP in terms of an increase in the number of seats. The results, in West Bengal and a slew of crucial states such as Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, and Rajasthan, not only prove him to be bad at reading voter minds, it reveals his Achilles heel — an overweening confidence in his ability to sell a narrative.

A mass leader and a fighter

In contrast, the results confirm that Mamata Banerjee is a mass leader who knows how to fight an opponent who plays rough and acts tough. The relentless “raids” by various central investigative agencies weaponised by the Modi regime against leaders big and small in Opposition-ruled states, even as the election got underway, was as rough as it can get.

In Delhi, Arvind Kejriwal was arrested and packed off to Tihar jail; in Jharkhand, Hemant Soren was arrested by the Enforcement Directorate; in West Bengal, the ED went hunting for a small-time Trinamool leader, Shahjahan Sheikh, got into a fight with locals, and the outcome was the identification of Rekha Patra as an icon by the BJP. She was dubbed as “Shakti Swaroopa” by Modi and put up as the candidate for the Basirhat Lok Sabha seat.

BJP’s miscalculation

The BJP’s serious miscalculation of its prowess in creating an icon to focus attention on the lawlessness prevailing in West Bengal and build it up as Mamata Banerjee’s failure to protect women from violence, including sexual violence, is obvious. It backfired. Women voters, it appears, have not deserted their Didi; on the contrary, they have spurned Modi.

In the BJP universe, West Bengal, as a state with a porous border, badly manned by the Border Security Force, adjacent to a Muslim-majority country, was a haven for infiltrators and a boon to the minority vote bank politics of secular parties, starting with the Congress, the CPI(M) and now the Trinamool Congress. Consumed by his conviction that the Hindu majority is the state is in danger of being outnumbered by the Muslim minority unless ruthless action is taken to foil the “vote jihad,” Modi went overboard in projecting himself as the defender of fear-stricken Hindus. He ended up accusing Mamata Banerjee of being “anti-Hindu”, for targeting a monk in Purulia who is widely known for being politically active on the BJP’s agenda.

The Bengal culture

After two drubbings in West Bengal, it is obvious that neither the BJP’s local leadership nor its central leaders, including Modi and his master strategist Amit Shah, have any clue as to what makes voters in West Bengal tick. It is a state with a particular political culture born out of a series of conflicts and events, populated by a people who are hyperconscious of their superiority in social and cultural matters.

Seen from the outside, West Bengal, with its history of Partition violence and the millions of settlers who fled during and after 1947 and 1971, may appear to be fertile ground for successfully playing the politics of religious polarization. That is a mistake. A political consensus was established post-Partition that religion and politics would not be combined to trigger a level of divisiveness that could erupt in uncontrollable violence. The BJP has never understood the value of this consensus in maintaining peace and stability in the state.

State vs Centre

The other issue was Modi’s assurances to West Bengal’s voters that the Centre would solve all their problems, because the Opposition party running the state was the troublemaker. Even if Modi never understood the deep suspicion, if not hostility, harboured by Bengali voters about the Centre’s intentions and actions, the local leadership ought to have worked harder to convince him that this was the wrong pitch.

By converting the campaign into a Centre-versus-state/regional party confrontation, Modi gifted Mamata Banerjee an issue that rescued her from the real challenge of anti-incumbency following a series of exposes of high-level corruption and the visual shock of ED recovering mountains of cash from the homes of former Trinamool minister Partha Chatterjee and his girlfriend.

The combination of incompetent local leadership and micromanagement from the Centre unfamiliar with the politics, history, and culture of West Bengal has impacted the BJP’s performance. If it expects to do better in the 2026 state Assembly elections, it has to make changes in how it functions in the state. It needs to convert itself from a party of the Centre into an organic and rooted organization.

(The Federal seeks to present views and opinions from all sides of the spectrum. The information, ideas or opinions in the articles are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Federal)

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