Sharp rhetoric to tall claims: What went wrong for the BJP in Bengal

Perhaps the decision to give prominent positions to former TMC leaders and ministers within the BJP had not gone down well with the people. It took the sting out of the BJP’s campaign against TMC-sponsored corruption

BJP rally in West Bengal
TMC leaders said that the people would always respond to her call not only in Bengal but elsewhere as well, as she has remained the strongest challenger to battle the ‘BJP menace’. PTI pic

In Bengal, opinion was unanimous that the 2021 Assembly elections would boil down to a very close, razor’s edge contest between the ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC) and the primary and powerful challenger, the Bharatiya Janata Party(BJP). Contrary to most predictions, however, the TMC pulled off a stunning victory over the BJP and with a handy margin. While, the third contenders – the Left Front/Congress/Indian Secular Front combo—put up a poor fight.

Winning 210 seats in a house of 294 as of Monday (May 3) at noon, the TMC has successfully fought off a strong anti-incumbency wave with remarkable ease. In the process, the TMC has won its third successive term in power, its leader, the redoubtable Mamata Banerjee personally notching up a creditable hat-trick of wins. In a sense, this victory achieved after a herculean struggle against the heaviest odds the TMC has ever faced in the face of a deadly COVID-19 pandemic, has also ushered in the party’s finest hour.

For the BJP, which had hurled everything including the proverbial kitchen sink against the TMC, the outcome has led to a sense of disillusionment. From Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Union Home Minister Amit Shah and party President J P Nadda, major leaders and others in the party, had repeatedly thundered at well-attended gatherings that ‘winning over 200 seats would be no problem and Mamata Banerjee would surely send in her resignation by Sunday (May 2) evening’. The BJP managed to win 77 seats as of now.

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The election itself had been scheduled in eight phases, which is a record in India. It had the largest number of para military forces deployed to enable free and fair voting.

As with the BJP’s pre-election rhetoric before the parliamentary election – with Modi announcing that each Indian would be richer by ₹15 lakhs after black money kept by Indians abroad was recovered – similar high-flown rhetoric during the Bengal polls has proved to be a major embarrassment.

As a perceptive political analyst pointed out, “The BJP has not really lost in Bengal. It has increased its seats from only three in 2016 to 90 plus in 2021, raising its vote share from 10 per cent to an estimated 36/38 per cent. Its hard-won progress has been very commendable. But the performance fell well short of expectations only because of the bragging pre-poll claims made by its top leaders during the 2021 campaign.”

Even during the pre-poll debates, official investigating agencies such as the Enforcement Directorate (ED) and the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) had called up several TMC leaders, including former ministers and senior officials in connection with alleged financial corruption and other criminal accusations. For the record, the ED and CBI are currently investigating major allegations of cattle smuggling to Bangladesh, women trafficking, smuggling, the destruction of rivers and environment by TMC-backed organised sand mafias.

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“For once, Mamata Banerjee is factually correct when she accuses the Centre of trying to hurt her party by all means whether fair or foul,” as one analyst wrote in his column. Neither the CBI or the ED ever seem to trouble anyone during their never-ending probes into the multi-crore Sarada and Narada scams in normal, non-election times.

In retrospect, there is no reason to suggest that the BJP’s  high-voltage campaign against the palpably defensive TMC was a misguided effort. The TMC was stung badly on the issue of corruption, its notorious cut money (bribe-taking) culture at all levels of life. This costs the state annually ₹34,000 core in terms of black money generation, according to an estimate by an expert.

The TMC had failed miserably in securing industrial investments or generating new jobs for thousands of educated jobless youth. Its village-level leaders were accused of selling in the black market – rice, tarpaulin and other emergency items sent by the Centre to relieve over 20 million people badly hit by cyclone Amphan. Long before the polls began, the ruling party was facing an avalanche of accusations it could not handle.

The BJP, as expected, made rich use of such issues in its campaigns. Modi and Shah made so many trips to Bengal and keeping them distinguished company were the Chief Ministers of BJP-ruled states and Union Ministers. The list included Adityanath Yogi, Biplab Dev, Sarbananda Sonowal, Smriti Irani, Dharmesh Pradhan, Ravi Shankar Prasad, to suggest a few examples.

Both sides resorted to somewhat cheap, even vulgar abusive rhetoric that had little political content. This turned out to be unique hallmark of the 2021 Bengal Assembly elections. However, here the TMC outdid the BJP, which as a major national party still struggled to observe certain minimum norms of public political discourse–in vain–as it turned out.

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A sombre mood has settled over the BJP camp as the results started to pour in on May 2. The post-mortem in the electronic media began early. State party President Dilip Ghosh manfully appealed to media-persons not to treat the TMC ‘leads’ as victories until the last figures have come in. He indirectly admitted that the Bengal party lacked prominent faces or well-known local candidates for all the constituencies and hence they had pushed in sitting MPs, even Ministers, to contest in this Assembly election.

Another spokesperson, Jayprakash Majumder conceded that perhaps the decision to give prominent positions to former TMC leaders and ministers within the BJP had not gone down well with the people. It took the sting out of the BJP’s campaign against TMC-sponsored corruption.

National BJP leader Zafar Iqbal pointed out that it was very difficult for Opposition parties but especially the BJP, to campaign in Bengal. Over 130 leaders, supporters and workers had been killed in recent months mostly by TMC goons. There had been no police inquiry into any of these murders. Hundreds had been jailed on flimsy and false charges. Even during the polling days and during campaigning, attacks on party supporters, their houses, their family members, including old women had continued unabated.

However, no BJP leader could answer as to whether the most damaging allegation against the TMC, its unabashed policy of Muslim appeasement, had made much impact on Hindu voters. Such matters they said would be examined in greater detail later. Kolkata-based observers cited several reasons as to why the strong BJP campaign eventually came unstuck.

First, the party took a very long time to announce its candidates. Many who were given tickets were neither locals, nor prominent people in their respective professions. The BJP followed the TMC’s example of handing out tickets to small-time actors and artistes without a background in politics or any other public activity. Worse, such decisions angered party old-timers and supporters, who had been steadily working away for the saffron party all these years. There were angry protests, scuffles, destruction of property etc., in several districts within BJP party units, making its claims of being ‘one party with some major differences in its functioning,’ seem hollow.

Also read: Exit polls Bengal: Mamata to retain domination with reduced margin

Few could understand the logic behind pushing even experienced MPs and other leaders such as Swapan Dasgupta and Subrata Saha, former senior army officials, into the rough and tumble of a state Assembly election. This is only two notable examples. Their two biggest crowd pullers, Modi and Shah, were ‘outsiders’. No wonder the TMC played up this factor of ‘There being no competent person within the Bengal BJP!’ ad nauseam.

Again there was no plausible explanation from the BJP at any level as to why leaders such as Mukul Roy or Suvendu Adhikary were given a red carpet entry, despite their involvement in the Sarada and other scams. The BJP’s contradictory position regarding the immediate implementation of the Citizenship Amendment act in Bengal  but not in Assam remained another mystery. So, has been the BJP’s blow-hot, blow-cold policy towards the Sarada and Narada scams.

As for the TMC leaders Partha Chatterjee and MP Aparupa Poddar, they felt their victory was due mainly to the charisma of Banerjee and her unceasing heroic efforts to continue the anti-BJP campaign virtually standing on one leg! The people would always respond to her call not only in Bengal but elsewhere as well, as she has remained the strongest challenger to battle the ‘BJP menace’.

Congratulatory messages for the TMC poured in from Akhilesh Yadav (SP), Arvind Kejriwal (AAP)  and several leaders from other parties.

Meanwhile, the leaders of Left parties said they would meet soon to examine the reasons for their dismal showing in this election. However, their struggles against the anti-people policies of the BJP and the TMC would continue, as would the programmes of their three-pronged new alliance. The leaders said they would humbly accept the outcome of the 2021 Assembly polls.