Graffiti from the Indian Parliamentary elections is yet to be washed off the walls. Whether on hamlet huts or town towers, political parties, darting towards the state elections of Bengal, which will take place just under two years, scream their presence.
The shrill sound of election campaigning however has already bounced off the walls and is echoing across the ground, the skies and the space in between. Usually, such cacophony erupts nearer to the poll dates. This time it is different.
For the first time since the Assembly elections of 2011, which is when Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool uprooted the three-decade-old reign of the Communists and planted her own strong grassroots, does she feel that the turf which she fought tooth and nail to conquer could actually be slipping from under her feet.
The confidence which she had meticulously built-up over the last eight years during which time she did not just sweep into a second term in the state elections of 2016 but emerged victorious in virtually every other election in the intervening period, has got shattered in the just-concluded general elections.
The Bharatiya Janata Party, which has been on an aggressive drive to capture ground across the country since its spectacular win in the general elections of 2014 has so far found it difficult to get its hands on the state of Bengal. Even in the midst of the massive Modi-wave in the 2014 elections, the state conceded only two of the 42 Parliamentary seats to the BJP. Ditto the Assembly Elections two years later when Trinamool swept again, winning 211 of the 294 seats and forcing BJP to settle for only three.
But the BJP, after trying out various political permutations and combinations to wrest the state from the tight grip of chief minister Banerjee – who is immensely popular with the masses, which have fallen for her populist doles like subsidized rice, scholarships for girl students and free bicycles for children – has finally figured out the winning strategy.
It’s a multi-pronged plan involving hard-hitting, target-oriented campaigning. Other than the pushing the “development” agenda and the idea that it would benefit the state to have the same party rule the state as that which rules the center, BJP has introduced what can be called localized and customized campaigning, aimed at attracting different sections of Bengal’s people. In Darjeeling, in northern Bengal, for instance, where the Gorkhas have been demanding a separate state, BJP has lent a supportive ear and without unequivocally promising to meet the demand, has vocalized its commitment to addressing the identity-based crisis. In southern Bengal, where political rivals, namely Banerjee, have cautioned Bengalis that BJP’s is an agenda that will weaken Bengal, its language and culture by introducing a uniform nationalist agenda, BJP has highlighted its strong Bengali-legacy. It has cited Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s early devotion to Bengali spiritual leaders such as Ramkrisha Deb and Swami Vivekananda. And to be sure, it has highlighted the fact that Shyama Prasad Mukherjee, founder of Bharatiya Jana Sangha, BJP’s predecessor, was a Bengali to counter allegations of divisive communalism.
However, the most significant achievement of the BJP in Bengal has been to woo a section of the state’s nearly thirty percent Muslim vote, so far almost completely out of reach of the party. In Bengal’s remote jungle district of Jhargram, inhabitants of Muslim Basti, a village in the Gopiballavpur Block claimed, as one man Nasir Sheikh, did, “We are tired of thinking of ourselves as Muslims or Hindus. Religion is in our hearts. But our political decisions should be based on issues such as development.” BJP has also gained support of women for its stance on the issue of “triple talaq”. This, along with the unmistakable focus on consolidating the “Hindu” vote, has worked wonders for the political party which had virtually no presence as late as the Parliamentary elections of 2009. In ten years it has not only shot up from one to eighteen Parliamentary seats, but its voteshare has leaped from six percent in 2009 to nearly 44 percent in 2019.
In short, BJP is breathing down Mamata Banerejee’s neck. Banerjee, beset by a series of domestic problems, is planning her own counter strategy.
She has roped in astute political strategist Prashant Kishor, known to turn electoral fortunes around for parties even on the brink of defeat. Didi, as Mamata is popularly known, has chided critics into reminding them that, at 22 MPs, she still controls more than half of the lower house constituencies from the state. Though slightly taken by surprise at first, and a little hurt, she says she is not daunted.
Known best as a “fighter”, the challenges of taking on a more formidable Opposition than a decimated Left and a diminished Congress is unlikely to make her squirm.