Mamata Banerjee and Narendra Modi
Bengal's Battle Royale: Mamata Banerjee and Narendra Modi Image Credit: PTI and AFP

If the impressive victory in the non-Hindi and culturally rich state of Assam in 2016 was a kind of semi-final for the Bhartiya Janta party (BJP), the assembly election of West Bengal in 2021, is the decisive final for the party. Make no mistake: this is BJP’s most historic and radical experiment with Hindutva politics far beyond the traditional Hindi terrain.

West Bengal is a very important state. It is culturally ultra-sensitive — a place where the pride for Bengali language is of the mythical proportion and part of its core identity. In many ways even the caste and religious identity of Bengalis is subsumed in the larger idea of Bengali asmita.

The assembly election of 2021 in West Bengal is going to be gripping for more than one way. During the upcoming polls, the plank of the Bengali sub-nationalism, represented by Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee of Trinamool Congress, will be pitted against the nationalist Hindutva of the BJP, which was originally founded by a Bengali — Shyama Prasad Mukherjee.

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It is peculiar that after the BJP’s ascension, the Left parties which ruled West Bengal for more than three decades (1977-2011) uninterruptedly are not even posing any serious challenge to Mamata Banerjee who faces serious level of anti-incumbency in the districts after her rule of two terms. The absence of Congress is not debated, even.

During the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP got 18 seats and 40.7% vote share while TMC got 43.3% vote share and won 22 seats. The BJP gained on the charisma of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

It also spoke about the issues of illegal Bangladeshi migrants and while subtly playing the Hindu identity issues. It was a massive win of the BJP as in one stroke it increased its vote share by 22.76%. In 130 assembly segments it took the lead and in 65 assembly seats BJP candidates were a close second.

Since then the BJP is seen as over-ambitious and is working with its all might to win Bengal, Mamata Banerjee, often dubbed as the “woman in a white sari and slippers” is up for a formidable challenge. She is canny, grounded and completely people’s neta. In 2017, her party got 44.91% vote share and 211 seats out of 294 seats of assembly.

Back then BJP had 10.16% vote share and exactly 3 seats. And, now, the BJP leaders in New Delhi are confidently talking about winning 200 seats in the election (scheduled around March-April).

It could be termed as unrealistic mythmaking, but the results of 2019 Lok Sabha election was the “poribartan” (change) that has created the solid ground for the BJP to go the whole-hog to take power from Mamata.

If the BJP is able to do the electorally unthinkable then even the potential of the third-front at the national level will also become weak in 2024 Lok Sabha election.

It is understandable why BJP is pushing so hard to win one of the biggest Indian states with 42 Lok Sabha seats. But, the importance of West Bengal to the BJP is more than those 42 seats. Both Modi and Amit Shah are passionate about West Bengal.

Modi, who deeply idolises Vivekanand, has spent his formative years in Belur Math, near Kolkatta much before he got active in the RSS. On 29, June 2016 Amit Shah as party president had given one of his strongest speeches on Shyama Prasad Mukherjee, founder of Jana Sangh and member of Nehru’s first Cabinet.

Speaking at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library auditorium he said, “I have no hesitation at all in saying that if Kolkatta is in India today it is because of the efforts of Shyama Prasad Mukherjee, only! West Bengal is in India today due to his efforts.”

Banerjee walking a tight rope

As chief minister, Banerjee is also walking a tight rope due to her actions and inactions in administration. In her first term she tried to appease the minority community but after 2019 Lok Sabha setback she is attempting to please the majority voters besides taking steps to change perceptions exploited by the BJP.

As one of the confidantes of Mamata claims, “to win Bengal the BJP would need massive vote share of 65% of all the Hindu votes to get the majority mark. It hasn’t got such vote share in Gujarat or in UP, even. That’s not going to happen.”

The BJP has shown that in Assam which has 34.22% Muslim population and 61.47% Hindus it can manage the majority in assembly. Even though on the paper Mamata looks strong and has an edge in Bengal, this election is likely to be murky.

Both TMC and BJP have indulged in violence in the past. Law and order is in mess. The TMC leaders are joining the BJP in many districts but they are largely “muscle power” or the men with organisation capacity.

Says Dinesh Trivedi, TMC MP, “So far not a single leader has joined the BJP for sake of ideology. Bengal is all about Bhadralok. The BJP’s narrative in Bengal is missing the finesse. There is too much negativity around the BJP. Bengalis are culturally conscious people and they dislike negative campaigns.”

The TMC is branding the BJP as the party of “outsiders.” As in Bihar election of 2015, the issue of outsiders can influence the voters and hurt the BJP.

BJP banks heavily on division in Muslim votes and is employing all tactics to ensure the division of pro-TMC votes. By now it’s clear to most that in West Bengal, more than anywhere else, it’s the booth management that may ultimately make or break parties.

TMC and BJP are equally poised

In an election that is increasingly seen as bi-polar, the strength and resources at the booth level matter. On that account both the main parties — TMC and BJP — are equally poised, notes a TMC insider.

BJP is highlighting the anti-incumbency against the government and widespread corruption in the state. Lately, BJP is not directly attacking Mamata because she continues to be a popular leader in the state and doing so, the BJP thinking goes, might instantly create a “provincial instinct” in her support.

The chief minister’s talented nephew Abhishek Banerjee is BJP’s sharp target. The BJP is also banking on raising the issues related to Citizenship Amendment Act, National Register of Citizens, also. The local Bengalis in the border areas of Bengal have a grouse against infiltrators and some of them feel that the NRC can help fix the issue.

Curiously the BJP doesn’t have a powerful Bengali leader to match the aura and popularity of Mamata and that’s why the party will likely to focus on evoking historical chapters to stir the Bengali voters.

With the countdown to the West Bengal election already started — we are set to witness a rarest of rare Indian election where the BJP is testing its own achievements.