As the year draws to a close and the new one opens, with assembly poll battles in Assam, West Bengal, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Puducherry, the BJP is again in direct, unending conflict with regional parties.
Since Narendra Modi became Prime Minister in 2014 and returned with an even a larger mandate, the role of Amit Shah as the chief strategist for the BJP’s juggernaut has been much talked about by these parties.
In 2020, Modi propelled the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) to win the Bihar polls and enabled ally Janata Dal(United) leader Nitish Kumar to make it to a fourth term. Also, in a sort of sweep of the assembly by-elections in seven out of 11 states, the BJP or its ally won 41 of the 59 seats. Of these seats, 31 were at the expense of the Congress, as its top leadership still appears to be recovering from the 2019 parliamentary polls.
The Rajya Sabha polls too showed the BJP taking the number of the NDA in the Upper House to 111, seats as compared to Congress-led opposition's 60.
As an indicator of things to come in 2021, Home Minister Amit Shah held multiple rallies in Bengal on December 19 and 20, where he targeted the Mamata Banerjee government over the law and order situation.
Ever since the BJP shocked Mamata and other “secular” parties by winning 18 of the 42 Lok Sabha seats from Bengal in the 2019 parliamentary polls, its rank and file have been swelling in the name of fighting the “misrule” in the state under Mamata Banerjee since 2011, when she came to power by displacing the 33-year-old of the Marxists on a similar plank.
Shah has promised to be back in Bengal in January again for a repeat of December 19-20, when several Trinamool Congress rebels, including party heavyweight Suvendu Adhikari, joined the BJP.
Of course, taken aback by the impact of Shah’s forays, Mamata Banerjee has accused Shah of speaking untruths on the development of the state, describing the figures given by him on various parameters as “garbage of lies.”
His blitzkrieg has won headlines for the BJP, after his claim that the BJP would win Bengal with a 200-seat victory.
Chief poll strategist
Not to be outdone, Mamata’s hired chief strategist Prashant Kishor has shed his inhibitions (about coming into the limelight in the interest of his clients) to pooh-pooh Shah’s claims publicly in numerous interviews. Kishor has declared that he will quit his profession if the BJP is able to cross double digits in the 294-seat strong assembly.
As we know, Kishor’s claim to fame is that he once worked for Prime Minister Narendra Modi for the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, then for Nitish Kumar in the assembly polls in Bihar in 2015, Rahul Gandhi in UP in 2017 and for the Shiv Sena in 2019.
Kishor is on a mission to cut the BJP to size wherever and whenever elections are held, to avenge the souring of his ties with the saffron party since 2014. For some inexplicable reason, he chose not to take the challenge in Bihar seriously in this year’s election. His one time-client, Nitish Kumar, chose to go back to the BJP-fold in 2017.
Currently, Kishor has been hired by Mamata, as well as DMK chief M K Stalin, to help them win their respective elections. His teams are at work in Kolkata and Chennai, sifting through heaps of data to come u with a victory formula for both the leaders. Kishor is close to Mamata's nephew-MP Abhishek Banerjee and Stalin's son Udhayanidhi and son-in-law Sabarisan, who are handling their respective parties' strategies and poll management.
It is in Bengal that Kishor’s task appears to be quite daunting. By all accounts, Mamata looks she is fighting huge anti-incumbency issues with her back to the wall— largely on account of several omissions and commissions of her regime, which has earned notoriety for a cycle of political extortions, cut money and operation of “syndicates” by Trinamool Congress leaders amid the senseless killings of opposition leaders and workers. The BJP alone has had more than 130 of its ranks being killed by the goons of the ruling party.
Fear is writ large on the faces of Bengal’s political workers as old timers recall how the state had seen similar violence when the Congress was on the decline, before the Marxists came to power in 1977.
Mamata herself, and her fledgling party too, had faced similar treatment from the CPI(M) strongmen when the Left was on decline before the 2011 polls. Ironically, she is forced to defend her government's handling of political violence.
Not just in Kolkata but in the vast swathes of rural Bengal, Mamata does not have much of a governance record that she can be proud of. Her detractors claim she lost interest to govern after her win in the first term.
Mamata’s source of strength in the elections has largely been the minority, who make up for 30 per cent of all voters. Therefore, it is not surprising that the BJP has worked over the years to convert Bengal’s cultural Hindu mindset into a political force.
After the Lok Sabha polls of 2019, the BJP showed it had gained the confidence of a number of voters who were once the supporters of the Left because of their antipathy towards Mamata.
Be that as it may, Kishor has revealed in interviews that the BJP cannot easily dislodge the Trinamool Congress because of the Muslim voters (who are a factor in more than 120 assembly segments). For the Bengal Hindu vote, the BJP would have to compete hard with Mamata and try to achieve a higher strike than it has hitherto shown in other states. That is not easily possible in nine Muslim-influenced districts, including 24 North Parganas, Hooghly, Nadia, Murshidabad, South 24 Parganas, Paschim Bardhaman, Paschim Medinipur, Purba Medinipur and Howrah.
Modi may have his appeal as the harbinger of better governance compared to Mamata’s, concedes Kishor. But her party has been steadily infusing new blood among its ranks, forcing many seniors and old faces to shift to the BJP.
As Kishor works to settle personal scores with Shah, the battle for Bengal promises to be the mother of all electoral battles in 2021. For the BJP, wresting the state from the Trinamool Congress will be akin to an achievement like the undoing of Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir, for which Jan Sangh mentor and Bengal’s proud son Syama Prasad Mookerjee had paid with his life.
The writer is a former Senior Associate Editor of Hindustan Times and Political Editor of Deccan Herald, New Delhi.