Analysis: Operation Lotus In The East, Still A Project In The Works

Analysis: Operation Lotus In The East, Still A Project In The Works

In Bengal the saffron party’s best show ever was in 2019, when its vote share crossed 40%, a four fold increase over its vote share in 2016 state elections

Jayanta Roy ChowdhuryUpdated: Sunday, March 17, 2024, 10:36 PM IST
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With a massive 122 seats in the reckoning in the states east of the river Son till the borders of Myanmar, BJP’s ‘Operation Lotus in the East’ has possibly become its most serious campaign outside the Hindi heartland in north-India and the traditional RSS stomping grounds of western India.

Though the southern states have more seats in the national parliament, BJP’s electoral strategists have long realised that except in Karnataka and to a lesser extent in Telengana, they will continue to encounter extremely strong regional headwinds and value systems making it difficult for the Lotus to bloom there.

The east, from where Syama Prasad Mookerjee, the founder of BJP’s predecessor — the Jan Sangh — came, has always seemed to the party and its ideologues a fertile land for them to experiment in and win fresh adherents from.

As a consequence, the Bharatiya Janata Party has crafted careful strategies for every national and state election in the region, roped in regional allies, and local strongmen including some with dubious reputation. More often than not with the RSS leading the charge with long term hard work in the fields of social mobilisation and children’s education in the rural and tribal hinterland.

The outcome in the 2019 general elections, after a massive effort in terms of manpower and money expended, was a happy one for the saffron forces. BJP on its own, managed to win 64 seats or a little more than half the constituencies in the region. This also represented a considerable improvement from its 2014 tally of 45 seats.

Besides with its allies like the JD(U) in Bihar or its frenemy like the BJD in Odisha, it made a sweep of all states in 2019 except West Bengal where Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress stood out like the proverbial thorn in the rose bush. Though the BJP did manage to raise its tally Nine-fold from 2 to 18 in that general election in the land of Tagore.

The situation in the eyes of the BJP leadership is far more favourable in 2024 despite the fact that assembly elections since 2019 general elections, swept back the saffron wave in Bengal and Bihar, electorally the two most significant states in the east.

The Tejashwi Yadav-led RJD bounced back by winning the highest number of seats among all parties in the 2020 Bihar assembly elections after scoring a nil in 2019. Of course BJP managed to form a government in the state with the help of its ally Nitish’s JD(U).

Much water has flown down both the Son and the Ganges since then and Kumar has done several political somersaults to first break with BJP to form the Mahagathbandhan with RJD, Congress and the Left and then to break with the left off centre forces to veer right once more and tie up with BJP.

However, with the final somersault, JD(U)’s prestige seems to have eroded and it is to be seen how much it will be able to help the BJP in the forthcoming election.In Bihar’s complex caste ridden society, caste equations are often not a simple arithmetic formula where BJP’s upper caste votes added to Kumar’s extremely backward caste support base and Lok Jan Shakti Party’s scheduled caste votes equal a winning combination.

What complicates matters for the BJP-led NDA in Bihar is that even LJP which the late Ram Vilas Paswan used to boast can deliver at least one lakh votes to the side he chooses in every constituency, is now a party which has suffered much wear and tear due to factional in-fighting.

On the other hand, Tejashwi Yadav, despite his father’s legacy of poor governance, especially on the law and order front, may yet be a strong challenger to the BJP given his ability to highlight the job scarcity issue among the state’s youth.

It is to be seen how Prime Minister Narendra Modi who remains individually popular in Bihar, and the Hindutva narrative that the Sangh parivar espouses, will fare against the economic issues which Yadav seems to be highlighting in the statewide Yatra he has undertaken taking a leaf out of Rahul Gandhi’s political handbook.

In Bengal the saffron party’s best show ever was in 2019, when its vote share crossed 40%, a four fold increase over its vote share in 2016 state elections. The ruling Trinamool Congress, despite the saffron upsurge then, had more or less kept its vote bank intact, facing an erosion of just 1.5%.

It was the Left and the Congress which saw its support base eroding from nearly 27% and 12.5% respectively in 2016 to just over 7% and 6% respectively in 2019. A whisper campaign among CPI(M) supporters with the tagline “chup chap, Padma Phule chaap” (quietly vote for the Lotus) in 2019 is believed to have resulted in a huge transfer of Left votes to the BJP in that crucial election.

The Left’s taking on as partner a party floated by a hard-liner Muslim religious preacher before the 2021 assembly elections, continued to alienate its voters, many of whom came as refugees when the state was partitioned between India and Pakistan in 1947 or are their descendants. It’s unhappy supporters chose between TMC and BJP, with the former getting a larger share of the Left vote.

This polarisation gave Mamata Banerjee a huge victory in the 2021 assembly polls with an unprecedented 213 seats to BJP’s 77. A high decibel campaign by the BJP with Modi seemingly taunting the woman chief minister by addressing her as “Didi, o didi”, and accusing her party of “durniti” (corruption) did not help the saffron forces much.

Since then the Left has rallied with the younger brigade taking up much of the slack. Assembly by-elections including for the prestigious Ballygunge constituency and panchayat polls showed that the Left and especially CPI(M) has made a comeback.

Whereas BJP’s vote share came down from 40% in 2019 and 38.5% in 2021 to 23% in the 2023 panchayat polls, the Left vote more than doubled as compared to 2021, a sign that the extreme polarisation between TMC and BJP was no longer working and that the Left’s traditional voter was finding his way back to the party fold.

Possibly that is also one of the principal reasons why BJP has again this time round focused on two issues over and above its high-decibel campaign against corruption — Citizen Amendment Act rules and Sandeshkhali where TMC goons are accused of having molested women in an island in the remote Sunderbans in a bid to grab land for a lucrative aquaculture project.

The first is obviously aimed at refugees and their descendants, especially those who came post 1971 when Bangladesh was created and the right that east Pakistani minorities enjoyed under the original citizenship act to migrate and become Indian citizens was ended.

The biggest beneficiary of this move is expected to be the lower caste Matua community numbering some 3 million who live mostly in south Bengal, bordering Bangladesh. This community has ever since fundamental forces raised their head in the neighbouring country been migrating into India.

The Sandeshkhali incident is also expected to resonate with voters in the state, especially in the rural hinterland as safety and land rights are two prickly issues in the state ever since the 1960s when tenant farmers got permanent rights to their fields and law and order in an otherwise peaceful state broke down in the wake of the Naxalite movement. However, the fact of the matter is that Mamata Banerjee herself remains extremely popular and for many the default option will still be to vote Trinamool.

The other factor in TMC’s favour is that as they have not gone in for any seat sharing arrangement with INDIA alliance partners. The vote, which in Bengal is now polarised between pro-Mamata and anti-Mamata, just as it is in the rest of the country between pro-Modi and anti-Modi, in a three way election where the anti-Mamata vote is split between BJP and the Left, may help the TMC gain an upper hand in many constituencies.

However, an increase in BJP’s vote percentage if not actual seats is more than probable given the amount of resentment among voters over all the ills they perceive Bengal is suffering from at the current juncture.

In Odisha an attempt to share seats with the ruling BJD in both the elections to the national parliament and the state assembly seem to have been given up as BJP local leaders feel confident that they can muscle more seats given the public murmuring against BJD leader Naveen Patnaik for having chosen his favourite bureaucrat as his nominated successor.

However, if Patnaik is able to turn the election into a referendum on Odia pride or his own popularity, then BJP may find it difficult to get even the eight seats it did win in 2019.

The CAA and NRC will continue to resonate in most of the northeastern states too, where they have opened up old fault-lines.

The new CAA rules are expected to re-assure Bengali speaking Hindu voters in Assam that they will not be targeted as they were in the years gone by when many of them found their names struck off from voter lists on suspicion of being migrants from Bangladesh and in some cases even detained in barbed wire camps.

On the other hand the targeting of minority settlements in Brahmaputra river islands and forests in Assam and elsewhere in the region along with NRC is expected by the BJP to continue to deliver electoral benefits.

However, public perceptions do not always follow a unidirectional path. For long, Bengalis have been seen as the “Jews of the northeast”, who have taken up middle class aspirational jobs in the region which locals could well have filled. The seeming protection granted to the community by way of the CAA may not exactly go down well in the northeast where parochial fault-lines have long existed.

Ethnic fault-lines may also mean that while Imphal valley will vote the BJP way, the rest of the state may vote the other way round. Repercussions of the race riots in Manipur whose embers still simmer may also effect other states such as Mizoram and Meghalaya where tribals predominate.

However, in terms of number of seats, what matters in the east is which way the big states — Bengal, Bihar, Odisha and Assam — vote. The lotus may still hold out in the Ganges-Brahmaputra valleys.

The writer is former head of PTI’s eastern region network

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