How Will BJP’s Russian Roulette On The East Coast Pan Out?

How Will BJP’s Russian Roulette On The East Coast Pan Out?

‘Operation Lotus in the East’ could well have been the difference between disaster and success for the BJP

Jayanta Roy ChowdhuryUpdated: Monday, June 10, 2024, 12:47 PM IST
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The Bharatiya Janata party which for long has been trying to get past its historical boundaries of influence in western India and in the Hindi-speaking heartland of northern India, has for more than 25 years now been trying to strike roots in two key states on the east coast — Bengal and Odisha.

While the cyclone Remal which came out of the Bay of Bengal seems to have swept BJP off its feet in Bengal and overturned the exit poll forecasts of a rout for Trinamool Congress into a big win, in Odisha the light rains which the cyclone brought seems to have helped the lotus bloom and sprout fresh roots in a fertile soil.

A different result — where BJP did not do well in both the states would have seen the ruling party’s stature in Parliament diminish further and those of the opposition brighten, or a result where the BJP did well in both the states would have given it greater numbers and resulted in a lesser need to rely on allies.

In other words ‘Operation Lotus in the East’ could well have been the difference between disaster and success for the BJP. No wonder, Prime Minister Narendra Modi chanted “Jai Jagannath” in his victory speech even as the crowd chanted the traditional slogan “Jai Shri Ram”.

In some senses it was a case of playing the proverbial ‘Russian roulette’. In one state the pistol went off early and damaged the BJP, and in another it went off late and damaged the opponent.

The BJP, which had won 18 seats in 2019 and had been forecast by most exit polls to win between 26-31 of the 42 Lok Sabha seats in West Bengal, ended up losing half a dozen seats and seeing its tally cut down to just a dozen.

Trinamool increased its vote share by 2.5% to nearly 46%, mostly at the expense of the BJP, picking up 29 seats or 70% of the constituencies on offer. So the surprising results begs the question - what made the difference?

In the initial days of the election campaign, with the focus on corruption cases in the state, the mood in Bengal was one where the man on the street was critical of the Trinamool Congress, though sparing of the Teflon-coated chief minister Mamata Banerjee.

However, as the battle progressed, two things became clear – the TMC led by Banerjee was a street-smart fighter and its cadre base was one which fought for the long haul as compared to its rivals.

It used leaked videos of BJP local level leaders which seemed to suggest that the Sandeshkhali expose of crime against women was a “created” one, it used a high court judgement scrapping the appointment of over 24,000 school teachers and employees in the state, over use of unfair means by some 5,300 of them to its advantage among the state’s youth.

It held up the repeated visits by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, BJP chief J P Nadda and Union Home Minister Amit Shah as an attempt by ‘outsiders’ to take over the state, while stressing on Bengal’s cultural heritage as one which the TMC wished to promote.

Infighting within the BJP, lack of inspiring candidates and local leaders and a lack of worker strength also meant the voters who were swayed by anti-TMC feelings did not find the alternative attractive enough to repose confidence in the saffron party.

The Left-Congress combine did not do all that well and shed minor fractional shares of their last time’s vote count. However, in seats where the TMC were not that confident, such as Jadavpur, Dum Dum, Midnapore, Arambagh or Birbhum, the combine polled significant slices of votes to ensure that TMC won.

If the three I.N.D.I.A bloc parties had fought together by putting up joint candidates, these seats may well have been won by BJP as it would have been the sole beneficiary of the vote against the Mamata Banerjee-led-TMC vote. In other words the division of the anti-vote helped Baneerjee considerably in many constituencies.

However, possibly the biggest trump card which Banerjee used was her bouquet of women-centric schemes such as Lakshmir Bhandar, which gives direct transfer benefits and Kanyashri, which gives academic scholarships to girls, etc.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that many families were divided in the way they voted. While the women and older men preferred the TMC for its welfare measures, younger people rejected it for the scams which had surfaced over the years and the lack of industrialisation and quality jobs in the state. But when half the population is women and it votes in overwhelming numbers in favour of one party, the vote against simply gets drowned out.

The number of female voters in Bengal stands at 968 for every 1,000 males. This of course is higher than the national ratio of 948 per 1,000 males. The voter turnout for women was also higher in Bengal at 80.18% compared to the national average of 65.78% as well as higher than Bengal’s men’s turnout percentage of 78.43.

However, the way the vote swung in Odisha was dramatically the opposite of what happened in Bengal. Here too one of the major factors which encouraged the vote to swing away from the charismatic leadership of Naveen Patnaik was the “outsider” bogey.

Patnaik who has been getting on in years and will turn 78 this October, had chosen his former secretary, 50-year-old VK Pandian, as his right hand man both within the government as long as he was an IAS officer and afterwards as his chief lieutenant to help him run the BJD party.

The public at large got the impression that Pandian, a Tamil by birth married to an Odiya civil servant, had been anointed Naveen ‘babu’s’ successor. A belief which was reinforced by BJP’s clever propaganda and attacks on BJD.

The feeling gained credence within the ruling party’s rank and file too and also ensured that many BJD leaders and workers stopped working during the elections.

Speeches by BJP leaders underlined Naveen ‘babu’s’ health and spoke of Odiya self-pride, an obvious war-cry against the ‘outsider’. Tales of the immense clout that Pandian was believed to wield, even if it be for the well being of the state, turned the tide against him and the BJD.

Patnaik’s inability or refusal to campaign extensively also went against the party’s chances. In rallies that the former Odisha chief minister turned up, Pandian was always there as his shadow, holding the mic or the CM’s hand.

The net result was that BJP gained nearly 7% of the popular vote, mostly at BJD’s expense, to garner an enviable 45.34% vote-share. This gave BJP 20 out of the 21 Lok Sabha seats from the state.

In the simultaneously held assembly elections, BJP polled 40.07 to BJD’s 40.22, but with the Indian system of first past the post and uneven distribution of votes, the saffron party picked up 78 seats to BJD’s 51 and Congress’s 14. The BJP also seemed to have been helped by a swing in the tribal vote.

That the game of politics was won by a ‘frenemy’ with whom he had supped and dined and aided in Parliament over the years, must have turned the results into more than a bitter pill to swallow for Patnaik, one of the few gentleman-politicians left in the country.

All in all, BJP’s project ‘Lotus in the east’ remains a work in progress and its two regional rivals Mamata Banerjee and Naveen Patnaik still retain enough skills to overturn the tables once again against the saffron party. How the game will be played out in the next round will of course remain a question which can only be answered in, the Rubicon is near.

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

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