There is a high-stake battle for West Bengal

A political slugfest took place last week when the central government-controlled CBI landed in Kolkata to question the city’s police commissioner in connection with Saradha and Rose Valley chit fund scam. It triggered a strong protest from West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee.

The reasons for the stand-off between the Centre and State government could be the overlapping of administrative jurisdictions and judicial interpretations. But one important reason that may have played the crucial role in the developments leading to a flashpoint between Delhi and Kolkata is the political ambition of the BJP, which is betting big on West Bengal.

Therefore, what happened in Bengal was a political fight with the Centre using the CBI to push its agenda and the state government resisting it with the state police.  Over the past few months, senior BJP leaders, including its president Amit Shah and Prime Minister Narendra Modi have held several rallies in West Bengal. With little over a month left for the elections to be declared, the BJP has got in a massive poll campaign mode in Bengal with several back-to-back rallies within a fortnight.

In December 2018, the party had tried to take out a grand rath yatra traversing through all 42 Lok Sabha constituencies, but was thwarted by the Bengal government as permission was denied at the last minute, citing law and order threats. While the BJP quickly knocked on the court’s door, the Calcutta High Court and the Supreme Court refused to interfere with the state government’s decision. Over the last two years, the RSS and BJP have reportedly made several attempts to demonise Ms Banerjee as a pro-Muslim leader. Religion has reportedly been blatantly used to induce fear, hate and divisiveness among Bengalis.

But the Hindutva card that the BJP has tried to play in Bengal, which may work for the party in Northern and Western states of India, is said to be too weak a card to deliver similar results in West Bengal. Reports suggest that the BJP’s attempts to woo the upper-caste Hindus in Bengal have given the party some ground in the state. But Bengal is too diverse a state with its cultures, languages, classes and castes and hence there is no one type of Bengali electorate.

If there is one state in which the BJP has put in lot of efforts in the last few years and faced as much resistance from its chief minister, it is West Bengal. She has stood like a wall, guarding its 42 Lok Sabha constituencies. But the power struggle in the high stakes battle for West Bengal between the Trinamool Congress (TMC) and BJP continues.

Given the acrimony between the BJP-led government at the Centre and Ms Banerjee, who has emerged as the rallying point for opposition unity, it is not surprising that the CBI’s attempt to question Kolkata’s top cop led to the chief minister accusing the Centre of ‘attacking the federal structure of the Constitution’.

Having taken the might of the Modi-led government head on, the sympathy that poured in for Ms Banerjee from opposition leaders, pledging support in her battle against a ‘fascist’ government at the Centre which, in their opinion, is ‘trying to destroy democratic institutions’, was also not unexpected.

Though the stand-off ended three days later with each side claiming ‘moral victory’, this is not the end of Modi-BJP versus Ms Banerjee confrontation, but the beginning of a bitter political battle ahead in the upcoming national elections.

With her dharna politics, Ms Banerjee has ensured that the discourse a few months before the general elections centres on her. But the BJP has also sent out a message to its political adversary in Bengal that it is ready to take on the might of the TMC head on. Ms Banerjee is no stranger to street politics. Her political journey is a testimony of protests and dharnas. If she is in her elements as a protestor, the BJP seems to be set for a confrontation with her. And there are reasons for this.

With the decline of the once-powerful CPM-led Left Front to the margins after two successive defeats to TMC and the Congress party not in a position to grab the opposition space, the BJP has been the key beneficiary of the vacuum left behind by the Left’s slide.  Over the past one year, analysts have been speculating that with the BJP’s electoral fortunes on the decline, the party might not be able to repeat its 2014 performance, mainly on account of a possible poor show in the Hindi heartland.

The recent coming together of Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party would be a major hurdle for the BJP in repeating its 2014 performance in Uttar Pradesh. The BJP had swept the heartland in the last general elections, bagging 192 out of the 226 seats. It was the Hindi heartland – especially UP, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand – that propelled the BJP to an absolute majority in 2014. But with its recent defeat in three of the heartland states, the chances of repetition of the previous results look dim.

Since 2014, the BJP has been eyeing the North-East region where it has managed to form governments, either on its own or in alliance in six out of the seven states. There are 24 Lok Sabha seats in the region. These 24 seats are crucial for the BJP to make up partially for the losses in the heartland states, but won’t be enough to ride to power in 2019. That’s why West Bengal is crucial for the BJP, which will be hoping to win around 10 to 12 seats from the state. In 2014, the BJP had won two seats and polled nearly 17 percent votes, its highest ever in Bengal. In 2016 assembly elections, the BJP had polled 10 per cent votes and won 6 seats.

According to recent C-voter survey, the BJP’s vote share in Bengal is projected at 31 per cent in 2019 general elections and its seats tally could go up from two to seven. While this significant gain, it’s still not going to be enough to compensate for the losses elsewhere. But then the BJP is playing for a long haul.

Even if this round of election results go to the TMC, which is way ahead of other political parties in Bengal, BJP’s confrontation with the TMC might help the former eat into the Left Front’s votes. This will help BJP grow to a better position to face the TMC in the next assembly elections in 2021. This is why the BJP is making extra efforts in Bengal.

A L I chougule is an independent senior journalist.

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