Chunav aate jaate rehte hai…lekin maut ke khel se koi math nahi paa sakega. Yeh deewar pe likhe hue shabd pad lena (Elections will come and go…but no one can get votes because of political murders. Read the writing on the wall),” an elated Prime Minister Narendra Modi gave a warning during the Bihar victory celebrations at the BJP headquarters in New Delhi. The state he was alluding to was not Bihar.
It was West Bengal. The segue in his speech was a signal. For the BJP, a party that never rests on its laurels and is perpetually on election mode, it is time to move to the next poll destination — Bengal, where elections are due in less than six months. “Our ground work in Bengal has been going on for almost three years under the direct guidance of Amit Shahji,” says a party insider directly involved in BJP’s strategy for Bengal, who did not want to be named. He was referring to the party strengthening its cadre base in the state, taking out rath yatras and conducting “mass tarpan” and “pind daan” rituals for BJP workers who have lost their lives.
“The Bihar results will inspire the cadre to work harder.” After the Bihar win, Modi held forth on violence against BJP workers, “Some people have adopted the tactic of killing our workers as they are not able to challenge us. In some parts of the country, they feel that by killing our workers they can realise their goals. I do not need to warn them as this work will be done by the people.”
Modi’s reference to political violence in which BJP is a victim is part of a campaign strategy. It is an allegation that was earlier flung at Kerala. It is now being raised in Bengal. By implying that violence is bloodying the political landscape of West Bengal, Modi is creating a narrative for change in favour of BJP in the state— a new territory for the saffron party. According to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), West Bengal recorded the highest number of political murders in 2019 — 12. The BJP claims most of them are its cadre and alleges that the actual number is higher.
“We have lost 250 workers since 2019. TMC goons did not spare our workers even during Durga Puja,” BJP national general secretary in-charge of West Bengal Kailash Vijayvargiya told ET Magazine. He says Bengal’s win will be bigger than Bihar. “We will storm to power in Bengal with two-thirds majority,” he says. The BJP is hard at work. It is stoking antiincumbency against the ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC), strengthening its cadre, connecting with the poor, pointing fingers at what it calls Muslim appeasement by CM Mamata Banerjee, having social media campaigns highlighting the plight of Hindus in the state and engineering defections in other parties.
These are all part of the saffron party’s strategy in its battle for Bengal, according to party insiders. It will not be an easy ride to Kolkata. “Bengal has a considerable proportion of minority population. Besides it’s difficult to make inroads in a state run by paid and aggressive TMC cadre who instil fear among voters,” alleges the BJP insider quoted above. “We have never been in power here but we have the Tripura model (which was ruled by the Left before the BJP swept the polls in 2018),” he adds.
While Trinamool insists that murmurs of defections and differences in its party leadership are just rumours, BJP claims that key TMC leaders will be deserting Mamata in a matter of weeks. On November 10, transport minister Suvendu Adhikari held an independent rally in Nandigram to mark 13 years of the agitation without referring even once to the party’s or Mamata’s role in it. A vexed Trinamool hit back, saying “some are helping the BJP”. “We are aware that the BJP is trying to create confusion, but no big leader is leaving the TMC,” says Trinamool MP Saugata Roy, adding that the BJP doesn’t have a chief ministerial face or the cadre to take on Mamata.
When asked about the massive jump in Lok Sabha seats won by the BJP in 2019, Roy says state elections are held to elect a CM and here Modi can’t match Didi. “The BJP will not be able to replicate its Bihar or Lok Sabha success in Bengal election. They don’t have a face here. Much of their narrative about political killings is made up,” he adds. For the BJP, projecting a chief ministerial face is the last thing they worry about in an election campaign. A party insider says in Bengal Home Minister Amit Shah will be an important presence, unlike in Bihar where he remained in the background focusing only on the “samanway (coordination)” between BJP and JD(U). “In Bengal, Shah will be a key face and force,” says the party insider on condition of anonymity. “The TMC will collapse like a pack of cards.”
With Bihar conquered, the BJP is confident of a win in the neighbouring state. Its confidence stems from the Lok Sabha polls where it won 18 of 42 seats — just four less than TMC did — and a vote share of 40.2%, just 3% less than TMC’s. “The Bihar victory is a big morale booster for our cadre who face widespread violence. We have been telling our cadre to focus on basic law and order and handling the booths at the time of elections,” says Vijayvarghiya. However, political observers feel victory in one state is no guarantee for a win in another, even if they share a border. “Election results in one state don’t translate into direct wins in another,” says Samir Kumar Das, professor of political science, University of Calcutta. “To what extent the BJP is able to take advantage of the anti-incumbency by cutting into the votes of other parties will be key in Bengal. As for TMC, it will have to learn to divide the opposition camp and handle anti-incumbency,” says Das.
As things stand, a divided opposition could help the BJP. Even as the Congress got 44 seats in the last assembly elections, it is a spent force. With the Left and the Congress planning to come together against TMC and BJP, it could be advantage BJP. “The Left-Congress alliance will simply eat into TMC’s votes, eventually benefitting the BJP — the way AIMIM (All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul-Muslimeen) helped the BJP indirectly (by cutting into CongressRJD votes) in Bihar. However, if all anti-BJP parties — TMC, Congress and the Left — come together, it will be very difficult for the BJP,” says Das. That possibility looks remote as of now. “We are working on our strategy to take on the BJP.
How can we approach the TMC? If TMC feels they need us to stop the BJP, they should contact Priyanka or Rahul Gandhi,” Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury, state Congress president, told ET Magazine. “If Amit Shah has a meal at a karyakarta’s house, the whole world will notice. We are also preparing for elections in our own way. Our tally can only improve from here,” adds Chowdhury. Dipankar Bhattacharya, general secretary of the CPI (ML) Liberation, which won 12 seats in Bihar as part of a grand alliance called Mahagathbandhan, says there should be a similar coalition of anti-BJP parties in Bengal. However, the Left, which has been targeting both BJP and Trinamool, seems to be keen on going ahead with its call of “Oust BJP, Save the Nation; Oust TMC, Save Bengal”.
Apart from the divided opposition, there is the Owaisi factor. AIMIM leader Asaduddin Owaisi has already expressed his intent to fight Bengal elections after a better-thanexpected five-seat win in Bihar’s Muslimdominated Seemanchal region. His entry could end up hurting the TMC more than the BJP as both TMC and AIMIM will be targeting the same vote bank, thereby dividing the anti-BJP votes. Both the Congress and the TMC have accused Owaisi of being a Bteam of the BJP. “All secular parties should be cautious of vote-cutter Owaisi sahab,” says Chowdhury of Congress, a five-time MP from Berhampore. In the last Lok Sabha election, the TMC sought the support of Muslims who account for 27% of the population of the state. Of the total 294 assembly constituencies, there are about 90 seats that have a sizeable Muslim electorate.
A fragmentation of Muslim votes will help the BJP. To thwart the threat, Mamata alleged: “There are some extremists within the minority community. They are being funded by the BJP. They are based out of Hyderabad. They are conducting meetings here, telling Muslims that they will protect them. Do not fall for it, my minority brothers and sisters.” Mamata has reasons to be worried. Das says, “Once a choice has to be made between TMC and AIMIM, Muslims will be attracted towards AIMIM whose campaigns and sloganeering will any day be more high-pitched than TMC’s. This will eat into TMC votes, thereby benefitting the BJP.” The BJP did its alliance arithmetic very well in Bihar. Can it replicate the success in Bengal without an ally? “TMC has to learn how to divide the opposition camp and, more importantly, how to handle anti-incumbency, the way BJP tackled an anti-incumbency wave against its ally, JD(U) in Bihar by stoking the fear of ‘jungle raj’ and lawlessness of the earlier regime,” says Das. Is Didi listening?
Party’s West Bengal President and Lok Sabha MP Dilip Ghosh with BJP National Vice-President Mukul Roy.
“Silent Voters Will Work in Our Favour like They Did in Bihar”
West Bengal BJP president Dilip Ghosh says the party will win 200-plus seats in the assembly election. Edited excerpts:
PM Narendra Modi has hinted at political killings in West Bengal, saying people will not spare the ruling Trinamool Congress. How big will this issue be in the coming elections?
This will have a huge impact. The murder of our karyakartas is increasing week after week. Even yesterday, one of our workers was killed brutally. They did not spare us even during the lockdown or Durga Puja. The more they are moving away from victory, the more they are getting frustrated and the more violent they are becoming. They want to create an atmosphere of fear to scare voters and extract their votes. But now the people of Bengal have seen through this. Silent voters will work in our favour the way they did in Bihar.
There are also reports of your party workers attacking TMC members.
What choice do we have? If they keep killing us, should we just stand by as spectators? We have to take action as the police is under their control which passes off murder cases as suicides.
Then do you think free and fair elections are possible?
Free and fair elections are not possible in the current situation unless the Election Commission takes everything under their control from Day 1 and conducts elections under their watch. There is no kanoon ki vyavastha (law and order). Rigging of votes and booth capturing are a common phenomenon. Anything can happen in Bengal under TMC.
What is your target for the elections?
Prime Minister Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah have already made this clear: we will win 200+ seats in West Bengal. For Lok Sabha, against a target of 21 we won 18 seats and lost two-three seats by a small margin due to our inexperience here. All such mistakes will be rectified, and we will surely achieve our target in the assembly elections. People of Bengal are ready to vote for change. They want this fear of terror to end.