It is an irony of history that BJP has all but disappeared from Bengal, the birth place of its ideological founder. The quest for political alternative in Bengal may however provide an opportunity for its resurrection. As it turns out Bengal has encountered a comprehensive decline, be it in governance, administration, law and order, industrial growth, infrastructure, education or health care. Its story is now that of the relocation of industrialists to greener pastures, a slow but sure transition towards financial bankruptcy and the dubious distinction of leading the list on gender violence.

 The state that ushered in the Indian renaissance can no longer offer quality education to large sections of her young and aspirational populace. The one-time intellectual capital of India, Kolkata, now proudly hosts massive rallies supporting the Razakars who perpetrated genocide in neighboring Bangladesh and resisted the Indian army while it liberated East Pakistan in 1971. When Muslim miscreants went on a rampage to vent their ire against acclaimed author Tasleema Nasrin for articulating her views on Islam, the state meekly surrendered by packing Ms. Nasreen off to Delhi.

 The buck for this holistic decline must stop with the left regime that was granted an almost unprecedented mandate of 35 consecutive years. Their trade-unions destroyed the work-culture and demonized the industrialists as public enemies. Despite the availability of an educated English speaking work-force, Kolkata could not develop into a hub for knowledge-based industries like information technology. The red regime systematically undermined its institutions -undeserving political affiliates were awarded academic chairs in prestigious Universities and the police force was heavily politicised. The political leadership lacked the vision to champion the tourism industry in Bengal despite its natural beauty, rich wildlife and architectural gems.

 The repeated electoral victories of the left owed to the limited choice the almost non-extant opposition provided to the electorate. In contrast, CPIM had a strong political grass-root organization and a leader of stature in Jyoti Basu. Its extensive network of party offices served as a parallel administration. The dysfunctional governance machinery compelled the citizens to rely on this interface for almost every service the state is mandated to provide.

 The politics of entitlement accustomed the citizens to receiving favors rather than exercising their rights as tax-payers. Furthermore, the agrarian land-reforms, Barga, that the left regime initiated immediately after its inception, created a loyal vote-bank comprising of the erstwhile land-less agricultural laborers. The fact that these land reforms undermined the overall agrarian growth by dis- incentivizing investment in agricultural technology and resulted in small and segregated land-holding patterns did not register with the masses.

The regime changed, eventually, but for all the wrong reasons. Buddhadev Bhattacharya, who succeeded Jyoti Basu, recognized the import of industrial growth but lacked the political acumen to execute his vision. It is around this time that a feisty and a populist political opposition emerged. Mamata Banarjee successfully opposed the arbitrary and also the just land acquisitions in Nandigram and Singur. And, the dream of industrialization was dealt a body blow when the Tatas rolled their Nano project out of Singur to Sanand in Gujarat.

The agrarian discontent resulting from land acquisition coupled with the grievances on governance among the urban electorate lead to the parivartan that ushered in the Trinamul (TMC) era in Bengal. In reality, it is only the political color that changed – TMC has merely (but literally) painted Kolkata blue instead of red. Ms. Banarjee has sought to out-left the left -Bengal continues to have its mass political rallies, its political murders and its gang-rapes – the frequency of the latter has substantially increased in the last year. The goons who enjoyed protection of a politicised police force continue to do so primarily because they have switched their political masters. The regime that was founded on the flight of a leading industrial group would naturally not entice capital investment, and it steadfastly refuses to intervene in acquiring the land that manufacturing units would need. The politics of appeasement and tokenism remains her forte till date. Bengal has decidedly moved from bad to worse in the two years of TMC regime and the memories of the misrule by the left are yet to fade from public memory. It would have been an opportune moment for an organized and visible third force to fill in this political void.

BJP and Bengal

BJP is still not potent enough to challenge the two dominant forces of Bengal polity, the left and the TMC, throughout Bengal. But, it may well emerge as an alternate force in targets of opportunity where local factors can enhance its acceptability. It is worthwhile to note that Bengal is one of the few states where neither religion nor caste has played a significant role in electoral politics. Political parties have always fielded Muslim candidates in constituencies where the population is largely Muslim, but the majority of Hindus have not been perturbed with this politics of identity. In fact, Muslim candidates have won from Hindu-majority constituencies, for example, Kabir Suman, won the Lok Sabha elections from Jadavpur in 2009 even after he converted to Islam from Hinduism. But, the politics of competitive appeasement of the Muslims that has been initiated by Mamta Banarjee and lapped up by the left and Congress is now being resented even by religion-oblivious middle class Bengalis. The media has largely concealed the pro-genocide rallies in Kolkata or the riots that decimated predominantly Hindu villages in Canning. Regardless, the special protection extended to miscreants from a particular community has been noticed at local levels.

The WB government has announced monthly allowances for Imams and 10% reservation for Muslims in government jobs as part of the OBC quota, both of which have induced disquiet. No political party other than BJP has protested against this move so as not to lose its share of the 25% Muslim vote of Bengal. Successive regimes have turned blind eyes to the persistent illegal infiltration which is steadily altering the demographics of the districts bordering Bangladesh. Local discontents such as the above can enhance the stock of the BJP above and beyond the state-wide discontent on governance and nationwide appeal of its de facto prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi. It would indeed be morally right to challenge the politics of appeasement which is in direct conflict with the secular ethos of our nationhood. Furthermore, the tokenism has not served its target either – the Bengali Muslims are far more impoverished than their counterparts in BJP ruled Gujarat for example. This is the case that must be made to the electorate in general and Muslims in particular, preferably by Gujarati Muslims who have increasingly been supportive of the Gujarat model of governance.

BJP must therefore direct all its organizational resources towards 5-10 Lok Sabha seats identified apriori as targets of opportunity based on favorable local factors. It should decide the candidates who would contest in these seats as early as possible so that they can strengthen the organization, and enhance their visibility and acceptability among the voters. For instance, women in several villages have been organizing apolitical mass movements against rape. Standing in solidarity with the afflicted would surely establish emotional connections. Candidates who are independently well-known would add tremendous value to the campaign.

Social media and creative campaigning techniques (such as the 3D meets and crowdsourcing of ideas) should be utilized to encourage large scale volunteering. Different volunteers would naturally devote different amounts of time ranging from an hour or two each day to activity during weekends. Some including those from the diaspora may only be able to remotely participate on a regular basis. Not all would add value to the campaign and some may even prove to be distractions. Yet, it is their involvement and not their actual utility that would enhance the mass base of a nascent political entity. There should be a well-thought out strategy to utilize the volunteers based on their time commitments, skill sets and geographical locations. For instance, volunteers who can participate remotely may be able to contribute to online, phone or SMS campaigns. Finally, a political web portal that is both informative and entertaining may have a better shot at converting the un-initiated -online dissemination of political cartoons, satires, parodies and music is likelyto be effective in this regard. And, launching these web sites in vernaculars will enhance their reach.

The central leadership of BJP has so far appeared hesitant to challenge Mamata Banarjee in her own turf. In fact, the BJP candidate for Howarah bypolls was asked to withdraw at the last moment. Some contend that this was designed to facilitate the reasonably narrow win the TMC candidate eventually secured. Other than demoralizing the local karyakartas, a perception of soft spot for a political opponent that moves as these generate would severely jeopardize the electoral prospects of BJP in Bengal. Voters never opt for a defeatist political party that seeks to use them as pawns in the game of electoral alliances.

Furthermore, the Muslim votebankthat TMC is assiduously courting will ensure that it will not enter into a pre- poll alliance with BJP. Post-poll, all parties would decide on alliances based on political expediency and not pre-poll acrimony. Indeed, the Samajwadi party continued to offer external support to UPA even after winning the bitterly contested Uttar Pradesh elections. Thus, BJP stands only to gain if Modi extensively campaigns in Bengal, exposes the governance deficiencies of the current and previous regimes and outlines a road map of how a purposeful leadership at the center can facilitate the transformation of the political and economic landscape of Bengal.

In conclusion, I cannot predict the number of seats BJP will actually win in Bengal should it do all the above and more. But I do know that Atal Bihari Vajpayee lost a confidence motion in 1999 by 1 vote!

The following two tabs change content below.
Saswati Sarkar

Saswati Sarkar

Professor of Electrical Engg at Univ. of Pennsylvania. She has strong political persuasions. Views expressed here are entirely in personal capacity.