On May 2, 2021, a mob gathered outside the Hastings road office of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Kolkata signalling a lost battle for BJP in Bengal and a third tenure for Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress (TMC). It was intimidation which many of the BJP workers and voters in Bengal have regularly faced leading upto the elections. But this incident has symbolic overtones for the things to come in the future. Attacking the State headquarters of a national party without fear clearly indicated the green signal the mob had received from the ruling party. However, more than the mob, what was more shocking for the BJP was what had happened in the elections. The results were totally on unexpected lines, neither the Central nor the State leadership had expected the result which was unfolding before them. This is especially after a rampant and aggressive political campaign which extended for almost two years after the 2019 elections. The Bengal election was driven by emotion and instinct. An emotion of supremacy of one ideology over the other and the instinct of survival for the Bengali Hindu identity. In the end though the victory might not be what the party wanted, there were still a lot of positives which the BJP can learn and also unlearn for the way forward.
Factors leading to BJP’s loss
Before we move onto what the BJP can learn and unlearn for the way forward let’s understand some of the pivotal factors which led to TMC’s victory and BJP’s defeat in the elections:
Demography: There are close to 27 per cent Muslims in the State which were rock solid behind TMC in the 2021 elections. Demographic change is a reality in West Bengal. Owing to the demography change, the TMC Government’s policy has been to promote infiltration and consolidate their vote bank. In the past decade if we just consider the increase in the number of electors at the Lok Sabha level we see the top 10 Lok Sabha seats with maximum increase in number of electors (leaving Jadavpur) are all seats bordering Bangladesh. There is a massive jump in the number of electors over a decade in these Lok Sabha seats with an increase as high as 57 per cent. This is a huge number and should send alarm bells ringing among the rest of the electors. The Lok Sabha seats of Murshidabad, Jangipur and Baharampur has close to 67 per cent Muslim population. All three fall in the top 10 increase in electors list and have seen a massive jump in electors due to increase in Muslim infiltration.
In this election major Muslim consolidation was evident aross the State with almost the entire Muslim vote of INC-Left alliance (barring few constituencies in Murshidabad and Maldaha) shifted to TMC which consolidated their position in the State. This is majorly due to the incessant Muslim appeasement policies of the Mamta Governemnt. From allowing Muharram processions over Durga idol submersion to affecting Saraswati Puja processions, the Mamata Government has been in the limelight because of its appeasement policies. She even appointed TMC Minister Firhad Hakim as the chairman of the newly formed Tarakeshwar Development Board (TDB) in Hooghly district. However, such policies cannot be primarily credited for the consolidation as we have seen in this election. The pivotal cause for such Muslim consolidation was the major push from Muslim leaders of TMC to further the agenda that CAA/NRC is to drive Muslims out of the State. This narrative was pushed through public meetings, general discourse and Madarsa network. This was majorly done to project Mamta Banerjee as the only saviour of Muslims. She was showcased as a messiah to save Muslims., Mamata Banerjee was projected as a direct rival of the BJP and a direct voting choice for Muslims instead of INC and Left. This led to massive consolidation of Muslim votes in the favour of TMC.
Popularity of Mamata Banerjee: Democracy in India is parliamentary in nature but the voting behaviour of voters is more presidential where people choose the main leader to rule or govern over them. This is the pattern for both the Central or State elections. In the majority of elections the voting is for the Chief Minister or the Prime Minister and individual candidates don't matter at the Vidhan Sabha level. Mamata Banerjee at the State level was far superior in stature than any other BJP State leader. This was repeated again and again in various opinion polls across the State. Though the popularity of BJP along with its vote share was continuously rising but it never for once dented the popularity of Mamata Banerjee among the voters. Even people in the BJP cadre though were against TMC at the local level, had high regards for Banerjee as a politician. This was also the general sentiment across the State. Though many disliked TMC and its goons, the culture of cut many etc. but none of it affected the image or the popularity of Mamata Banerjee. The general consensus was on the bad reputation of TMC cadre but a good leader in the form of Mamata Banerjee. BJP on the other hand struggled a lot to pitch a credible Chief Mnister face in the elections. Also, the State leadership was nowhere in comparison to Mamata Banerjee. Bengal in the end chose its Chief Minister over the BJP state leadership in the elections.
Women Voters: The strong Bengali woman identity of Mamata Banerjee had no equivalence in the State. None of the BJP women leaders could match the charisma of a mass leader like Mamata Banejee. She has a strong resonance with the women voters and her very successful scheme of ‘Kanyashree’ has soared her popularity among the women voters. I remember one visit to Nandigram where the elections were largely polarised due to previous atrocities of Muslim strongman, but even then a major segment of Hindu Bengali women were largely in favour of the Mamata Banerjee because of her scheme and the identification of women with her as the women leader. She also continuously chanted slogans of ‘Jai Maa Durga’ to invoke allegiance to the Goddess. A divide was also created between ‘Maa Durga’ and ‘Shri Ram’ while referring to ‘Shri Ram’ being a male and an outsider to create a women centric sentiment among the voters. All this helped in garnering the women votes which ultimately led to her victory.
Hindu Vote Division: With the plan for Muslim vote consolidation already in place and women voters being influenced the agenda was how to further divide the Hindu votes. The idea for that was simply to divide the Hindus on caste lines by doling out caste specific schemes. The Mamata Government made many caste specific announcements over a period of two years. From creating a divide among Rajbongshi voters in the name of language by recognising Kamptapuri language to addressing caste specific issues of Matua communities to recognising the demand of ST voters of a separate religion (‘Sarna Dharma’), TMC was able to explore the fault lines in the Hindu society to their advantage. This helped them to divide Hindu votes and do well in the Hindu regions of Uttar Dinajpur, Dakshin Dinajpur, Jalpaiguri, Jhargram, Jangalmahal, South 24 Parganas and North 24 Parganas. TMC was clearly able to recognise the difference between Muslim and Hindu voters’ voting pattern. Muslims voted strategically based on religious lines while Hindu voters were more concentrated to their immediate demand of caste.
BJP not resonating with the Bengali identity: The Bengali population is very proud of its culture, language and ethnicity. BJP’s poll pitch and strategy wasn’t able to resonate with the Bengali masses. The slogan of ‘Jai Shri Ram’ though very popular was not able to have an equivalent impact as the slogan of ‘Jai Maa Durga’. This is largely due to the feminine dominated character of the Bengali society. Also, the local leadership of BJP did not have a mass following. Dilip Ghosh was popular among the Hindu rural segment because of his unabashed nature but his words had minimal impact among the urban segment of the population. Also, the two tall leaders Narendra Modi and Amit Shah though very popular among the masses but being of non-Bengali origin couldn’t convert their popularity into votes in the State elections. This can be further highlighted by the road show and rally turnouts of BJP President JP Nadda who had very limited popularity among the masses.
There are close to 27 per cent Muslims in the State which were rock solid behind TMC in the 2021 elections. Demographic change is a reality in West Bengal. Owing to the demography change, the TMC Government’s policy has been to promote infiltration and consolidate their vote bank. In the past decade if we just consider the increase in the number of electors at the Lok Sabha level we see the top 10 Lok Sabha seats with maximum increase in number of electors (leaving Jadavpur) are all seats bordering Bangladesh. There is a massive jump in the number of electors over a decade in these Lok Sabha seats with an increase as high as 57 per cent. This is a huge number and should send alarm bells ringing among the rest of the electors
Untrained BJP Cadre: I remember an incident of talking to a BJP convenor of a constituency in Murshidabad Lok Sabha where even after two months of appointment the person didn’t have any idea about the work that is to be performed by the convenor. This was the abysmal state of affairs of the BJP cadre and party holders. The untrained BJP cadre had impact at almost all levels from the Booth President to the District President. In some Districts like Jalpaiguri the District president had not connected with the party cadre. While in some other districts like Uttar Dinajpur and Tamluk the District president was changed at the dead end due to differences with the candidates or being given a ticket. The new District Presidents didn’t have much of a clue on how to administer the District in such a short span of time which led to gross mismanagement. Internal Fighting was also quite evident leading to losses by a close margin. Below is the list of almost 20 seats which BJP lost by a margin of less than 7000 votes and which could have been won by a good cadre in the region:
Fear: Taking a cue from its predecessors, the ruling Left, TMC has established its 10 year rule mainly on the pillar of fear. From targeting opposition leaders to creating a cabal of strongmen, TMC has done very well in strengthening its party organisation as well as the voter base based on fear. In the elections there was an intentional push to create fear among voters and the BJP cadre. This strategy worked very well. In the rural areas, the BJP cadre was very scared and weak because of past experiences of violence. The meetings were too secretive and the party activities were very superficial with no actual ground reach. This was achieved mainly by pushing this narrative of fear backed by few manhandling instances of BJP cadre. This helped TMC in not only dividing a chunk of Hindu votes but also created a lag at every level, even the booth committees were not made in some areas because of lack of karyakartas. Regular statements of fear were spread through public meetings and rallies. Even Mamata Banerjee threatened BJP workers and supporters in one of her rallies in Nandigram. Such fear mongering helped TMC to weaken BJP and also sway a fragment of swing voters in its favour.
Strongmen: The Strongmen network was pivotal for TMC in the elections. They not only help in instilling fear and vote rigging but are essential for refraining people from voting. Now, let’s understand the significance of this with an example. In an Assembly Constituency, lets take Khargram for example, there are 269 booths. Out of these 269 booths 116 are Hindu Majority and 90 are Muslim majority booths and 63 booths have a mixed population of Hindus and Muslims. It is in these 63 booths, that can swing either way, these strongmen play a pivotal role. Regular harassment and death threats to Hindu families lead to forced compliance in terms of the voting patterns. Also, the majority of the Hindu families that lived peacefully are asked not to vote. Strongmen ensure their votes are either casted in the favour of TMC or not casted at all.
The Bengal elections because of its brutality, killing, sense of fear and strongman network is nothing but a war. Also, it is a cultural and civilisational war being fought on the land. Hence, the forward approach should be undertaken based on the principles on which a war is fought. Here I am listing out the way forward for BJP in the State based on the principles of war by Sun Tzu. Sun Tzu lists out five constant factors while deliberating on the conditions of war namely, Moral Law(Philosophy of the leader), Heaven, Earth, The Commander, Method and Discipline. Let's understand it one by one and how it can help in shaping the future strategy of BJP in the State:
Moral Law(Philosophy of the leader): This refers to the morality or philosophy of the leader which causes the people to be in complete accord with their ruler, so that they will follow him regardless of their lives, undismayed by any danger. This principle is really valid in the case of Bengal where workers are under continuous threats and some are even killed to spread fear among the rest. There are two aspects to this principle, one is the leader and the second is his philosophy or morals. Going forward BJP needs a strong State leader who infuses great confidence among its workers. He should have a mass appeal and should be able to stand up to Mamata Banerjee in the State. Second he should align the Hindutva philosophy of the BJP with the culture and ethnicity of the State which allows people to easily identify with the philosophy and also accept it. Turning a few pages from the book of Bankim Chandra Chaterjee or referring to the principles of Syama Prasad Mukherjee can be of help as well. Slogans inherent to the Bengali land like ‘Vande Mataram’ can be good starting points. Sun Tzu says the side which has more people imbibed with the philosophy of the ruler wins. The aim of the leader should be the same.
Heaven: It refers to time and seasons in its true nature basically referring to the external factors. In political sense, it can refer to the public pulse and how different schemes affect them. It can also be used to understand how external factors affect the people of the State. A good example of this is how Mamata Banerjee used the CAA/NRC example of Assam to scare Hindu Bangladeshis in the State and win 2019 By-polls. Though the legislation was for Hindus but using the example of other State mass hysteria was created against BJP. BJP strategy in this election was almost the same from 2019 to 2021 with almost same rhetorics and slogans, while Mamata Banerjee countered each as well as set her own narratives to which the BJP was lagging. Staying abreast with time and understanding the pulse of the State and its people is necessary to win Bengal. This again comes down to building State leadership and cadre who can propagate the idea.
Earth: This generally refers to understanding the terrain in which the war is held. In the election context it can refer to the land, culture, ethnicity and language of the people. Bengal has a lot of diversity in both its terrain and demography. The hill area of Darjeeling, Siliguri, Cooch Behar has different aspirations from the people of North 24 Parganas and South 24 Parganas.The people of Dinajpur are entirely different from people in Durgapur and Jangalmahal in terms of their aspirations and needs. The main challenge for BJP is to align its philosophy with Hindus all across the spectrum irrespective of the terrain. Some questions that need to be asked are, Whether one slogan can fit them all? Is ‘Jai Shri Ram the only way forward? What are the different aspirations of people in different lands?, What is the common local Hindutva principle that can bind them all? This factor also entails the chances of danger and security and also the chances of life and death across different terrain. Having right resources and cadre at different terrain based on the dangers and security need to be continuously undertaken to keep the cadre motivated throughout.
The Commander: This refers to the top leadership and the main attributes that they should possess. One of the most pertinent questions to ask is who is the most able commander who understands the terrain and the heavenly factors associated with war. The Command or the top leader chosen in the State should have total control over the cadre, should be well revered among the masses and should be totally aligned with the philosophy of the party. BJP needs to revamp its State leadership and also try to groom a State leader who can be projected as the CM face later and can stand up to Mamata Banerjee.
Method and Discipline: This refers to marshalling of the army and the resources they require. It is a laid down principle that the army which is stronger, the army in which officers are more trained and disciplined and the army which has greater constancy in reward and punishment wins the war. In political context, the army can be replaced by the party cadre. In Bengal, BJP needs to seriously work on both building its cadre as well as getting them trained. A disciplined cadre can provide the much needed edge to the party in the times to come. Currently, the cadre is more on paper than in substance. The cadre is both weak and scared. Scared warriors never win the war. Infusion of confidence by regular leadership dialogue as well as cadre training should be the priority of the party in the coming two years leading upto the 2024 Lok Sabha elections.
Finally Sun Tzu declares that there are five circumstances in which victory may be predicted for a side:
- He who knows when he can fight and when he cannot will be victorious: This is attributed to identification of time when the cadre strength is built and prepared for war. Picking out key issues, pushing it through cadre, local media and general discourse is the need to the hour. Preparing for elections should start by picking out specific time zones and the issues which need to be countered heavily.
- He who understands how to use both large and small forces will be victorious: More than the BJP cadre, it is the RSS which is the true strength of BJP in the State. Mobilising different cadre units, different RSS units to further the narrative and the philosophy is the work going ahead.
- He whose ranks are united in purpose will be victorious: Unity for the cause of Hindutva philosophy is the primary goal in the coming times. It can unite as well as mobilise the cadre. The important thing to work on is how to align the Hindutva philosophy with local Bengali ethnicity, culture and language to make it more acceptable among both the cadre as well as people.
- He who is prudent and lies in wait for an enemy who is not, will be victorious: Understanding the role of INC/CPIM/ISF in the times to come. There is still sympathy for the left party in the state, there is an undercurrent among its voters as well. Party needs to understand every move and respond intelligently. Moreover, preempting what the TMC might throw at them in terms of narrative and issue is important to gain a lead in the State. Words like dictator, fascist etc are often used for the BJP central Government, efficient countering of them at the State level will strengthen the image of the party among the masses.
- He whose generals are able and not interfered with by the sovereign will be victorious: Building a strong formidable State leadership with a main State leader who can be projected as a State leader in front of Mamta Banerjee is the most important step going forward. There needs to be a trust based relationship between the Center and State leadership with a free hand given to the State leadership to execute its plan. Centers involvement should be for monitoring and preliminary discussions and initial decisions only.
By following the necessary steps in the way forward, BJP can mark the start of a golden decade in the History of Bengal. Rising from 3 seats to 77 is a great achievement. There should be a continuous rise of the party from here on in. Next decade is of BJP in the State. The only thing necessary to ensure that is to set right the process which the party needs to follow over a period of time.
(The writer is an Engineer, Lawyer, Entrepreneur and an IIT Kharagpur Alumni. Worked earlier in Samsung managing Intellectual Property and inhouse Startups. He is currently working as a political consultant)