West Bengal polls 2021: Relying on defectors will exacerbate existing tensions, BJP will have to reinvent itself

West Bengal polls 2021: Relying on defectors will exacerbate existing tensions, BJP will have to reinvent itself

West Bengal polls 2021: Relying on defectors will exacerbate existing tensions, BJP will have to reinvent itself

The West Bengal unit of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), now chasing the big ask of a change of regime, is proving itself adept at self-incineration, despite having much going for it. At one point, it did appear that it had built up some momentum. The defection of Purba Medinipur Trinamool Congress (TMC) satrap three weeks ago also seemed to promise the party getter traction, but for a variety of reasons it seems to be losing the plot.

The first theatre in which the BJP seems to be so gaffe-prone that it is alienating itself from, especially, the urban middle class is that of ‘culture’. Before we list its missteps, we need to remind ourselves of one characteristic of Bengal’s public life and, for want of a better phrase, the Bengali psyche. Bengalis are inordinately proud of their linguistic community’s cultural heritage and attainments. Most relatively homogeneous communities are, but with the educated Bengali this is an article of faith. By way of qualification, we must mention that the word ‘educated’ is being used here in a latitudinous sense, because very often the adjective is a self-ascription.

Now, to get to the point of the BJP’’s serial gaffes, we have to go back to the multi-phase Lok Sabha elections of 2019. Days before the last phase of polling on 19 May, when nine constituencies in Kolkata and the neighbouring districts of North and South 24 Parganas were to vote, a bust of Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar was desecrated in the wake of a roadshow led by then party president Amit Shah. It was fairly conclusively established that BJP cadres had been responsible.

The BJP failed to win a single constituency in this phase, though it had won 18 of the 33 that had gone to the polls previously. The TMC ran a successful campaign against the BJP’s ‘lack of respect and understanding’ of Bengal’s ‘culture’ and traditions. Since then the party has been guilty of a number of embarrassing self-goals.

To begin with the latest, BJP president JP Nadda visited Katwa in Purba Bardhaman district on Saturday. While visiting the Jagadanandapur temple in Katwa, he described it as the place where the Bhakti saint Chaitanya Mahaprabhu had been initiated. In actual fact, the initiation had taken place at a temple about 10 km away. The Jagadanandapur temple had been built 329 years after the initiation.

It didn’t help matters that on Sunday BJP state president Dilip Ghosh countered questions on the issue in an unnecessarily combative way, offering absurd arguments instead of admitting to an honest error.

On 5 November 2020, Union Home Minister Amit Shah, while on a tour of the Jangalmahals, garlanded the statue of an unknown tribal hunter identified by the state BJP as Birsa Munda, the millenarian tribal leader who had led a revolution – ulgulaan in the local language – against the British colonialists at the end of the nineteenth century. This misidentification, too, created, an uproar, but state BJP leaders refused to acknowledge the mistakes, alienating influential tribal leaders in the region.

To top these, vice-chancellor Bidyut Chakrabarty has taken on Nobel-winning economist Amartya Sen in a spat. From describing a conversation with Sen, which the latter claims is imaginary, to accusing him of encroaching land and trying to protect vendors of vegetables and other commodities because his daughter (a journalist who does not live in Santiniketan) buys stuff from them, Chakraborty has not only alienated the academic community in Visva-Bharati, who accuse him of blatant attempts to saffronise the campus, but the old Santiniketan community as well. Given Sen's stature among Bengalis, this gratuitous confrontation has angered the educated middle class and others on a broader scale as well.

Finally, we get to the man who defines Bengal – Rabindranath Tagore. It all began on 9 November 2020 when a tweet attributed to Nadda (but posted on the state unit’s handle) said Tagore was born in Visva-Bharati. Apart from the fact that no such thing as Visva-Bharati existed in 1961 when Tagore was born, practically all Bengalis, or people who have close connections with Bengal, in addition to millions of tourists who have ever visited Kolkata, know that Tagore was born in Jorasanko in north Calcutta. This provoked both outrage and derision, which was further fueled by a poster controversy.

Less than a fortnight later, ahead of a visit by Shah on 20 December to the commercial town of Bolpur, adjacent to Santiniketan, which is essentially a university town, posters appeared all over the place in which Shah’s image overshadowed Tagore’s. Though the BJP claimed it had nothing to do with the posters, the damage was done in the form of escalating outrage.

All this might seem a bit arcane and, frankly, beyond the ambit of electoral arithmetic. But it’s not. These cultural tropes play seriously into shaping political perceptions and calculations. Observers and analysts of Bengal’s political scene have been discerning since before the 2019 elections, a shift in urban upper-caste, middle-class preferences towards the BJP. This was traditionally a CPI(M) constituency and had never taken to TMC chief Mamata Banerjee’s plebeian political style. But these controversies, which don’t seem to be going away, could easily swing this constituency back towards the Left, or even the TMC, as the desecration of Vidyasagar’s statue demonstrably did.

Mamata and her party, on their part, have not missed these sitters in their attempts to score points. Thus, the repeated reference to the BJP as a party of ‘outsiders’. It is not easy to predict what kind of dividend the TMC will gain from this line of attack. But it’s unlikely to hurt the party, while it is likely to hurt the BJP to an as yet unpredictable extent.

There are other indications at this point that the BJP is losing momentum somewhat. The operative bit is, ‘at this point’. There is every possibility that lost ground can be recovered. But let us cut to the pointers going against the BJP now. First, Subhendu’s defection was touted as a big coup. It hasn’t proved to be one yet – just as current BJP national vice-president Mukul Roy’s defection in November 2017 proved somewhat underwhelming. Subhendu joined the BJP on 19 December, after making it clear for weeks that he would be quitting the party. When he left, one MP, five MLAs and a handful of lower-level functionaries, whose numbers cannot be accurately ascertained.

In the three-plus weeks that have passed since then, Subhendu’s younger brother Soumendu joined the BJP on New Year’s Day, with 14 councillors of the Contai municipality of which he was the administrator/chairperson before being removed by the TMC days before his switch. Apart from the fact that this means that the Contai municipality has changed hands, Soumendu’s switch is of no great significance, given that he is the lightweight in the Adhikari family. Until patriarch Sisir Adhikari makes a move, not much will have changed. Subhendu’s much-vaunted connections in other districts do not seem to have triggered any seismic events.

And that finally brings us to Asaduddin Owaisi who plams to put up over 50 All India Majlis-e-Ittehad-ul-Muslimeen (AIMIM) candidates in the Bengal Assembly elections. In the past, Owaisi has wittingly (or less likely) unwittingly helped the BJP by putting up candidates in constituencies with Muslim concentration in various states. His first electoral success outside his Telangana base was in the Bihar elections last November.

It was reported that on 3 January Owaisi met Pirzada Abbas Siddique, the secretary of Furfura Sharif, a prominent shrine in Hooghly district and came to a political understanding. Siddique is an influential cleric and his support could boost Owaisi’s deal. But the Furfura Sharif hierarchy itself is divided, with one group close to Banerjee.

In the ultimate analysis, the AIMIM foray may not amount to much, given the distinctly Bengali identity of Bengali Muslims. Nevertheless, that will play into the equation. But the BJP can’t rely on Owaisi to mount a challenge to the TMC, especially with Mamata's latest slew of welfare schemes pulling a lot of popular heft.

The BJP will have to re-invent itself for Bengal, which it hasn’t yet managed to do. Relying on defectors will almost certainly exacerbate existing tensions between loyal cadres and leaders, as opposed to opportunistic arrivals.