BJP eyes Bengal even as Mamata's TMC fights for dominance

Last Updated: Fri, May 03, 2019 13:32 hrs
Narendra Modi vs Mamata Banerjee

West Bengal is a battleground state that goes to the polls in all seven phases. 42 seats are up for grabs in what could be a direct tussle between Mamata Banerjee and Prime Minister Modi. So far, as Bengal has gone to the polls, with a few phases left, it’s been marred by violence. In an interview to The Wire, Anindya Sekhar Purakayastha, professor at Asansol’s Kazi Nazrul University gives his take on the state’s fortunes this election –

The political tension that exists in Bengal today has to be attributed to this larger mechanism of hate-mongering which the BJP has been doing for the last 3-4 years. The Left too has failed to galvanize itself to ward off the communal forces. The Left seems to be more at loggerheads with the current ruling regime than with the BJP.”

Trinamool & Mamata Banerjee

The Trinamool Congress is still a dominant force in the state. In 2014, the TMC secured 34 seats in a comfortable win. Mamata Banerjee is still the dominant politician in the state.

Over the past week, she and her party have gone hard against Modi and the BJP. The hope for the TMC is that by keeping the state in their hands, they will have a say in the national arena. Last month however, the party quietly removed the ‘Congress’ tag from its logo and communications, but it will still be registered as the All India Trinamool Congress (AITC). Two decades ago, the party was formed out of the Congress, but now it seeks to distance itself from them.

An ABP News – Nielsen poll indicates that the TMC will remain strong and is the favorite to carry the state with a projection of 31 seats. Senior journalist Jayanta Ghosal, in a column for the Economic Times, gives an overview of the state going in to Lok Sabha elections –

In the past few years, there has been a gradual but increasingly visible change in the Bengali bhadralok mindset. The middle class population has inched towards the cause of Hindutva. Mamata Banerjee's popularity still dominates Bengal politics, which is why - like Chandrababu Naidu - she isn't interested in a pre-poll alliance with the Congress.”

The history of the Trinamool Congress is eventful as Mamata Banerjee, in 1998, founded the party by splitting from the Congress. 2009 was the year when things took off. In an alliance with the Congress, it won 19 seats. It won assembly elections in 2011 and 2016. Banerjee has weathered the storm and has emerged as Modi’s fiercest critic outside of Rahul Gandhi. Priya Ramani, in a column for Livemint, writes on Banerjee –

“It seems more appropriate than ever that her favourite deity is goddess Kali, the destroyer. The journey through the violent, patriarchal politics of West Bengal has been littered with more than nasty words. She has fearlessly negotiated a man’s world—mostly alone—and emerged as one of India’s most successful politicians.”

The party and its leader are highlighting their relationship with the Tata Group in campaigning. Portraying the party as Industry friendly, the 11 year journey with the Tata Group has been shaky. Once Banerjee came to power, she was stubborn on land acquisition policies while simultaneously seeking investments for the state. The Singur land acquisition saga led to the Tata group exiting there. In a campaign video highlighting the company, spokesperson Derek O’Brien says in part, “We welcome large companies, including the Tatas, in Bengal.”

BJP, Congress & the Left front

The BJP’s isn’t a force to be reckoned with in the state by any means, but they are the main target of Chief Minister Banerjee. They are also a slow rising force in the state. The SBP News – Nielsen poll cited above projects the BJP to give its best performance ever in the state with a possible 8 seats. Investor and poll-watcher Ruchir Sharma, states that the BJP’s rise in the state has surprised him saying in part, “One of the biggest learning experiences for me here (in Bengal) is the quick disintegration of the CPM, which was a dominant force, and the emergence of the BJP as the main Opposition in such a short period.”

The party has made the state a clear point of focus as BJP chief Amit Shah and the Prime Minister addressing rallies there. In 2014, the party won 2 seats. The strategy by the party seems to mirror a national rhetoritic – nationalism and Hindu identity. It’s using the issue of citizenship and Muslim refugees being granted citizenship as Ayan Guha writes in the Indian Express –

Since 2014, the BJP has been trying to gain political mileage by making a distinction between refugee and infiltrator. This involves a political strategy to exhibit favourable disposition to Hindu migrants. The BJP is promising the revival of the recently lapsed Citizenship Amendment Bill, 2016, despite the massive backlash it faced in the Northeast.”

The BJP knows its political foe in the state and has concentrated their sharpest criticism on her. Amit Shah, in an interview sharply went after Banerjee and the condition that the state is in, which according to him, “has been consigned to intruders, goondas and syndicates.”

The Congress and the Left have fallen to the sidelines in the state. In 2014, the Congress secured 4 seats, while the Left, i.e. CPI (M) got two. Polls have predicted that Congress might get 3, with the Left being a no show. Prior to the polls, the TMC decided against an alliance and hence the Congress is going solo in the state. Anita Katyal writes for News18, on how the BJP has made Banerjee rethink her strategy towards the Left and Congress –

The consistent and determined efforts being made by the Bharatiya Janata Party to enlarge its footprint in the eastern state present a major worry for the Trinamool chief. It is in Banerjee’s interest that the Left Front and the Congress are not entirely extinguished in West Bengal. Their presence in the field ensures a division in the anti-Trinamool vote, failing which the entire Opposition space would be occupied by the BJP.”

More columns by Varun Sukumar