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Explained: Bengal defeat robs BJP of planks, boosts Mamata, federal pushback

Although five states went to the polls, for the BJP, West Bengal was the grand prize it pulled out all the stops for: from a super-charged campaign led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, with almost the entire Cabinet and the BJP top brass roped in, to a pointed attack that targeted TMC leader and Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and framed the contest as “Modi vs Didi.”

For the party, a West Bengal win would have helped plant its flag in a state it has long coveted, demoralised a shrinking Opposition and helped it to argue that it had secured public affirmation when it’s seen floundering in the face of the unprecedented Covid crisis.

But that didn’t happen.

Banerjee, who herself lost the election, led her party to a landmark 200-plus tally. The BJP surged from just three to over 80 seats and retained Assam. But the West Bengal defeat saw the BJP perform worse than it did barely two years ago in the Lok Sabha elections where its 18 MPs translated to just over 120 seats.

Indeed, since its historic win in Tripura in early 2018, the BJP has been under-performing in Assembly elections.

The under-par performances in Jharkhand, Haryana, Maharashtra, Delhi after the party’s stellar performance in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections have raised questions over the erosion of the formidable political capital mobilised by Modi for his party. With a defeat in West Bengal, those questions get sharper focus.

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The Opposition Congress continues its downward spiral – it could not wrest Kerala which has been returning the Opposition to power every time for over five decades. Instead, it cleared the way for the victory of regional forces: TMC (West Bengal); DMK (Tamil Nadu); and Left-front (Kerala), all staunchly opposed to BJP.

This has revived hope in the Opposition ranks against what they see as the BJP’s “one nation, one policy” politics.More so, since this comes after the RJD scare in Bihar last November where the ruling NDA scraped through with a wafer-thin majority.

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Not just for Modi, the West Bengal outcome is also a major setback for Home Minister Amit Shah who monitored all aspects of the campaign. In his public addresses, Shah’s refrain was that the state needed a BJP government so that it (read Hindus) could do Saraswati Pooja and carry out their Durga idol immersion without any hindrance.

Despite the call taken by the party that it should not announce a specific target, Shah, mid-campaign, repeatedly claimed the BJP would cross 200 seats.

Vipaksh ke swar ab uthenge. Paristhitiyan bhi abhi nakaratmak bani hain,” said a senior BJP leader when asked about the national impact of the West Bengal results. The TMC and DMK combined together account for 46 MPs in Lok Sabha, slightly behind the 51 members of Congress.

The elected leaders, Banerjee, Pinarayi Vijayan and M K Stalin, are strong votaries of federal politics and are expected to stand up to what they see as the BJP’s my-way-or-the-highway approach in Parliament.

“This gives us hope in Uttar Pradesh, a BJP win in Bengal would have had a severe demoralising impact on the Opposition not only in UP but nationally. Mamata has given hope to the entire Opposition,” said a senior Samajwadi Party leader. He added that this will recharge their cadres in UP and cast a shadow as the Yogi Adityanath government seeks a second term early next year. Especially when the state is wracked by the surge in Covid cases amid the scarcity of beds, oxygen and medicines.

The raging pandemic adds another dimension. That the performance of BJP-ruled states in pandemic management hasn’t exactly been exemplary has also undermined the party’s rhetoric – which it used in Bengal — for a “double engine” government to ensure vikas.

TMC supporters celebrate the party’s win, in Kolkata on Sunday. (Express Photo: Partha Paul)

Internally, the West Bengal verdict has highlighted the risk of centralised decision-making where the BJP echo-chamber, amplified by what TMC campaign strategist Prashant Kishor called a “supportive media,” misread the wind.

“West Bengal is a big setback. The sad part, which the leadership doesn’t realise, is that many in the party will be happy with this setback. There will be no accountability for this defeat despite investing so much resources for this campaign,” said a leader who no longer occupies a national position in the party but was an office-bearer when Shah was party president.

“If anyone knows Bengal’s history, they should have known that it cannot be polarised on communal lines like many other places. Remember, S P Mookerjee was part of A K Fazlul Huq government in pre-Independence Bengal,” said the leader. Another party functionary cited how the party could not sweep the SC/ST/OBC seats wondering how effective was the party’s feedback mechanism.

In the 2015 Bihar Assembly elections, the central leadership of Modi and Shah were so convinced of a BJP victory that no local leader dared to give honest feedback. Similarly, in West Bengal, Modi and Shah declared victory in almost every rally and prioritised the campaign over the raging pandemic for a large part of April.

In Bihar, the RJD-JDU arithmetic became an alibi for the BJP in defeat but in West Bengal, it’s hard pressed to explain how it shrank from a lead in 121 seats (as per 2019 Lok Sabha elections) to less than 80 despite anti-incumbency against the TMC.

Unlike Stalin or Vijayan, who rarely intervene in national politics that doesn’t concern their party or state, Banerjee takes the national stage more often and has tried to float the idea of a federal front.

Her victory, despite the might of Modi-Shah’s election machine, is likely to give wings to her wish to shape national politics when the Congress appears divided and fumbling.

“Mamata should lead the federal front comprising Congress and other regional parties including YSRCP, TRS and BJD whose next electoral challenge will come from BJP,” said a Congress functionary who played a key role in the formation of the UPA. That may be jumping the gun but, clearly, Sunday’s result gives Banerjee many springs in her political step.


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