The BJP president J.P. Nadda sounded the poll bugle in West Bengal several months in advance when addressing a meeting of the state executive on September 10 he hurled the ‘anti-Hindu’ charge on the chief minister Mamata Banerjee and accused her of ‘appeasement’ of minorities which had resulted in Hindus becoming ‘victims’. Clearly, the BJP sees no other option but to bank on its tried and trusted formula of religious polarization to win over a state which has been doggedly spurning its advances so far.
The BJP has no dearth of leaders in the state who are deft at invoking the Hindu card. It has managed to bring into its fold many prominent leaders from the Congress and the ruling TMC who must be immensely relieved that defecting to the BJP has immediately washed all their dark spots which BJP used to dwell upon.
The saffron party is equally well prepared to meet violence with violence, as has been evident in the frequent clashes between the cadres of the BJP and the TMC. Violent party cadres had helped the Left remain in power for three decades. But muscle power alone is no guarantor of winning the polls.
An area where the BJP looks starkly handicapped vis- a- vis TMC is the leadership issue. Who will be pitted by the BJP against Ms Banerjee is not clear. But the BJP thinks that it need not waste its energies on sorting out the leadership issue; winning the state assembly polls is the immediate priority.
The Hindu card did pay some dividends to the BJP during the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, earning it an impressive tally of 18 seats in the state’s total of 42 against 22 won by the Mamata Banerjee’s Trinmool Congress Party. Without its raucous ‘Hindu versus Muslim’ slogan, the BJP numbers would perhaps have been much lower in a state that has so far blocked its successful inroad into the state even when most parts of eastern India are now in BJP’s bag.
An antidote to BJP’s Hindu appeal is perhaps Mamata Banerjee’s call for defending Bengal’s ‘pride’ against a rapacious party that has been demolishing elected governments to come to power by unfair means.
Indications of an unexpected rallying point for defending Bengal’s ‘pride’ has come from an unlikely quarter. The media-ignited fire after the death of Bollywood star Sushant Singh Rajput has singed a young actress of Bengali origin who was said to be Rajput’s girlfriend. Both the TMC and the Congress party in West Bengal have signaled that the travails of Rhea Chakraborty will be a poll issue. The newly appointed Pradesh Congress president, Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury has taken up cudgels on behalf of Rhea, describing her as a ‘Bengalee Brahman Lady’.
He said that Rajput was an ‘Indian’ actor; BJP turned him into a ‘Bihari’ actor, only to score electoral brownies points. He added that Rhea was arrested under the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act to ‘please the political masters’. The central agencies ‘churned the seas’ but instead of the ‘nectar they have discovered drugs’, he went on to say.
The TMC national spokesman and senior party leader, Sugata Roy said: ‘I feel that as Rhea is a Bengali, she was victimised even before she was proven guilty in court. The vilification campaign against her proves the sheer hatred of BJP towards Bengalis. We has seen something similar in the Assam NRC too.’
During the Lok Sabha poll campaign last year, the then BJP president, Amit Shah, now union home minister, had spent his considerably energy and time in leading the attack on Banerjee. Of course, it cannot be denied that the tempestuous chief minister and her failings were important factors behind BJP’s credible performance in the parliamentary polls last year.
It cannot be said that the report card on her governance has improved since the Lok Sabha polls but she can weather the storm on that score by pointing to a much more discredited show by the saffron party at the national level. The BJP has pushed the country towards a cesspool of intractable problems—economy in the doldrums, coronavirus continuing to spread at breakneck speed and the Chinese denting Modi’s invincible image by intruding on the Indian side of the LAC and staying put.
Nadda’s address to the state executive seemed to emphasize that inciting religious sentiments would be a key strategy in the assembly poll campaign in West Bengal which has to elect 294 law makers. The performance of the Modi government at the centre will recede in the background. He asked party workers to break the ‘anti-Hindu mindset’ that had become all too ‘pervasive’ in West Bengal under Banerjee’s rule.
The BJP aims at winning a 50 per cent vote share in the state by focusing on the Hindu voter. That will make it winner all the way. How real that BJP goal is cannot be said at this stage.