The Bharatiya Janata Party has secured 18 seats from West Bengal in the 2019 Lok Sabha Elections. They made a gain of 16 seats from its 2014 tally. The BJP’s rise in Bengal has been nothing short of spectacular. To truly be able to gauge the magnitude of a saffron surge in the state, one needs only take a look at the Assembly Election results in 2016.
The 2016 Assembly Elections
In the last state elections, BJP contested in a total of 291 seats, managing to win only 3 with a vote-share of 10.16%. It was a distant third in a three-way battle between the Trinamool Congress, the Communist Congress and itself.
And no one could have doubted that the dismal result was exactly what the BJP deserved at that point. The state unit was in disarray, there was no visible organizational strength and more importantly, it didn’t appear as if the BJP itself believed they had a chance.
It is important to appreciate the massive organizational strength that the BJP developed in an extremely short period of time. Until the end of the Assembly Elections, saffron was virtually nonexistent in the state as a viable alternative. There were no college campuses or universities where ABVP or BJYM could be perceived to be a force of strength. Even among the youth, support was nonexistent and almost every youngster treated the saffron alternative with derision.
It was only after the Assembly Elections were over that the BJP started working on developing its organizational infrastructure in the state massively. And it happened pretty quickly. BJP Karyakartas started becoming a lot more visible around college campuses and universities, supporters started getting a lot more vocal than they previously were, foot-soldiers of the party became really active on the ground and by the end of 2016, it appeared certain that the BJP was going to become a very potent force in the state and sooner rather than later.
The Watershed Moment for Bengal Politics
The watershed moment for Bengal politics, of course, was the Ram Navami of 2017. The 5th of April, 2017, was the day when the future of West Bengal politics was changed forever. I still remember the day quite clearly. I remember wondering, “How the hell did the BJP manage to get so many people on the streets?!”
Contrary to the narrative peddled by certain people that the BJP had brought people from other parts of the country to participate in the rallies in Bengal, at least in Kolkata, in the various parts of it I was witness to, it was quite clear to me that the people were overwhelmingly Bengalis. There were people from other regions, too, but the overwhelming majority of people, at least in Kolkata, were Bengalis.
That day, the whole of Kolkata was decked up in Saffron, as if the entire city awaited the arrival of the King of Ayodhya Himself. The events that transpired then and the week that followed made it amply career that Mamata Banerjee’s primary opposition in the state will no longer be cloaked in red. They will be wearing saffron.
The massive Ram Navami rallies, apart from being a great show of strength, also had a deep psychological impact on everyone. It made it clear to every single citizen in the state that the BJP was now a viable alternative. The Left was thrashed by Trinamool Congress in consecutive state elections, Congress was never really a credible alternative. Thus, for those who were sick and tired of Mamata’s Sultanate, there remained only one viable alternative, the same one which was on a rise nationally and had as its face a leader with great personal credibility. From that point on, the BJP never looked back.
The Panchayat Elections of 2018
Thus, by Ram Navami, 2018, it became abundantly clear once and for all that Trinamool’s primary opposition was the Bharatiya Janata Party. Things reached a point that even Mamata Banerjee’s men started their own Ram Navami processions and some among them thought it was a good idea to pit Hanuman against Rama. Panchayat Elections were around the corner and the atmosphere was electric.
The 2018 Panchayat Elections saw Trinamool embracing tactics that were the hallmark of the Left regime. Extreme violence and voter intimidation became the norm. Numerous BJP Karyakartas were murdered or thrashed. Even candidates were not spared. The state police were accused of colluding with the government in suppressing the BJP in the state through threats and other means. Despite all of that, the BJP managed to improve greatly upon its 2013 performance.
The Trinamool Congress won an unprecedented number of seats uncontested as well, which was further indicative of the violent nature of Mamata’s regime. While even Trinamool managed to improve upon its earlier performance, the Left and Congress were utterly decimated. Thus, it became clear once and for all that Trinamool’s primary opposition going forward would be the BJP.
The Saffron Surge in 2019
By 2019, ‘Jai Shri Ram’ had transformed into Bengal’s ‘Bidrohor Chitkar’ (cry of protest) against the oppressive rule of Mamata Banerjee. After years of tyranny, first by the Left, them by Trinamool, Bengali Hindus found refuge at the feet of Rama. There were attempts made to portray Rama as an ‘outsider God’ who had no connection with Bengal, however, Hindus know that’s not the case. Therefore, such attempts never worked. As more and more attempts were made to pit Hindus of varied ethnicity against each other, ‘Jai Shri Ram’ only became more and more of a unifying factor.
The Youth was no longer overwhelmingly averse towards the BJP as well. In fact, on social media and elsewhere, it was the youth of Bengal which campaigned greatly for the success of the party. It is a testament of the cultural change that Narendra Modi has brought about in the country that even in Bengal, ‘Mandir Wahi Banayengey’ became an extremely relevant slogan among its youth.
It’s important to understand that the BJP could never have gained ground in Bengal if they did not speak of issues which hold great significance for Hindus of Bengal. Illegal immigration, minority appeasement, communal violence, all these issues are of significant importance to the Bengal electorate. Unfortunately, however, there’s only one party on the horizon which voices these concerns and promises to address them. Therefore, it is important to remember that valid concerns of the Bengal electorate was not addressed by any other party and the BJP rose to prominence in the state riding on the promise to address them.
Prominent Leaders of the State Unit
While every victory is a team effort, some leaders of the state unit deserve special credit. The president of the BJP’s state unit, Dilip Ghosh, who won his seat from Medinipur, has worked contributed immensely towards the BJP’s rise. While he can be eccentric at times, he was at the forefront of numerous rallies and including the Ram Navami celebrations in 2017.
Locket Chatterjee, BJP’s winning candidate from the Hooghly Lok Sabha constituency, too, deserves a lot of credit for her stellar campaign. Her personal security was threatened when goons allegedly associated with the TMC vandalized a house she was lodged at during campaigning. Yet, she emerged victoriously.
Roopa Ganguly, who can be accused of being overly dramatic at times and more theatrical than necessary, she too contributed in her own meaningful way. She was a victim of physical violence herself and yet, she did not quit.
While it is true that the state unit of the BJP still needs some work to be capable enough to win the 2021 Assembly Elections, it is very much on the right track and much much stronger than it was earlier. Along the way, quite a few Trinamool strongmen have jumped ship which has further augmented BJP’s standing in the state. Going forward, it appears Trinamool will suffer even more defections which will weaken its ground even more.
A New Dawn
As of today, the BJP is the political party that is on the rise and Trinamool appears to be on its way down in West Bengal. Whether Mamata Banerjee will be able to stem the BJP’s growth in her home turf remains to be seen. She has failed spectacularly. With her unabashed minority appeasement, it is a fact that she has alienated large sections of the Hindu community. And these disgruntled sections of the Hindu community, which grows in strength every day, is responsible for the BJP’s rise in the state. Henceforth, Bengal politics will not be polarized along the lines of political ideology as it was earlier. The fates of parties will be decided by the extent of religious polarization among the electorate.
The Dawn of this new era of Religious Polarization in West Bengal is further indicated by the utter collapse of the Left. It is a fact that traditional voters of the Left have crossed over to the BJP in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections and this crossover has largely been motivated by concerns that revolve around their Hindu identity. While certain intellectuals might blame the BJP for this polarization, the fact of the matter is, while the saffron party’s rise is fueled by it, it’s not responsible for it in any manner whatsoever.
While great credit must go to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Amit Shah and the respective leaders of the state unit for BJP’s stellar victory in Bengal, the victory overwhelmingly belongs to the cadres on the ground who sacrificed their lives and risked physical violence but ensured BJP’s victory at great personal cost. The top echelons of the party might come up with all its grand plans but at the end of the day, it’s the simple Karyakarta with his resolute belief who implements it.
People have severely underestimated the extent to which Bengal is fertile for the politics of Hindutva. It is the land of Sri Aurobindo, Swami Vivekananda and Shyama Prasad Mukherjee. Hindutva could be kept away from Bengal for long but not forever. After Tripura, another state dominated by Bengalis, voted in a BJP government, it was only a matter of time before West Bengal started showing a similar trend.
Hindutva only needed a face with great personal credibility and an aura of authority around him to succeed in Bengal. And when Narendra Modi became its face, it was only a matter of time. Because Bengal politics, at the end of the day, has always been dominated by personalities and their individual credibility has always been enough to earn their parties the victories.
BJP’s great victory in Bengal shows that Bengali Hindus have no tolerance for the attempts to pit them against Hindus of other regions. It was a great slap on the face of people who wanted to replicate the Dravidianist model in Bengal.
History may remember the 23rd of May, 2019 as the day when the future of Bengal Politics changed forever. However, it was on the 5th of April, 2017, on the auspicious day of Ram Navami that the seeds of it were sown.