If recent political developments are anything to go by, West Bengal elections would prove to be a potboiler, with several careers and dreams at stake. On the one hand, BJP appears confident of clinching a victory and scoring a whopping 200 in the state, which, given its electoral history in the state, would be nothing short of historic. TMC, on the other hand, is confident of retaining its majority in the state, bolstered by the inexplicable politics of Mamata Banerjee and ‘bahari’ Prashant Kishor.
While both parties appear confident on the outside, if one looks at the recent exodus of leaders from TMC, the silent disgruntlement on ground, the BJP inroads in Lok Sabha elections and the recent spunk the state leadership has displayed, the odds certainly seem to be in BJP’s favour. With the odds being in BJP’s favour, this becomes a make-or-break election not just for Mamata Banerjee but some others as well who have positioned themselves as electoral masterminds, namely, Prashant Kishor.
Prashant Kishor rose to fame after he ‘managed’ 2014 Lok Sabha elections for BJP and PM Narendra Modi. Riding on the Modi wave, Kishor positioned himself, with help from a friendly media, of course, as one who can make or break political fortunes. However, he has had a string of failures ever since. He couldn’t sell Rahul Gandhi to the people of India, failed with Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, failed in states like Uttar Pradesh.
With people catching on to the fact that Kishor simply rose to fame because he managed to sell a personality that already had a cult around it and failed miserably when handed a bad product, West Bengal elections, where he is managing the electoral fortunes of TMC, might prove to be one that defines his career.
When political fortunes begin to seem doubtful, the media could prove to be a friend-in-need, especially for those who have passage to the Lutyens corridor.
Give the scenario, two articles published today, almost at the same time, raised eyebrows and questions about whether we are seeing the media jump into action in an attempt to salvage whatever is left of the political career of Prashant Kishor.
The article on ET claimed in its headline that as BJP was raising its Bengal pitch, TMC was working out its strategy in 9 big districts. The one by Barkha Dutt read, “How the TMC is fighting the BJP juggernaut in Bengal”.
Online, many started to notice similarities in the two articles written and wondered if these articles were planted to save Mamata and Kishor’s falling fortunes.
➡️ Minority votes comparing to UP pic.twitter.com/jSPzTPqHol— Modi Bharosa (@ModiBharosa) December 26, 2020
See the districts mentioned by Barkha and Vasudha where TMC might get some edge are same. pic.twitter.com/M4Siw7WL8Y— PoliticsSolitics (@IamPolSol) December 26, 2020
While the allegations of the two articles being planted by Prashant Kishor may be true (or untrue), it is, nonetheless, important to evaluate the merits of the arguments made in these rather similar articles to understand what we might be looking at going into the 2021 Bengal Assembly elections.
In the two articles, one by Barkha Dutt and one by Economic Times, essentially there are 5 points which have been raised to prove that Mamata Banerjee has not lost her grip over Bengal and that Prashant Kishor continues to be at the top of his game. Many of these points are almost identical.
1. BJP made inroads in Bengal because Mamata Banerjee “made the mistake of being complacent and dismissive about the BJP, both organisationally and individually” – Project Messiah Prashant Kishor in Bengal
Barkha Dutt in her Hindustan Times article says, “The Bengal chief minister, Mamata Banerjee had, in the last elections, to borrow the words of an aide, “made the mistake of being complacent and dismissive about the BJP, both organisationally and individually.” The TMC is determined to not make those mistakes again”.
Such proclamations beg the question what is the evidence to prove that BJP made inroads because of Mamata’s complacency and not because there was a genuine seedling of change being planted? Barkha Dutt provides none, except agreeing with an unnamed aide of Mamata Banerjee (presumably, Prashant Kishor).
There are two things at play here.
Firstly, if Barkha Dutt is indeed quoting Prashant Kishor, the statement made in the article (which Barkha seems to agree with) clearly hints at image management for Kishor. The statement essentially means that in the earlier election, Mamata became complacent but now that Prashant Kishor has come to the rescue, all is going to be well and the BJP will be defeated rather seamlessly.
Secondly, it also seems to suggest that BJP made inroads not because there were seeds of change laid, but because of the incompetence of Mamata Banerjee herself. That theory is in itself rather untested since the undertones of BJP making serious inroads during Lok Sabha elections were always palpable.
One recalls the ‘Chup Chaap Kamal Chhaap’ slogan given by BJP and the promise by Amit Shah to win over 20 seats in Bengal.
Thus, this rhetorical sentence makes no sense to gauge the ground sentiment, except perhaps, in Barkha Dutt’s hopeful mind.
2. The Muslim population and vote share percentage argument – Given by both Barkha Dutt in HT and Economic Times
The article by Barkha Dutt makes the following argument:
“There are several reasons why Mamata Banerjee’s party believes it will prove to be the bulwark against the Modi juggernaut in the east. The first is what Kishor calls “the denominator effect.” Given that 30% of Bengal’s voters are Muslim, the TMC argues that the BJP is playing for only 70% of the voter base while the TMC is courting a larger base of 100%. In a bipolar contest, the BJP, thus needs a way higher strike rate than than the TMC, something like 65% of that 70% voter pool, to deliver a win. Yes, in 2017, the BJP did handsomely win Uttar Pradesh, another state with a sizable minority population. But this could be because of the triangular nature of the contest there where a nearly 40% vote share enabled a BJP win. That same percentage would not deliver Bengal to the BJP“.
The article in the Economic Times makes a similar argument.
It cites 9 such districts that have a strong Muslim population and says the following:
“For the BJP to win more than 200 seats, it will have to considerably improve its Lok Sabha performance in the state, where it won 18 seats and restricted the TMC to 22 seats. Some of the districts such as 24 Parganas and Murshidabad have around 80 assembly seats that can compensate for the losses of the TMC in other parts of the state,” said a TMC member, who did not wish to be identified. The person said historically West Bengal has been won by those who won South Bengal, particularly the districts of Medinipur and 24 Parganas, where the BJP is just building its strength. Also, West Bengal has more Muslim voters than, say, Bihar or Uttar Pradesh, at almost 30 per cent, which the TMC believes will play a pivotal role in its continued success in the state.
So first off the bat, let us address the percentage of Muslim population in Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal.
TMC’s ‘unnamed leaders’ seem to claim that in Bengal, the Muslim population is about 30% which is far more than the 18% in Uttar Pradesh. So, in Bengal, BJP will be vying for 70% votes, whereas TMC would be vying for 100% (both Hindus and Muslims). Be that as it may, in the 2019 General elections, it is to be kept in mind that while TMC won 43.69% of the votes, BJP won 40.64%. How did that translate into assembly segments? Well, while BJP won 122 assembly segments, TMC won 163.
With the logic of both articles claiming that BJP’s chances are bleak due to the higher Muslim population, the whopping 40.64% votes that BJP received in 2019 does not really prove their theory.
Furthermore, the argument is that in Uttar Pradesh, it was a triangular fight and hence, BJP would win the state with a 40% voteshare, however, in Bengal that would not be possible.
Here, the TMC ‘source’ of Barkha and ET are clearly trying to discredit the presence of AIMIM. While AIMIM is certainly not as strong as SP or BSP in Uttar Pradesh, AIMIM will certainly be a factor in Bengal elections. One recalls the comments by Mamata against Owaisi and it becomes amply clear how important a role he might play in the elections. Essentially, the 30% Muslim vote bank that TMC is banking on could very well be divided to a large extent between TMC and AIMIM.
The TMC is clearly trying to tell its voters that AIMIM is not a factor in Bengal, when it clearly is. Further, considering that BJP already bagged 40.64% voteshare in 2019, how far would a 44% voteshare really be, especially with leaders like Suvendu Adhikari shifting to BJP? Perhaps not too far, which could essentially translate into a comfortable victory for the BJP.
It is also pertinent to analyse the specific 9 districts mentioned by ET in its article. South 24 Parganas, North 24 Parganas, Murshidabad, Nadia, Howrah, Burdwan, East and West Medinipur are the 9 seats that ET is peddling as TMC strongholds, considering there is a sizeable Muslim population in these areas.
It is important to note here why these constituencies are being mentioned – Suvendu Adhikari.
Once considered to be a close aide of Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, the two-time former MP retains a lot of clout in the party and is believed to have sway in as many as 86 Assembly seats in Purulia, Murshidabad, Malda, West Midnapore, Jhargram, East Midnapore, Bankura and in Bishnupur. Suvendu’s departure will, in all likelihood, prove fateful for West Bengal’s ruling dispensation in 2021 assembly polls, as his exit may change the mathematics of these 86 assembly seats, where he is believed to be an excellent taskmaster in booth management.
The Muslim population in several constituencies where Adhikari holds sway is rather high. Midnapore is an area where several BJP workers have been found mysteriously hanging, with BJP pointing towards TMC as the culprit. It has about a 15% Muslim population in East and West Midnapore combined. In Birbhhum, for example, the Muslim population is almost 40%. In Purulia, the Muslim population is almost 30%. In other areas where his posters had come up, sans TMC, the Muslim population is rather high as well. In Malda, the Muslim population is over 51%. In Murshidabad, it’s over 66%. In Nadia, its almost 30%.
With such high Muslim populations, the appeal of Shuvendu Adhikari is still massively high due to his lineage and role in the people’s movement of Nandigram. In addition to him being one of the most popular mass leaders of TMC in the Midnapore Jangal Mahal region, it is to be noted that Subhendu is a member of the powerful Adhikari family of the East Midnapore district.
It is no coincidence that most of the 9 districts that TMC wishes to peddle as its stronghold has substantial allegiance to Suvendu Adhikari who has now joined BJP and vowed to defeat TMC. Thus, it clearly seems like both articles seem to be aimed far more at countering the Suvendu Adhikari factor that truly analyse how Bengal elections might unfold.
3. Difficult to get 45% votes with 100% support of one community – an argument made by both articles
While we have already discussed this in part above, it becomes important to qualify this statement categorically. BJP, with the supposed support of only 1 community (Hindus) got 40.64% voteshare in 2019 elections. According to the pundits being quoted by TMC, if it treads the same path, it will be impossible for BJP to move from 40.64% to 44-45% in 2021 Assembly Elections when BJP has firstly gone hammer and tongs and, it has now the support of leaders like Suvendu Adhikari.
This, with elements like Owaisi and the Congress+Left alliance making a marginal dent at least in the Muslim vote bank of TMC. This argument by TMC (made through Barkha and ET) makes remarkably paltry sense, statistically and logically.
Fact remains that BJP is a strong contender and Prashant Kishor, the political strategist, seems to be at a loss when caste is not a factor in an election.
In this context, it is also pertinent to mention that the Lok Sabha election results indicate that the BJP managed to achieve the kind of Hindu vote consolidation hitherto unseen in Indian politics. If it manages to replicate the same in a few more Lok Sabha constituencies (which contains multiple Assembly constituencies) in the Assembly Elections, it will essentially be game over for the TMC.
4. To contend with anger against the party in Bengal, Prashant Kishor has made organisational changes – an argument made by both articles
What is the first thing that comes to mind when one reads this statement? Prashant Batman Kishor to the rescue? Yes. And perhaps, that is exactly how it was meant to sound. After the mass exodus of 10 MLAs from TMC to the BJP and an expected exodus of many more, the message that all was well internally had to be given, and what better way than ‘independent analysis’?
However, here is the clincher.
Only days earlier, several leaders had revolted against Prashant Kishor.
“This is no longer Didi’s party. She is aloof. That is why Didi’s men are no longer required. If you have to stay, you have to be a ‘yes man’ or else, leave,” Mihir Goswami had written.
Expressing anguish for not receiving a phone call from Banerjee in six weeks, he wrote, “My party is no longer in the hands of my leader. This can no longer be my party.”
Interestingly, while the two ‘independent analyses’ paint the induction of “young leaders” by Prashant Kishore as a plus, the rebellion in the party was exactly because of it. The reshuffle in July 2020 has not gone down well with many old timers in the party who actually hold the key to electoral fortunes for the TMC.
Here is an excerpt from a Hindustan Times article:
Another senior TMC leader, Jadadish Chandra Barma Basunia, the legislator from Sitai constituency in Cooch Behar, has spoken in support of Goswami and questioned internal changes being made at the recommendation of Kishor and his team.
“Responsibilities are being given to leaders who helped the BJP in the last election. This will severely affect the TMC’s prospects in 2021. Goswami is being insulted by some people in the party. There is a conspiracy to throw him out. He is a senior and experienced leader,” said Basunia. Members from Kishor’s team met him on Tuesday.
In Murshidabad district, TMC legislator from Hariharpara, Niamot Sheikh openly challenged Kishor’s authority at a rally on Sunday. “Prashant Kishor is the cause of all trouble. Suvendu Adhikari revived the party in Murshidabad. And now leaders who talk to him are facing action,” Sheikh said at the rally.
It was earlier this year that reportedly, Abhishek Banerjee and Prashant Kishore had tried to iron out the differences within the party.
Here, in these two opeds, the context is obviously not given as it tries its best to paint the reshuffle by Prashant Kishor a boon that will help TMC win, while it was a step that has actually not only contributed to the exodus but may end up costing TMC a large chunk of votes – and even a Muslim leader has expressed his disgust.
5. Campaigns like ‘Didi ke Bolo’. ‘Duare Sarkar’, pro-Mamata sentiment and absence of local face for BJP
None of these points really make sense. The opeds argue that campaigns like Didi Ke Bolo and Duare Sarkar could clinch sizeable votes for TMC. However, it obviously forgets the success of slogans like ‘Chup Chap Kamal Chaap’ and the fact that while these two schemes look excellent on paper, Mamata Banerjee has refused to enrol in schemes that would help farmers of West Bengal and even bungled up the compensation measures after cyclone Amphan.
In fact, in June, one recalls how the son of a Trinamool Congress (TMC) member of Dharmapukuria Panchayat in Bangaon was thrashed by locals with brooms and sticks. The incident took place in the Sukpukur area where locals attacked the house of the TMC leader, following allegations of corruption in the disbursement of relief funds for Cyclone Amphan.
Protestors had alleged that even though the house of Gopal Dey did not suffer any damage, yet he was a beneficiary of the relief fund. They demanded that the TMC member return the money or pay compensation to all the families in the village. The protestors, comprising mostly of women, informed that Uttam was thrashed after they saw him beating his own mother.
TMC leader and panchayat member Swapan Kumar Ghatu was gheraoed by residents of Kailashpur village in South 24 Paraganas and held hostage at a local school playground for illegally receiving compensation, originally meant for the victims of Cyclone Amphan. The locals had alleged that the TMC politician had siphoned off relief funds by listing his family members as beneficiaries. Later talking to media, Swapan Kumar Ghatu conceded that there were anomalies in compensation distribution. He said that there were some mistakes in preparing the list of beneficiaries, and he apologised for the same.
In July, TMC had reportedly suspended 18 of its panchayat members in Nandigram in East Midnapore district for their involvement in corruption in the disbursement of cyclone Amphan relief funds and 200 leaders were issued show-cause notices. The sheer magnitude of the corruption was massive.
All of this, and so much more, was not even taken into consideration by Barkha Dutt while peddling her ‘analysis’ on Bengal elections and neither was it taken into consideration by ET.
The argument that Mamata Banerjee has still held on to her cult status also becomes interesting considering that if the argument was true, BJP would not bag over 40% voteshare in Lok Sabha elections. Further, it may as well be possible that BJP would make this a battle between Mamata and Amit Shah, rather than choose a local face, or if it does, it would certainly not make the name public so early in the game.
In all, the arguments put forth by either of the op-eds make absolutely no sense and fail to give even a remotely accurate picture of the ground realities of Bengal. What it does rather well is painted Prashant Kishor as a messiah. Whether that was the sole aim of these articles, only their writers could truly confirm.